Has the virus found Malaysia’s Achilles’ heel?


The COVID-19 figures for the past 24 hours are frightening. 1884 cases nationally with 1203 in Selangor alone! The COVID vaccine results are much better than people had dared to hope, but it is going to take 6 months or more to vaccinate enough people in Malaysia to achieve herd immunity. For the time being we have to rely on masks, identifying cases, isolating them and their close contacts, as well as movement control measures.

But what if we have a group of people who cannot afford to come forward for testing or for quarantine? These are the estimated 3 million to 4 million migrant workers without proper documents – the PATI. If they come to our health care clinics they face the risk of being detained and packed into over-crowded prisons or immigration camps. Not only will they lose their source of income and face the possibility of being deported, they will also be at greater risk of acquiring COVID infection in the crowded detention centres. It is certainly not in their self interest to come forward and cooperate with our health authorities. So why should they? After all, being working aged adults their risk of dying from COVID is quite low.

But if we are unable to test and isolate those among the migrant who are infected, COVID is going to keep spreading in their community and from there to Malaysians as we share the same space. Malaysia’s RoT (rate of transmission) is not going to dip below 1.0 and we will be forced to prolong the debilitating partial lockdowns until at least the middle of next year.

There is however an easier path – but it needs Malaysian authorities to change their coercive and punitive stance towards the PATI. Since the beginning of the Pandemic, the PSM and several other groups have been suggesting 3 measures – first, a moratorium on immigration offenses for the next one year. No PATI will be arrested and detained because he or she does not have a passport or his/her permit has expired. Second, offer subsidised treatment at government health facilities for all migrant workers. Third, provide alternative accommodation for the close contacts of diagnosed COVID cases so that the chain of transmission can be broken. Meals should be provided to those who are required to quarantine.

These 3 measures, if implemented strictly, would make it possible for us to win the confidence and cooperation of migrant workers, and with this we have a chance of wrestling RoT to below 1.0 and opening up our economy a bit more.

But can the National Security Council and the Ministry of Home Affairs overcome their authoritarian tendencies and implement the three measures above? If not we are going to be caught in a prolonged partial lockdown that will cause significant economic distress to many.

Dr. Jeyakumar Devaraj
Parti Sosialis Malaysia

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