First and foremost, I would like to thank our unsung heroes – our tireless health professionals around the nation for their hard work and excellent job under the leadership of the Malaysian Director-General of Health Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah as evident in the recovery rate of Malaysians from Covid-19.
As of April 22nd, there are 1,987 actives cases which make up a total of 5,532 cases and a total recovery of 3, 452 cases – an amazing recovery of 62.4%. While Malaysia has been making progress with recovery, I deeply empathise with our neighbour Singapore, where the tally there rose to 9,000 Covid-19 cases.
It was reported that the recent spike in their cases also included 1,369 foreign workers living in dormitories. I fear that Malaysia may face the same fate if matters are taken lightly. In spite of our relative progress there is a concern that we have overlooked the precarious situation of our health care policies in relation to foreign workers that would make it difficult for undocumented workers to be tested for the virus.
Thus, this leaves us little room for reassurance of real improvement since we have foreign workers – both legal and illegal who are living in our midst that are not eligible for Covid-19 testing. In a crisis of this scale, I believe that it is vital for us to look at the common good and means to contain the virus rather than just holding on to rigid rules that would prove to jeopardize our quality of life more than protecting us.
It has been previously reported that there are a few million illegal workers in the country which means that there is a large pool of undocumented persons in Malaysia that could potential be at risk or potentially risk the spread of Covid-19. It has to be noted the Home Ministry would be in the best position to know the exact numbers (if any) of undocumented foreign workers.
This also correlates to the reality of healthcare services in Malaysia which is often inaccessible to migrant workers. At the same time, I understand that there are complex access barriers, many beyond the control of the health sector such as affordability and financial constraints; the need for legal documents like valid passports and work permits; language barriers; discrimination and xenophobia; and physical inaccessibility and employer-related barriers.
In addition, Government mandated insurance for migrant workers is insufficient in view of the recent increase in medical fees. It is important to note too that language barriers may affect the quality of care received by migrant workers, by inadvertently resulting in medical errors, while preventing them from giving truly informed consent.
The perceived close working relationship between the Ministry of Health and Immigration effectively excludes undocumented migrants from access to public healthcare facilities. While legal workers would be easier to test since they are registered under the Social Security Organization (SOCSO), the estimated millions of undocumented workers could be hiding with the force of law looming over their heads and fear of losing their freedom once they are tested.
We must not rest on our laurels and find a way to mitigate the spread. There’s so much we can learn from other countries on their compassionate approach in dealing with the pandemic when push comes to shove. In countries like America there are special relief funds for undocumented workers. For example, in California there is a $125 million Disaster Relief Fund will include $75 million in taxpayer funds and $50 million in philanthropic contributions to help undocumented workers affected by coronavirus secure a one-time payment of up to $500 per person or $1,000 per household.
In this crucial time, we need to take a different approach by adhering to principles of common good at the policy level to ensure that undocumented workers are tested for Covid-19 without policy limitations and bureaucratic constrains.
Drastic steps have to be taken to test for Covid -19 all undocumented illegal workers. Unless this is done urgently and immediately a time bomb is waiting to happen! Health is a fundamental human right and there should be a special relief fund to protect these workers from the pandemic. It is the fundamental right of every human being to enjoy the highest achievable standard of health as enshrined in the Constitution of the World Health Organization and principles of equality as stipulated in Article 8 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia.
To encapsulate, Malaysia have a rights-based approach to healthcare in order to contain a pandemic such as Covid-19. This is line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which emphasises on universal health coverage and health equity, and stresses on the importance of “leave no one behind” concept.
The pandemic has been an eye opener and it calls for us to adapt to universal principles of a healthcare system – one that is inclusive for all human beings.
M. Kula Segaran
Member of Parliament for Ipoh Barat,
Perak National Vice-Chairman of the Democratic Action Party
Former Human Resources Minister, Malaysia
23 April 2020