KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia will be caught in a never-ending cycle of Covid-19 surges if undocumented workers remain unvaccinated.
Universal healthcare advocate Dr Tharani Loganathan said it was crucial that the government grant this "hidden population" of between two and four million people amnesty soon, and called for a two-year grace period to get their jabs and paperwork in order.
The Universiti Malaya medical lecturer said it would be difficult to establish if Malaysia was on track of reaching its target of vaccinating 90 per cent of adults, as the number of undocumented migrants was unknown.
"Not vaccinating this high-risk group thoroughly would mean we would always face a reservoir of Covid-19 infections in our population. Our health system could also likely collapse due to the overwhelming number of cases."
Dr Tharani, who researches migrant access to healthcare, said the target of vaccinating this vulnerable population by the end of next month, as proposed by epidemiologist Datuk Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud, should be attempted.
"As most of them are hired by individuals or companies, employers should be given an amnesty to get their undocumented workers vaccinated without being penalised.
"If not, everyone will be reluctant to come forward," she told the New Sunday Times.
To make matters worse, unvaccinated migrant workers often live and work in cramped and poorly ventilated conditions that are likely hotbeds for infections.
"Singapore and Thailand are also grappling with these migrant housing problems.
"Thailand's resurgence of cases this year is due to the virus spreading in workplaces and housing facilities."
She said the support of undocumented workers was vital and there should be no backpedalling in the event a grace period was announced.
One major hurdle in getting their support was the lack of trust in the government, as shown by the group's reluctance to be registered on MySejahtera.
"They do not want to register and be a part of any database as they are afraid that arrests and raids would follow. So, the authorities need to assure them their data is protected and they won't face repercussions.
"Besides amnesty, they also need to be assured of safe passage to travel to and from vaccination centres and health facilities."
She said they often travelled in groups to vaccination centres because they felt there was safety in numbers, reducing any risk of harassment from enforcement personnel.
Dr Tharani said since the pandemic, there had been mixed messages from the government. Migrants were encouraged to step forward to be tested but mass raids were launched on them at the same time.
She said even the Health Ministry had a long-standing circular stating that undocumented workers had to be reported to the Immigration Department upon registration.
Dr Tharani said this led to this group turning to hospitals only when they were very sick or dying, giving doctors limited options to treat them.
She said the pandemic had presented an opportunity for the government to correct any systemic flaws by conferring to migrants the right to stay, work and access to healthcare.
The walk-in vaccination for non-citizens, she added, had to be revived as the demand for vaccines was too high, based on the queues seen at the now-shuttered Bukit Jalil National Stadium vaccination centre. Bukit Jalil National Stadium was the only walk-in vaccination centre for the group in the country.
"Walks-in vaccination is a good idea and should be continued but the way it is done has to change. The authorities can't just open one. There must be an appointment or a numbering system to better control the crowd.
"They need many such walk-in facilities and clinics, as getting appointments through MySejahtera can be difficult for the undocumented."
Project Liber8 executive director New Su Shern said there must be a constant push for vaccinating undocumented migrants as the number brought-in-dead (BID) cases was disproportionately high among migrant workers.
"They make up 35.5 per cent or 779 of the 2,249 BID cases between Aug 7 and Sept 10."
She said it was alarming as undocumented migrants made up 16.4 per cent, or 1,533, of the 9,370 deaths and 15.2 per cent, or 108,919, of the 716,355 cases that were logged over the period.
She said the percentage of undocumented migrant BID cases peaked at over 60 per cent in August and made up between 20 and 40 per cent a day in the first week of September.
"So based on estimates that place them at 10 per cent of the population or more, we are definitely not out of the woods," she said.
Current BID data are unknown as the granular data are not available.
The activist said checks with Covid-19 Immunisation Task Force (CITF) found that 1.4 million migrants had completed their vaccination, but that number was largely made up of documented workers.
She said contradicting statements from ministers, with Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin saying health authorities had to report undocumented workers at vaccination centres and Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin giving an assurance that the ministry would not turn away or act against the group, were confusing.
New said her non-governmental organisation had received a growing number of complaints of migrants being approached by middlemen charging RM100 to RM300 for vaccines at vaccination centres or mobile and standalone clinics.
She said access to vaccines for the group was also limited as only those who were documented could register at vaccination centres.
At press time, the NST is waiting for CITF to respond to requests for the number of non-citizens, including undocumented migrants, who have been vaccinated.