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A man wears a diving mask during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Rome, Italy. -REUTERS pic
A man wears a diving mask during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Rome, Italy. -REUTERS pic

THE Covid-19 virus is a dangerous thing. This we know. All we got to do is look at the number of infections and deaths. The global total is scary: more than 21,000 have died and more than 400,000 infected.

The local tally may not be that scary, but one death is one too many. At press time in Malaysia, 21 succumbed to the disease while the number of infections has grown to 1,796. If American investment bank JP Morgan is right, this number should peak at 6,300 in mid-April.

The bank thinks three things are working in Malaysia’s favour in keeping the numbers within “milder development with lower mortality rate”: active testing of suspected cases, strong movement control measures and hospital capacity. 

This is well and good, but there is a “but”. We may be forgetting one very vulnerable group: the migrant workers, both legal and illegal. Except for a few in industries that are not affected by the Movement Control Order (now extended to April 14), most are stuck in crowded quarters without pay and health benefits.

Official numbers are hard to come by but according to Kendra Rinas of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM-UN) there are two million documented and four million or more undocumented migrant workers in the country. Others think this to be an underestimate. The Diplomat is one. According to its website, there were six million of them last December working at construction sites, oil palm plantations, orchards, farms and as domestic help.

These poor souls toil (the diction is deliberate) long hours in miserable conditions for a paltry pay. With a not well-rested body and living in crowded and squalid conditions, they are walking time bombs should Covid-19 infect a few. They would not own up to infections because they have no money to pay the medical bills. Or because they are illegal.

Rinas is of the view that all should be cared for regardless of their legal status. We agree. Amnesty in such trying times will help, too. With MCO-enforced unemployment, their employers and agents will pass the buck from one to the other while enjoying the government’s stimulus package. In the meanwhile, the migrant workers’ plight will grow to become the nation's blight.

We must do something now before the dominos fall. And they will fall disastrously because there is no social distancing where they live. For these people, MCO succeeds 100 per cent on the streets, not at home. Because home is crowded living where cheeks meet jowls. Employers and agents, who make money out of the migrant workers, must do all they can to ensure that the sick are cared for in hospitals and the uninfected live in a healthy environment. IMO-UN wants to see three things happen. One, their lives are protected. Two, their livelihood is guaranteed. Three, they get social protection.

IMO-UN is right. Employers and agents must be compelled to do the right thing. Should they fail, they must not be allowed to employ migrant workers in the future. Covid-19 has taught us many lessons, and one very important one is this: be just. Do not just take; give, too. Especially when the wealth that is acquired is made possible by the efforts and sacrifices of others. Sweat, tears, and at times, blood of migrant workers must mean something.

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