The Disproportionate Effect of COVID-19 on Migrant Workers in ASEAN

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The Disproportionate Effect of COVID-19 on Migrant Workers in ASEAN

Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam approached the intertwined issues of COVID-19 and migrant workers quite differently.

The Disproportionate Effect of COVID-19 on Migrant Workers in ASEAN

A foreign worker talks on the phone outside his room at the WestLite Toh Guan dormitory after it was declared an isolation area under the Infectious Diseases Act, following a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in several foreign worker dormitories in Singapore, Friday, April 10, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Yong Teck Lim

A significant percentage of all ASEAN workers consist of migrant labor, whose remittances contribute a substantial proportion of GDP in many nations around the region. In light of COVID-19, however, the impact on these migrant workers has been significantly higher — and the consequences devastating. Migrant workers are often the most overlooked population during a crisis such as the pandemic, and they are now being viewed as the primary cause for second-wave infections. If issues involving marginalized communities such as migrant workers are not addressed, this will fuel more virus containment obstacles going forward.

It is in the self-interest of countries to aid migrant workers not only because they are a particularly vulnerable population, but also because doing so can decelerate the spread of COVID-19 within the greater ASEAN region. With regard to the ASEAN region and the migrant question, we can look at different coronavirus strategies implemented by three ASEAN countries with distinct approaches when it comes to addressing migrant workers. By comparing Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam, one can see substantially different outcomes. 

Although Thailand has a robust domestic healthcare system, regarded as one of the best in the world, owing to its investment in health security, its quick shutdown and restrictive migration policy is precisely what has led to a spike in COVID-19 cases around the region more broadly. Despite announcements from the governments of Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia to warn migrant workers to stay in place, the notice of Thailand’s national shutdown in late March consequently created a mass exodus of migrant workers from the country. 

Even when Tawee Chotpitayasunondh, a senior advisor to the Thai Health Ministry, warned that “mass traveling will increase the spread of the virus,” migrant workers in Thailand were ultimately given a dilemma: starve in Thailand with no job, money, healthcare, or resources; or return home to their respective countries, despite being discouraged from doing so by their governments. There are an estimated 4 to 5 million migrants working in Thailand, predominantly from the neighboring countries of Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, which are countries with relatively weak healthcare systems — Myanmar ranked as one of the worst in the region according to the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO). 

The lack of coronavirus testing at the time in addition to the long incubation period of the virus makes it unknowable how many of those migrant workers who left Thailand were carriers of the COVID-19 virus. What is knowable, however, is that many of those migrant workers returned to Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, and subsequently those countries experienced spikes of COVID-19, and their limited health resources exacerbated the problem. 

As reported by Amy Searight, a senior associate for Asia for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “with thousands of Myanmar migrant workers returning to their villages from Thailand, the virus has begun to spread, with 107 confirmed cases reported as of April 20.” Those migrants who rushed out of Thailand in the crush of one weekend subsequently infected many others in their home countries. 

Presumably, such a precipitous flight also caused tremendous economic dislocation to the already traumatized migrant population and made them even more susceptible to COVID-19 without the economic resources they would have had if given more time to evacuate. Ultimately, Thailand’s lockdown of cross-border travel may have served domestic ends, but it harmed the greater ASEAN region, particularly in its execution, by displacing millions of migrant workers rapidly.

Similarly, Singapore was originally hailed for its quick COVID-19 response, but time would prove that there were blind spots in its execution, as it overlooked its vulnerable migrant population huddled together in cramped, unhygienic dormitories. According to Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower, 1.4 million of the city-state’s 5.8 million workers are migrant workers. Therefore, less than 25 percent of people residing in Singapore consist of 85 percent of all its COVID-19 cases. 

A surprising second wave of coronavirus infections in Singapore swept through migrant dormitories, whose conditions reflect the disparities in treatment between Singaporean citizens and the migrant population. The cramped conditions of migrant dormitories illustrate that for migrant workers, social distancing is an unavailable luxury.

Recently Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed the issue by deploying a Forward Assurance and Support Team in the dorms, which provide the migrant workers with food and water, wi-fi to keep in touch with their families, entertainment, and other medical facilities and triage clinics. The migrant workers in these areas have been instructed to stop working, and they are completely reliant on government aid, since they are not allowed to leave the dormitories for groceries or other necessities. Singapore has worked to ameliorate a crisis of its own making, but it had overlooked the migrant dormitories, which became a petri dish for the COVID-19 virus without having provided the social space and resources necessary to its migrant population to avoid the virus in the first place.

Conspicuously free from any reported COVID-19 fatalities, Vietnam is an example of what meticulous tracing, solidarity among citizens, and a public health campaign held on a massive scale can do to protect a population. As of May 22, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus resource center, Vietnam has had 324 reported cases of COVID-19 within its borders, and no deaths. What is particularly interesting to note, however, is not only its reported cases, but its ratio of testing to confirmed cases in its borders. 

Unlike South Korea and Singapore which have been utilizing mass testing to trace and quarantine potential coronavirus patients, Vietnam has been utilizing mass surveillance instead. Low-tech tracing has been instrumental to its success. Following SARS in 2003, during which Vietnam was one of the hardest hit nations, they were ultimately motivated to create the infrastructure necessary to track contagious diseases. By doing so, Vietnam utilized the time it had in the early stages of COVID-19, even before it was declared a public health emergency by the WHO,  to deploy its measures.

After the coronavirus outbreak was reported in Wuhan, Vietnam was one of the first countries in Asia to implement travel restrictions and has had mass closures since. They have used a multi-tier system as protocols for tracing and isolating potential cases. Additionally, there have been two apps developed in which people can record their health status and symptoms, and this is also reinforced by the reporting of the movement or return of migrant workers from abroad or within Vietnam’s borders. 

As of recent data from the World Bank, 134,000 people have undertaken institutional quarantine in Vietnam. Not only has Vietnam been imposing decisive and transparent actions on its migration policy, they have also provided rice ATMs for people out of work in Vietnam. The coordinated effort between the public and private sectors in Vietnam to provide workers with ample food and supplies as well as its proactive contact tracing has contributed to Vietnam as a story of success in the ASEAN region. 

It is in every ASEAN country’s interest both as a host and as a home nation for migrant workers to see that such populations have adequate support both financially and medically to help slow the spread of coronavirus cases in the region. Migrant workers are a major key to addressing the COVID-19 virus in the region and it hurts the region to perpetuate conditions that force migrant workers to evacuate quickly only to spread disease to their home countries. 

As we have learned from Singapore, simply isolating migrant workers without preemptively giving them the financial and health care resources necessary to overcome the virus can boomerang to the detriment of the local populace. By contrast, even with the far more limited financial and health resources in Vietnam, a focused effort to address and identify migrant worker needs is a powerful tool to prevent unnecessary rises in COVID-19 cases. 

Although the coronavirus has galvanized populist sentiments in an effort to protect domestic interests, we must recognize the effects that restrictive migration policies may have on ASEAN’s migrant worker population — and be prepared to mitigate the risks. 

Camille Bismonte is an associate researcher at the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) in Jakarta, Indonesia and a senior at Georgetown University studying economics.