Will the pandemic shift the approach towards migrant health?

Photo 177477627 / Migrant Health © Sanjoy Karmakar | Dreamstime.com

There were an estimated 10.1 million migrants in South East Asia (SEA) — are large portion of whom are migrant workers from low and middle income countries in the region. They are a vital source of income flow for their country of origin—and their remittances play a crucial role in poverty alleviation. The Asian Development Bank estimates that there was a 9.9% decline in remittances in 2020 in SEA.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, migrant workers across SEA were left in dire situations — many found themselves in active COVID-19 clusters, jobless, without access to appropriate healthcare and stranded without any indication of what they might face in their country of destination.

The pandemic has brought to the forefront the inequalities and disparities that undermine the health of migrant workers. It has also highlighted how migrant workers are often victims of the labor market that leverages the exploitation and social exclusion of workers.

COVID-19 and migrant workers

Over crowded living conditions were a key reason for COVID-19 Infections among migrant workers in SEA. In Singapore, 90% of the COVID-19 infections at the start of the pandemic were amongst migrant worker dormitories. Discriminatory movement measures put in place for migrant workers since the outbreak have also raised concerns regarding their mental health and well-being.

“We do that to the migrant workers because, simply put, we can. We are inconsistent because they are migrant workers. But just because we can doesn’t mean we should.” Jeremy Lim, Director of Global Health at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore.

The lack of access to healthcare and social protection have also exacerbated the effects of the pandemic. In Thailand, migrant workers from Myanmar working in the seafood industry, found their jobs at stake due to the denial they faced in acquiring more affordable COVID-19 tests in government hospitals. In Malaysia, the fear of arrest and detention, has pushed undocumented migrant workers into hiding, preventing them from seeking treatment and creating further risks for themselves and others.

Looking ahead

More pandemics are predicted in the future and climate change induced migration is pushing more people in the region, in search of work across and within countries. While the effects of the pandemic have accelerated policy shifts in some countries in terms of better living conditions and initiatives to increase access to healthcare, there is still much to be done to ensure that migrant workers are not faced with the same health risks in the future.

A common thread binding much of the plight of migrant workers across countries in the region, is the exclusion of workers from the health system and the lack of attention on their well-being from the start. Therefore, there is a need to adopt migrant sensitive non-discriminatory health policies that focus on reducing health risks for migrant workers.

  1. Ensuring the protection of migrant workers by including migrant workers in emergency preparedness plans at the national, bilateral and regional level.
  2. Ensuring proper enforcement of decent working conditions and living conditions and access to healthcare through policies.

As countries pave their way out of the pandemic and move towards strengthening and preparing for the next pandemic, it remains to be seen if these shifts in approaches will be adopted by countries in the region.

Migrant worker health in South-East Asia post COVID-19 was originally published in Migrant Matters on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Migrant worker health in South-East Asia post COVID-19