Migrant workers have not only been victims of Covid-19, but spreaders, too, creating a new world of risk for a vulnerable population.
Credit…Adam Dean for The New York Times
April 10, 2020
BANGKOK — His whole family back in Myanmar depended on him. But Ko Zaw Win Tun, one of an estimated four million migrant workers in Thailand, lost his job at a Bangkok toy store when the city went into a coronavirus lockdown.
With little hope of a new job there, Mr. Zaw Win Tun, 24, joined the crowds of workers rushing home to Myanmar, traveling by packed bus, plane and car to reach his hometown, Kyaukme, in the country’s north.
The morning after he returned, the fever set in. A test for the coronavirus came back positive.
The coronavirus spread early through international travelers: tourists, worshipers, conference attendees and members of the business elite. But nearly 200 million migrant workers also travel across national borders, according to the International Labor Organization. About 760 million more move within their countries, more than 40 million in India alone.
Lacking basic rights and marooned in unfamiliar places, migrant workers are usually the first in the labor force to be hit by an economic downturn. Now, as the coronavirus disease, Covid-19, spreads across the globe, migrant workers are not only victims but vectors, too, taking the epidemic to villages ill-equipped to deal with a health crisis.
“When the virus attacks people who are vulnerable like me, I feel like there is no help for us,” Mr. Zaw Win Tun said from his hospital bed.
Late last month, the Myanmar government said it would close its borders with Thailand to stem the virus from invading the country. The proposed lockdown, though, had the opposite effect, as panicked migrants rushed home. At one border crossing, 30,000 people descended in a single day, according to rights groups.
The same thing happened in Afghanistan, which shares a long, porous border with Iran. With Iran’s economy collapsing as it was hit early and hard by the coronavirus, as many as 15,000 Afghan laborers streamed back home a day, spreading the virus around the country.
Government officials, as well as Taliban insurgents who control parts of the country, attempted makeshift contact tracing. The governor of northern Faryab Province, Naqibullah Faiq, ordered an investigation of the first migrant returning from Iran who brought the virus back with him.
The results were sobering.
“If you follow the chain,” Mr. Faiq said, “it could reach 1,000 people.”
Even as these communities have been sustained by remittances from overseas workers, they have also greeted potentially infected laborers with suspicion.
In India, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an imminent nationwide lockdown last month, hundreds of thousands of internal migrants scrambled to return home as their jobs evaporated overnight.
Anil Singh, a laborer, heard about the lockdown on television and crammed blankets in a backpack and filled three plastic bags with his children’s clothes. Over three days, his family of five walked and hitched truck rides for the 265-mile journey home to the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
Along the way, they were forced to squat with hundreds of others for hours, as the police moved a long stream of migrants through checkpoints. No social distancing occurred.
When Mr. Singh and his family finally made it to their village of Damoh, the indignities continued. Old friends shunned them, telling them they should shelter in nearby farmland rather than in the village.
“When villagers pass by my house, they shout, ‘You are carrying disease!’” Mr. Singh, 36, said. “Earlier they used to respect us for working in the city. Now that has become a curse for us.”
In the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, returning migrants were forced to kneel while the authorities used hoses to spray them with corrosive disinfectant. More than a dozen died in the chaos of the lockdown.
In the Philippines, where more than 10 percent of the population works overseas, most returning migrants were not screened for the coronavirus, even if they were coming from places with known viral outbreaks.
Nearly 4,500 cruise ship employees have returned to the Philippines, some from ships that teemed with the virus. But unless they showed symptoms, these seafarers were never tested, said Joanna Concepcion, the chair of Migrante International, which works to protect the rights of overseas workers.
“Many are fearful that they may be carriers as they return home to their families,” Ms. Concepcion said.
At least 525 Filipino workers have contracted the disease overseas, according to the foreign department. About 50 have died.
The crowded conditions in which migrants live and work serve as breeding grounds for contagion.
In Singapore, construction sites and dormitories for foreign workers have become hot spots of the coronavirus, with more than 400 people infected. The largest single cluster of cases is in one such dormitory, provoking concern that Singapore, while having been applauded for its virus-containment strategy early on, has seen disease fester in some of its poorer communities.
The government has responded by quarantining migrants in four dormitories that can hold about 50,000 people. Conditions are dire, with a dozen to a room, sharing often-filthy toilets.
Unlike many other countries, Singapore, an island city-state, does not depend on undocumented workers. Its roughly one million low-wage migrant workers, in a nation of 5.5 million residents, are legal and theoretically afforded the same basic labor rights as Singaporean citizens. Those being quarantined in the dormitories are being provided meals although it’s not clear who will eventually pay for them.
Nevertheless, isolating so many people in such cramped quarters could facilitate the rapid transmission of disease, just as happened on cruise ships, rights groups warned.
“Quarantining people en masse, packed in like sardines in these dormitories, is to potentially sacrifice these foreign workers for those outside the barrier,” said Alex Au, the vice president of Transient Workers Count Too, a labor rights group. “Is that something we want to do as a society?”
Singapore’s long reliance on a vast underclass of cheap labor from places like India, China, Bangladesh and Myanmar has discomfited some Singaporeans.
Tommy Koh, a former high-ranking diplomat, posted on his Facebook account about the “disgraceful” conditions that migrant laborers endure.
“The way Singapore treats its foreign workers is not First World but Third World,” he wrote.
Mr. Au said that the coronavirus would almost certainly galvanize Singapore’s efforts to use automation to replace certain low-income jobs. The city-state has been experimenting, for instance, with driverless public transportation.
But most countries don’t have the resources of a place like Singapore, which is among the world’s richest. Without adequate opportunities at home, migrants will still go to where the jobs are, even at the risk of disease.
Rakesh Kumar, a construction worker in New Delhi, said that as he set off for his home in Uttar Pradesh, his next meal was foremost on his mind, not some invisible virus that might have been carried by another migrant squeezed in with him on the bus.
“Now we are living in a situation where hundreds of thousands of people could be going to bed hungry,” he said. “The rich will always save themselves but disease always hits the poor and leaves them devastated.”
Reporting was contributed by Saw Nang from Mandalay, Myanmar; Sameer Yasir from New Delhi; Najim Rahim and Mujib Mashal from Kabul, Afghanistan; and Jason Gutierrez from Manila.
Updated April 11, 2020
When will this end?
This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.
How can I help?
Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities. More than 30,000 coronavirus-related GoFundMe fund-raisers have started in the past few weeks. (The sheer number of fund-raisers means more of them are likely to fail to meet their goal, though.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
How does coronavirus spread?
It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.
Is there a vaccine yet?
No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.
What makes this outbreak so different?
Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.
What if somebody in my family gets sick?
If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.
Should I stock up on groceries?
Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.
Can I go to the park?
Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.
Should I pull my money from the markets?
That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.
What should I do with my 401(k)?
Watching your balance go up and down can be scary. You may be wondering if you should decrease your contributions — don’t! If your employer matches any part of your contributions, make sure you’re at least saving as much as you can to get that “free money.”
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