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Between desperate migrants and lackadaisical Malaysians

Covid-19 cases exist among the migrant workers but they also exist among Malaysians, and the reasons can sometimes overlap.

Michelle Chen
4 minute read
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Michelle Chen

Michelle is a Malaysian, a Chinese and a banana. She thinks this is a mad country, but there's no place like home.

A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through social media when I came across a post by one of my old classmates who had gone to be vaccinated at a centre in Kuala Lumpur. She had shared several pictures and video clips not only of her own vaccination process but also of long lines of migrant workers waiting for their turn to be jabbed outside another centre in the city. In the accompanying caption, she criticised the workers for the queues, saying they would be the source of the next cluster in the Klang Valley.

Posts like this are a dime a dozen, especially with daily caseloads still on the rise particularly in the problem hotspots of Selangor and Kuala Lumpur. People are fed up with being told to stay home and with only being able to watch as other states move on to the next stage of the government’s National Recovery Plan and the greater freedom allowed.

But let us be fair about who we vent our spleen on.

Most of us, when we go for our vaccinations, are fortunate enough to be able to drive or be driven to the centre. Upon arrival, we emerge from the comfort of our air-conditioned vehicles and walk the short distance to the entrance where we are ushered to chairs and told what to do next. For the most part, our experiences are short and sweet, the way all such experiences should be.

I doubt that many of the workers that day were chauffeured to the vaccination centre with style or comfort to spare. And to line up outdoors in our kind of weather to wait for hours on end is no joke.

If the people in the queue that day had been tax-paying Malaysians, the backlash might have been very different. Questions might have been raised about the organisation of the vaccination centre, why things were not managed in a more efficient manner, and why people were forced to queue for kilometres outside the building in order to inch their way towards a vaccine promised to every person simply by virtue of their being in the country.

But because they were foreigners, few cared about anything other than their numbers or their potential to spark another cluster.

Throughout the country, fears abound over the link, perceived or otherwise, between the Covid-19 virus and foreigners. From the safety and comfort of their homes, people point to migrant workers and criticise their cramped living quarters, calling them a hotbed of infection.

This may well be true. But the question then becomes who is responsible for the situation. Criticism of employers, where it exists, is scarce. It is easier and more convenient to blame the workers for things that are largely out of their control.

And if infection occurs because migrant workers are lax about complying with health SOPs, how many more cases are due to the same lackadaisical attitude towards rules and consideration for others shown by Malaysians themselves?

People don’t automatically wear face masks – as they were designed to be worn – or keep a safe distance from the next person just because they’re Malaysians, better educated or earning a higher salary. They don’t avoid crowds because they have a blue IC, or do as they’re told because they can sing “Negaraku”.

Of the nearly 20,000 new cases recorded on Aug 10, only 3,428 or 17.1% were foreigners. The rest were all locals.

On Aug 11, when the country re-crossed the 20,000 threshold for daily cases, over 17,000 were locals and some 3,300 were foreigners.

This is not to say that every infection that occurs can or should be chalked up to the legendary “tidak apa” attitude of Malaysians. Once a virus spreads into the community, it’s very difficult to keep a lid on it, even with our best efforts – but not all of us can say that we’ve been doing our best.

When authorities say don’t cross state borders, we do it anyway. When they say no more than a specific number of people allowed for this or that matter, we nod and then everything goes out the window because no one is watching so why not.

Nowhere is this attitude more ironic than at funerals – occasions which should serve as a stark reminder of the worst-case scenario of contracting the virus. In areas still under Phase One of the National Recovery Plan, attendance at funerals is capped at a certain number of people. Yet even this rule, set at the last point of our journey on earth, is too often disregarded.

Respects must be paid, we think. Friends and relatives must be consoled, and face must be shown. It’s the civilised thing to do. But in general, social norms are exactly that – practices meant for times of normalcy – and for all our talk of a “new normal”, spades and euphemisms alike should be recognised for what they are.

Ignoring SOPs is also a slap on the face for everyone else who has toed the line, no matter how hard and painful this is. Thousands of families have had to say good-bye to their loved ones from a distance or through the impersonal lens of a camera – if they are fortunate enough to have such technology in the first place.

They loved the person who died no less than those who decided that just one or two or five more people at the funeral wouldn’t hurt. And perhaps more importantly, they also took into consideration the living when making the difficult decision to put social norms, feelings and face aside for the sake of the greater good.

Sometimes things are out of our control, like where our employers decide we should live, how much space we have around us and how long we have to line up if we want to get vaccinated. But even with the pandemic and Delta cutting their way across the country, not to speak of the rest of the world, many other things are still up to us.

Covid-19 cases exist among migrant workers, it is true. But they also exist among Malaysians, and sometimes the reasons overlap.

In any case, whether we are locals or foreigners, as long as we are human we owe it to others around us to do the right thing even if it means making difficult calls. At the end of the day, perhaps that would be the most truly civilised thing we could do.