Focus on Covid-19 challenge, stop blaming undocumented migrants — Agora Society Malaysia

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OCTOBER 15 — The recent statement by Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin that the Covid-19 outbreak in Sabah was caused by undocumented migrants is of grave concern to the public, as it could harden further the already pervasive xenophobic sentiment Malaysian society since the pandemic started early this year.

While it is understandable that the statement was made to assuage the fear of a rapid spread of Covid-19 and to assure the people that the situation was under control, singling out undocumented migrants and holding them responsible for the spikes in Covid-19 cases nevertheless obscure the failure of the authorities in containing the virus spread.

Moreover, we have witnessed the virulent anti-immigrant sentiment at the height of the crisis in April and May, when xenophobic and racist rhetoric permeated cyberspace and the mainstream media, with the Rohingya community and migrant workers of various nationalities taking the brunt of public anger at a time when their position had been made even more vulnerable due to job losses and the lack of social support.

At the outset of the pandemic, Agora Society already argued that, instead of arresting them en masse, the government should grant an amnesty to all undocumented migrants and encourage those with symptoms to come forward for testing.

In fact, Defence Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob took the same position at the initial stage of the movement control order, only to reverse it later with no justification, which only ended up aggravating the situation when several immigration detention centres experienced massive virus outbreaks in May and June.

It shows clearly that cracking down on undocumented migrants is not conducive to alleviating the Covid-19 crisis, because overcrowded cells only lead to insanitary and violent conditions that are harmful to the physical and mental well-being of detainees.

Therefore, detention centres and prisons in their current form are nothing but a hotbed for viruses to spread faster, and the government is obviously repeating the same mistake in Sabah.

It is worth reminding that Health Director-General Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah himself said in June this year that, while the increasing number of Covid-19 cases among migrant workers presented a new challenge to the government’s effort to contain it, stigmatising the community was of no help in resolving the issue.

Prior to that, Dr Noor Hisham had also cautioned that blaming or discriminating against the Sri Petaling Tabligh attendees over the sharp rises in Covid-19 cases earlier this year could potentially prevent them from coming forward for screening, thereby worsening the spread of the virus.

Agora Society therefore urges the prime minister to emulate the compassion and empathy as exemplified by Dr. Noor Hisham Abdullah, and refrain from stigmatising anyone while the frontline workers are doing their utmost to combat the virus.

Above all, Muhyiddin should focus on ensuring that everyone living inside Malaysia – be they locals or foreigners – abide by the SOP, including his own cabinet ministers. Only then can we overcome the challenge without losing the spirit of humanity.

* Press statement issued on October 5, 2020 by Agora Society Malaysia, a loose network of intellectuals, writers and activists who support democratic progress.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer(s) or organisation(s) and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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