We Are in This Together but Not in the Same Way: COVID-19 and Migrant Health Challenges in Thailand

This article is part of AASYP’s first-ever “Break the Chain” programme which highlights innovative solutions to modern slavery, human-trafficking and forced labour.

COVID-19 pandemic undeniably acts as a game-changer to all, regardless of social class, nationality, gender, or belief. The more vulnerable the individuals in our community are, the more pronounced the impacts of COVID-19 they encounter. This Op-Ed illustrates some of the crucial obstacles faced by migrant workers in Thailand and Southeast Asian nations, as well as a call for inclusive health programs.

The spread of the pandemic exacerbates the management of the country’s migrant health and social safety net, which lack inclusivity for vulnerable groups. Given the significant contribution of migrant workers to the Thai seafood and other industries, they are the key engine of Thai economy – both registered and unregistered workers. A previous study from the ILO’s Migrant Working Group reported that nearly seven hundred thousand migrant workers, primarily in the tourism, services, and construction sectors have lost their jobs after the government implemented the lockdown in March. In addition, there are new-normal steps which not every single person can afford.

Virus testing is not affordable for many workers. (Photo from Unsplash.com)

Not to mention the work-from-home arrangement, in some ways, benefits office workers but it does not make it possible for non-formal workers to do so. According to Thailand’s lockdown announcement, there were temporary closures of some working sites and strict virus containment measures that disrupted non-formal worker’s working patterns. Violators of these regulations will be subject to a jail term and significant portion of fine. While complying to laws and orders, they cannot continue gaining the daily wages. At a larger scale, regular temperature checks and obligatory virus testing become the standard for the five million migrants in Southeast Asia. However, the crowded living conditions and language differences that migrant workers face mean that new infections are inevitable.

The burden mentioned was discussed extensively in the International Organization for Migration’s COVID-19 Flash Update: Government Guidance Affecting Migrant Workers and their Employers in Thailand and Neighboring Countries that “social security insurance covers COVID-19 tests for insured individuals.” For the rest of the workers who are not insured, one swab test in Thailand costs between 70 to 170 AUD depending on the service units, and this eats up more than half of the minimum wage per month.

The highlighted incident involving migrant workers in Thailand and COVID-19 happened in the central Thai province of Samut Sakhon at the beginning of 2021. The province is now referred to as the epicenter of a second wave of the coronavirus in Thailand, where it is also the center of the fisheries industry. The issue reflected the complexity of migrant health management, social stigmatization and discrimination, and border controls.

Thailand’s seafood industry depends on migrant workers (Photo from Pexels.com)

This productive seafood industry depends on migrant workers coming from Myanmar working under poor conditions for low-paying jobs. While Thailand reported no local transmission during mid-2020, there was a spike of confirmed cases in this area. Most senior officials also said that a second outbreak of COVID-19 began in December 2020 after several months with no recorded local transmissions in Thailand, which migrant workers from Myanmar are most likely the cause. Human rights advocates have noted and pointed this situation, which is unacceptable to stigmatize those employees who are unable to negotiate the expense of social distance and virus protection kit fees.

Crisis responses implemented by the fisheries factories and the government gained mixed feelings among the public. The responses lacked systematic approach and required capacity regarding migrant health, psychological and psychosocial support. The good sign in this story is that Thailand has been preparing to adopt the ‘Migrant Health Program Model’ since 2003 to ensure migrant-friendly services i.e. having migrant health volunteers and coordinators to accommodate the communication. However, when the COVID-19 hit this community, the treatment received by the infectious cluster in Samut Sakorn was of a different standard compared to other clusters in Thailand’s outbreaks.

“The lockdown began on Dec 19. As soon as the announcement was made, military officers came here to bar every entrance and exit, stopping people from wandering outside. We can leave our rooms for a walk and live normally, but we’re not allowed to leave the market area.”

Pyi Some Aung, in a report by Channel News Asia

In conclusion, the outbreak of COVID-19 in Thailand, especially during the second wave, echoed the structural problems of the crisis and the unpreparedness of the government. Comprehensive approaches to fostering whole-of-the-system cooperation and empathy are required. This is to ensure the inclusivity and long-term commitment of both businesses and the government. It is not, essentially, the implementation of special treatment for migrant workers, but the promotion of equitable opportunity and respect for our fellow migrants.

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