Coronavirus Finds Fuel in a World of Migrants

BANGKOK — His whole family back in Myanmar depended on him. But Ko Zaw Win Tun, one of an estimated 4 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, bringing the epidemic to villages ill-equipped to deal with a health crisis.

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.

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.

Unlike many other countries, Singapore, an island city-state, does not depend on undocumented workers. Its roughly 1 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 like what 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.

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