It’s Thursday in Kuala Lumpur, the second day of the ‘restricted movement’ which was announced by Malaysia’s new government on Monday night. There has been confusion among the public about whether or not this is the same as a lockdown. On Tuesday night, upon hearing that permits would be required for interstate travel, police stations were packed with queues of people. With inadequate and contradictory messaging from the authorities, rumours and hearsay abound via social media. As of midday today a total of 900 cases of novel coronavirus have been identified in Malaysia, and this week the first two deaths were recorded: a 60-year-old and a 34-year-old.
Prior to the government announcement, IWRAW Asia Pacific’s team had already committed to working from home for two weeks, and placed a moratorium on travel until at least the end of May. Cooped up in our various homes, we communicate via email, WhatsApp and Slack. We share memes and encouragement to one another, trying to keep the chat going as we would in the office. We also extend support to one another as we balance our anxieties about what’s going on around us with our anxieties for loved ones overseas.
Every day there are dramatic new developments, and it feels jarring to continue working on projects that were conceptualised before our landscape changed so abruptly. How long will this last and what will things look like afterwards? With drastic measures taken in some countries and people in others continuing to behave as normal, it’s hard not to view all this through the lens of a dystopic disaster film.
It’s also bringing many of our key concerns into sharp focus.
Health services, compromised already in many countries by the austerity recommendations of international financial institutions, are under remarkable strain. Doctors and nurses are significantly overworked, with little to no time to check in on their families and friends, and they fear infecting their loved ones if they return home. Recent graduates and trainees are being fast-tracked onto the frontlines, and there are insufficient ventilators for the numbers of COVID-19 patients who are likely to need them. The impact on healthcare provision will affect patients across the board, with equipment and human resources from all departments diverted to focus on the novel coronavirus outbreak. In the USA, the risk to public health is compounded by the cost of healthcare, together with bureaucratic nightmares when insurance policies are involved – these obstacles serve to discourage people from seeking help for symptoms until they are truly desperate.
Although governments need to act decisively to tackle the crisis, there are fears that the pandemic presents a serendipitous opportunity for authoritarian regimes to dial back on civil liberties – pushing for a ‘new normal’ in which mass surveillance is justified and public gatherings remain off limits. Misuse of personal data is putting people’s safety at risk.
The shortcomings of jails and prisons as the default response to crime have been exposed, and calls have been made to release those who pose no threat to the public. The inequality of the bail system has been particularly thrown into focus, with poor people locked up – and exposed to health risks – due to their inability to pay rather than the severity of offences committed.
Borders are closing around the world, placing migrants and refugees in an ever more vulnerable situation. Concerns abound about the potential for infection to spread in migrant labour camps, immigration detention centres, refugee camps and informal settlements. UNHCR has announced the suspension of settlement departures for refugees, and postponement of assessments leaves asylum seekers vulnerable.
Where migrants are entitled to free testing and treatment, they may be unaware of this if no information is shared in their own languages. Additionally, Malaysia has offered no clarity on whether seeking help for symptoms could put undocumented migrants at risk of detention and deportation; legitimate fears of this outcome deter people from getting the help they need, let alone cooperating with contact tracing should they test positive.
Tightened immigration measures may separate transnational couples, especially those who are not in marriages recognised by the state; whether or not they can stay together may hinge on whether (sometimes homophobic) bureaucracies perceive their relationships as valid. Restriction of movement within countries can additionally increase the vulnerability of marginalised groups, such as trans people who may have to interact with hostile police if they need to travel for healthcare appointments. And some remote indigenous communities are still unaware of the threat to their health, lacking outreach and information in their own languages.
Low-paid workers such as cleaners, supermarket workers and delivery riders are among the unsung heroes of this crisis – frequently unprotected, facing risks not only from novel coronavirus but also from the economic impact of getting ill. Their contribution is often deemed ‘unskilled’ or ‘low-skilled’ by the same people who now rely on their services; their devaluation is reflected in immigration requirements which seek to exclude such workers.
Workers are variously finding themselves on forced annual leave, on unpaid leave, or suddenly without jobs altogether. Some migrant workers have been left in limbo, restricted from travelling back to their home countries. Migrant domestic workers may be forbidden to go out on their days off, and those who are denied use of mobile phones may miss out on necessary information about COVID-19. Any compensation made available to workers in the formal economy who stay home for their safety is unlikely to be extended to those in the informal and gig economies. Some sex workers are urgently exploring for the first time digital sectors of the sex industry, such as cam work, which comes with its own security concerns. But many have no access to the technologies required to pursue these alternatives, and have no options but to continue meeting clients.
Meanwhile, unwarranted panic buying has seen older and immunocompromised people unable to get supplies because there are none left, because no delivery slots are available for long periods of time, or because they simply lack the technological knowhow to order online. Those with limited resources, including many people with disabilities, lack the luxury of stockpiling. Children in low-income families may lose access to crucial free meals at school. Food scarcity may particularly impact women, who may be socialised to eat last and least; resulting health complications may increase their susceptibility to COVID-19. And many households are finding that despite their loss of income, landlords are still demanding rent on time.
Stress caused by the pandemic and the associated financial concerns may exacerbate already unsafe situations of domestic violence, where staying home may not be the safest option. Calls to stay home also offer no solutions to homeless people, whose vulnerability to COVID-19 is compounded by lack of sufficient food, shelter, and targeted information. Emergency resources are required from governments and private entities to control this pandemic.
Rapid efforts to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 through remote work and study measures show that it is possible for our societies to adapt, but represent a hollow victory for people with disabilities who have long been denied such accommodations. And suddenly, we’ve decided that we can manage without all the flights and events for which the looming climate crisis had not presented a compelling enough reason for cancellation.
More promisingly, we are seeing community initiatives around the world aimed at helping one another – from soliciting donations for grassroots charities, to neighbourhood groups mobilising to provide housebound elderly people with essential supplies, to pledges of support for freelancers and small independent businesses so that they can survive through these challenging times. We are seeing a window of opportunity to introduce free universal quality healthcare; to meet the demands for protection and decent jobs for all workers, including those in informal economies; to guarantee uninterrupted access to essential services such as water and electricity; and to provide a Universal Basic Income.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has exposed the cruelty and inadequacy of neoliberal policies. It has also revealed that our vision of a different world, less reliant on the demands of capitalism, is possible after all – but it requires valuing human lives over business interests. Women’s rights activists have already been sharing this vision for decades, based on human rights principles of equality, non-discrimination and respect for the planet. What remains to be seen is whether the positive changes will be temporary or whether decision makers are truly committed to transforming harmful systems as we move forward in a new uncertain world.