Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is concerned about the impact of recent policy changes announced by the Malaysian authorities in the fight against Covid-19.
Early on in the pandemic, MSF called on the government to ensure an inclusive response that allows all refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to access healthcare. In the last weeks however, announcements were made that excluded migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from equal treatment and limited their access to public healthcare.
In particular a circular by the ministry of health that came into effect on Jan 21 will deter people from seeking healthcare due to the high costs involved and a risk of being arrested at healthcare facilities.
The new circular overrides a circular from 2020 that exempted foreigners from charges for screening and testing. It states that the costs for foreign workers who are referred to a low risk quarantine and treatment centre need to be borne by their employers. These costs lead up to RM737 for 10 days in the centre, excluding screening and medical fees.
Those who are not earning a living need to bear the costs themselves. MSF believes that many will not be able to afford this. As a result, those with Covid-19 symptoms are challenged to get tested or receive treatment, which will frustrate Malaysia’s efforts to overcome the pandemic.
The new circular also requires healthcare providers to report migrants and refugees without documents to the police and immigration. This is concerning for three reasons.
It puts an additional burden on frontliners who are already working around the clock to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. It confronts healthcare workers with a medical ethical dilemma, as it is not in the patient’s interest to report him or her to the police.
Second, it will deter undocumented migrants and refugees from seeking care, meaning that positive cases may remain undetected.
Lastly, it will also pose an additional challenge to the already overcrowded immigration detention centres, only weeks after the announcement by the authorities that temporary centres will be set up in an attempt to solve these overcrowded conditions.
Now, with the cases of Covid-19 already for weeks in the four digits, is not the time to instigate further fears, burden certain communities, or put additional duties on Malaysia’s frontline workers.
An inclusive approach, with multilingual information campaigns, accessible healthcare for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, and the introduction of a clear separation – called firewalls – between healthcare services and immigration enforcement, will support Malaysia’s public health response to flatten the curve again.
In battling the global pandemic, the government has to stick to a “healthcare for all” approach. - FMT