By Mimi Alphonsus –
To the migrant worker stuck abroad sleeping in parks, eating one meal a day and having just lost a job, the resurgence of COVID-19 in Minuwangoda sparks fear. For them, the new cases signal even further delays in returning home. We worry about being locked-down at home. For migrant workers, that is a luxury.
Of the 1.7 million Sri Lankans abroad, 50, 000 migrant workers stuck primarily in the Middle East are trying to come home. Despite the arduous process and small chance of success they have applied for repatriation. Many more will likely follow suit as the situation continues to get worse. Most of these migrant workers have lost their jobs. They don’t have healthcare or proper food. 64 migrant workers have died of COVID-19 and over 2600 have been infected. Migrant workers have a COVID fatality rate six times higher than Sri Lankans at home (2.4% as opposed to the 0.38%). They are far more at risk than any of us.
Delays in Repatriation
In their hour of greatest need, we abandoned them. Sri Lanka halted repatriation flights in July and restricted them to one flight per day in September. I do not need to delve into the horrors of being stuck abroad penniless and helpless. Multiple videos and articles have covered that subject. Instead I will show how we can and must continue repatriation. Now that another cluster has emerged in Minuwangoda it may seem like the intuitive thing to abandon migrant workers yet again. In reality, this COVID-19 cluster provides an opportunity to bring them home.
In the orange box I breakdown our capacity in the months prior to the Minuwangoda cluster. I show that we chose not to repatriate more migrant workers even when we could have. The government said we did not have enough quarantine capacity and the risk of infection was too high. I hope that exposing this argument as a lie will make the reader critically question the government when they use similar excuses to halt repatriation now with the Minuwangoda cluster. In summary, we functioned at far less than a 50% capacity for months when we could have instead sped up the repatriation process. To read more on the situation post-Minuwangoda and what can be done, simply skip the box.
The Chief Epidemiologist, Dr. Sudath Samaraweera, confirmed that in and around May we had extended COVID-19 care to 10-15 hospitals. By September COVID-19 patients were only treated in three. This is a gross, active underuse of our capacity when thousands of our citizens were sick abroad without proper shelter, let alone a hospital.
The Minuwangoda cluster is a harsh reminder that we cannot return to normal so soon. There is massive community spread and more than 1300 active cases. It is important in such a time to resist panic and instead think rationally about repatriation. The government decided to restrict repatriation flights allegedly due to the lack of capacity at quarantine centers and hospitals. This is wrong for three reasons.
First and foremost, the Minuwangoda cluster has shut down schools and universities. This provides ample opportunity to expand our quarantine facilities. Many times, in the first few months of COVID-19, I went past Royal College and the University of Colombo thinking of how their hostel capacity sat empty and useless. And that’s not to mention their giant non-hostel infrastructure. If only we converted a few well-chosen universities and schools into quarantine centers we could increase our capacity by thousands. This is exactly what states across India are doing. In Kerala they even converted unoccupied houses and government rest houses into quarantine centers. Here’s a very basic breakdown of just two campus hostels.
But let’s assume that our quarantine capacity is low because of staff, not infrastructure. Many governments sent out urgent calls for volunteers when COVID-19 hit. In Ireland 17, 000 people signed up to volunteer. In Sri Lanka a conservative estimate would bring the number to at least a few thousand. Even if inexperienced volunteers cannot manage a quarantine center, they can still do other jobs to relieve health staff and transfer them to centers. But the government has still not called for volunteers.
Say this proposition is unrealistic. Still we can sufficiently increase numbers because running a quarantine center does not require thousands of staff. Our COVID-19 control has relied unfortunately almost entirely on our armed forces. Surely, we can tap some more into our 280, 000 armed forces who at the moment have very little to do defense-wise.
Second, few migrant workers at a time are actually infected with COVID-19 upon return. Typically, there are less than ten infected repatriates per flight of roughly 500 people. A handful of infections per day is a relatively minor addition to our health system when compared with the hundred that are emerging out of community spread. This is a practical argument leaving aside the fact that an infected migrant worker has as much of a right to be in a Sri Lankan hospital as does anyone infected by the Minuwangoda cluster. Moreover, it is likely that our hospitals will soon be over-capacitated. This will mean that young and otherwise healthy COVID-19 patients may be asked to recover at home or at makeshift clinics while the seriously ill be treated in hospitals. If as a result of the Minuwangoda cluster hospitals are over-capacitated anyway then the logic of stopping repatriation because of a lack of hospital beds makes no sense. In fact, when hospital capacity is limited it is vital that seriously ill migrant workers, whose fatality rates at the moment are far higher than those of us at home, be allowed to recover in hospitals while patients already in Sri Lanka who are at lesser risk of death wear the disease out elsewhere. Sri Lanka has to bring back migrant workers at some point and it doesn’t look like COVID-19 is going away any time soon. Repatriates are less likely to spread the disease amongst themselves when in regulated quarantine than in cramped detention centers abroad, packed like sardines. Bringing them back sooner will avoid perpetually over-capacitated hospitals down the line.
Finally, it is important to bust the myth of the foreign infector. Repatriates do not create community spread. They are quarantined on arrival. So, the fear that repatriates are “bringing the disease”, especially now when the disease is already rampant, is unfounded. When there is community spread going to the shop is riskier than bringing back migrant workers. Unless a second island-wide lockdown is imposed, halting or stalling repatriation in the name of reducing risk is a disingenuously unnecessary move.
According to Asrticle 14 of the constitution all Sri Lankans have the absolute right to return to their country. If there isn’t enough quarantine space, as the government is claiming now, they need to fix it. Instead of viewing the Minuwangoda cluster as the perfect excuse to block repatriation again, the government must seize the opportunity it presents for bringing home our migrant workers.
.*Mimi Alphonsus is a student of history and a writer. Her thesis is on upcountry Tamil migrations to Northern Sri Lanka.