COVID-19 reveals the importance of universal healthcare in Hong Kong and Singapore

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Economists around the world project terrible outlooks for the global financial market once the quarantined populations of every country comes to an end. Many raise alarm bells over bankruptcies, job losses and plummeting stocks on an unprecedented scale. 

A number of governments have ordered total and complete shutdowns of wide stretches of the economy. To enumerate the top three of the most vulnerable sectors, manufacturing, retail and F&B industries are the hardest hit and will be facing the steepest fall of output, according to the latest report by the International Labor Organization (ILO). 

Top brass executives will be faced with serious losses and deficits on a scale never seen before, however, the ILO report highlights that low-paid workers in the billions are the ones most at-risk.

Bare minimum safety nets

In response to these imminent threats, government-sponsored stimulus packages to boost social protection and insurance coverage for low-income workers are evidently scarce. For instance, in city-states like Hong Kong, migrant domestic workers and the non-Chinese labor workforce tend to bear the cold hard brunt of the sliding economy. 

With nearly 400,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, cases of labor exploitation and general dismissal of risks to their health have peaked in the last couple of months. Aside from house chores increasing tenfold and shortage of protective sanitary equipment, employers have stopped mandatory 24-hour rest days

Photo by Macau Photo Agency

People in Asia wearing masks. Photo by Macau Photo Agency

“Between 11-14% of respondents reported that they do not receive masks or sanitizers from their employers,” according to a survey by the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body (AMCA-IMA). Over 1000 respondents took part in the online questionnaire and the initial results point to overworking, increased stress and zero breaks. 

The panic and strict isolation orders have led employers to boot some domestic workers out for simply buying groceries among other minor issues. 

Contrary to social safety net schemes in the U.S. and the U.K., the Hong Kong government does not provide universal social security to foreign workers, no different to the lack of provisions for low-income families. 

The existing Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) Scheme is nowhere close to an unemployment insurance apparatus. Still more, working class populations have it harder to access CSSA benefits, even though Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced her plan to supplement low-income families with special handouts amounting to HKD 5000.  

Insurance plans only cover so many 

Another side of the same coin is the Ministry of Manpower in Singapore that recently issued a statement where self-employed workers will receive SGD 9000 while the income of daily wagers will receive an equivalent of 2-months worth of salary from the beginning of April via the Short Term Relief Fund. If workers fit the eligibility criteria of the stimulus bill, they will receive double the pay until the end of the year. 

Singapore sets a strong example of implementing effective protection schemes for low-wage workers – a striking contrast to Hong Kong, in their announcements. Simultaneously, it’s just as, if not more, critical to assess the visible impacts of these economic measures.

Given the abysmal conditions of migrant workers living in dormitories, as seen in recent reporting, sanitation and healthcare benefits for them aren’t as accessible. In response, Prime Minister Lee Hsein-Loong said this about the migrant workers situation in a live address to Singaporeans last week: “We will look after your health, your welfare and your livelihood. We will work with your employers to make sure that you get paid, and you can send money home.” 

However, the realities on the ground are far from resolved after the news of the infection cluster in migrant dorms broke out. 

“It feels like we’re in a prison. [It is] too difficult. [There is] too much heat in the room,” said one migrant worker to The Guardian

 A 2014 study published in an open-access journal found that barriers to insurance mainly stems from migrant workers’ lack of knowledge of such programs.

Proper sanitation procedures are lacking for migrant workers in Asia. Photo by Kelly Sikkema

The current stimulus bill doesn’t exclude this group per se but, the study states the sweeping quarantining of over 20,000 migrant workers raised alarm bells about how the government has been looking after the hygiene of merely 40 dormitories thus far that has turned it into a red zone of coronavirus cases.

Notwithstanding the laudable benefits insurance companies are rolling out to frontline aid workers and returnees from overseas offered seaview hotel stays, the cluster of infections among thousands of foreign workers are indicative of their decrepit quarters and the rapid spread of the virus.

It’s no secret that the coronavirus pandemic is shedding a much-needed light on the precarious situation of bare minimum coverage procedures for underpaid foreign workers. Targeted action plans of cash transfers and ensuring an adequate supply of food and essential supplies are but all absent. 

It remains to be seen whether the Hong Kong and Singapore governments will extend and provide employment retention measures, debt relief and humanitarian aid for migrant workers, especially considering a major financial crisis is looming large.

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Asia · Featured · Health · Politics

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