[MEDIA RELEASE] COVID-19 Prevention Measures In Migrant Detention Depots – Prof Datuk Dr Lam Sai Kit

Photo credit BERNAMA


27 May 2020

The news that three migrant detention depots/centres in Selangor have reported clusters of COVID-19 (227 cases in total) in the last two days has raised concern to the public. These centres house undocumented migrants from Bangladesh (53 cases), India (41), Indonesia (38), Myanmar (37), and Pakistan (28) among others.

“These clusters have burst the bubble that we were doing well for the last few weeks where the number of cases daily was in the lower double digits. With these new clusters, we are back to triple digits (172 on May 25, 187 on May 26). Most of the new cases on May 25 and 26 were in these detection camps.” 

To cope with these growing numbers, the government has opened up three new makeshift hospitals (Malaysia Agro Exposition Park Serdang, KL Hospital maternity ward building, former leprosy hospital in Sungei Buloh) to treat and quarantine immigrants, according to the Defence Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob. These hospitals will be able to support up to 1,430 patients. Datuk Seri Sabri Ismail said the government will also deport all undocumented workers who tested negative for COVID-19 to their home countries. “However, this will take time even with the help of the embassies for logistical reasons”.

In the meantime, Malaysia must tackle this new crisis swiftly and ensure that measures taken to prevent spread within the depots are effective, and that there will be no spillage of cases into the community. 

It is a well-known fact that these migrants are housed in crammed living quarters, with very poor and sub-standard hygiene. “Trying to prevent spread under these living conditions (hotbed for COVID-19 infections) will pose a real challenge. The Human Resources Ministry was supposed to look into the amendments to the Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act 1990 on foreign workers’ housing made in 2019 but to date, it has yet to do so.” 

What are the immediate steps we can take to ensure that these clusters will be controlled? 

  1. Make sure to relieve crowding in the depot and ensure social distancing. To prevent over-crowding, Immigration should not detain more undocumented migrants at this stage of the crisis. Social distancing is challenging to practice but it is the cornerstone of reducing transmission of COVID-19.
  2. Enhanced cleaning/disinfecting and hygiene practices. Adequate hand soap should be provided as well as sanitisers (where permissible based on security restrictions of alcohol-based sanitisers). Inmates should be educated in their own language about COVID-19 and how the virus is spread, including through contaminated hands which have touched inanimate objects such as door knobs, metal taps, and wooden surfaces. There should also be provided with disinfectants. Educate inmates about personal hygiene including the wearing of masks especially if they are coughing and sneezing.
  3. Monitoring for early symptoms must be stepped up, including the taking of temperature at least twice a day. Be aware that inmates may try to hide symptoms for fear of being placed in isolation.  Those with symptoms must be isolated and their movements in the depot restricted. There should be no sharing of utensils or other hygiene supplies. Strictly no visitors allowed, not that it is likely with these inmates.
  4. Testing of staff and inmates regularly as this will help detect asymptomatic cases so that they can be kept in isolation to prevent spread. Staff and inmates who have been in contact with a positive case should follow SOP with regards to isolation/quarantine. All those tested positive must be given treatment, placing inmates in the makeshift hospitals designated for this purpose. 
  5. Inmates should not be transferred to other facilities without a proper health check. As a matter of fact, all unnecessary transfers should be put on hold, except for medical emergencies or to prevent over-crowding.
  6. Recreation facilities which are shared should be cleaned and disinfected several times a day, including radios, TV remotes, board games, etc.  
  7. All new intakes should be quarantined for 14 days before they enter the facility’s general population. As a matter of fact, this “routine intake quarantine” is indeed a good practice even after post-Covid to prevent any infectious disease from being introduced into the facility.

Fear of spread to the community

This is indeed the greatest fear, that the government is unable to contain the COVID-19 outbreak within the walls of the detention depots. It must be remembered that the staff of these depots are not trained to handle such a deadly respiratory disease and run the high risk of getting themselves and their families, relatives and friends infected when they leave the facility after their shift. Of course, those who are in direct contact with a positive inmate should be quarantined, but what about the others?

Staff should therefore be thoroughly informed about COVID-19, from learning to detect early symptoms to prevention. Those in close contact with inmates should be provided with PPE and educated on how to use them properly, including surgical and N95 masks, much like HCWs. There should be SOPs for them to follow to prevent them from bringing the infection back home with them. Their guard duties may include providing security outside of the depot, e.g. hospitals where inmates are being treated. 

Staff who can work from home, e.g. administrative staff, should be allowed to do so. All unnecessary contact with inmates should be reduced, including inmates who have assigned duties in the kitchen, laundry, cleaning. Make sure inmates do not generate aerosol in their work duties. If the staff know more about the disease and its mode of spread, they will be aware of certain actions which should be discouraged.

A lot of attention is being paid to see how Malaysia is going to handle this outbreak in migrant detention centres. Hopefully, all the steps taken by the government will be effective and prevent spread both within and outside of these facilities. The fate of CMCO hinges on how we can curb this spread into the community, and restore the confidence we have in the government, that we are still on top of the COVID-19 situation in the country.

Statement by :

Academician Emeritus Professor Dato’ Dr. Lam Sai Kit Senior Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia And Research Consultant, Universiti Malaya.

**All previous posts about COVID-19 here: https://sciencemediacentremalaysia.com/tag/covid-19/

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