Stranded Vietnamese face the brunt of resurgent Covid in Malaysia

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Vietnamese workers in Malaysia are in limbo as Covid-19 returns, earning little and without hope that a repatriation flight will take them home soon.

Ha Anh Minh, a construction worker in Kuala Lumpur, often starts his day by calling his family back home in Vietnam, updating them on the pandemic situation in Malaysia and his life amid a two-week national lockdown.

“I cannot go to work because of the lockdown, and going out now is risky amid this surge in infections,” he says. Since he has earned next to nothing in the last few weeks he survives on instant noodles.

The 51-year-old from the northern province of Ninh Binh is among thousands of Vietnamese stranded and jobless in the Covid-hit country.

A man wearing a protective mask rides across a street, during a lockdown due to the coronavirus disease outbreak, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia February 2, 2021. Photo by Reuters/Lim Huey Teng.

A man wearing a protective mask rides across a street, during a lockdown due to the coronavirus disease outbreak, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia February 2, 2021. Photo by Reuters/Lim Huey Teng.

The spread of the infection has been more severe in recent weeks, partly because of the influx of highly transmissible coronavirus variants.

Hospitals are overwhelmed.

The country recorded 5,671 cases on Thursday, taking the number since the outbreak began last year to 639,562.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced a total nationwide lockdown from June 1-14, with only essential services remaining in operation.

Pham Van Thanh, a carpenter in Johor, has seen his income shrink by 50 percent in the last few months.

The 40-year-old from the central province of Nghe An says: “I earn around $500 per month. I came here to work and send money to my family, but now cannot even take care of myself. It makes me feel ashamed and useless.”

However, he feels lucky he still has a job. He has reduced his food consumption to save money.

“I don’t even dare buy masks. I have two cloth masks and wash them every day and reuse.”

The year-long pandemic has caused economic deprivation for many Vietnamese, leading to depression and anxiety.

In a Facebook group of more than 56,000 Vietnamese, many migrant workers share how they have faced the brunt of the socioeconomic fallout of the pandemic.

According to Channel News Asia, unemployment among non- citizens in Malaysia has risen by 169 percent since late 2019 while the labor force participation has fallen from over 88 percent to below 81 percent.

“My Vietnamese friends and I are facing a dead end,” Thanh says.

Apart from their reduced incomes, their working and living conditions also put them at greater infection risk amid the resurgence of the pandemic.

In Sangalor, hairdresser Nguyen Thi Ngoc moved to a cheaper apartment with five other Vietnamese in January, and the cramped space and shared bunk beds could turn out to be a coronavirus hotbed.

She says she is too poor to care about safety.

“We stay at home all day, and take turns to go to the market twice a week to avoid close contact with outsiders.”

Nguyen Thi Luong, a factory worker in Kuala Lumpur, says many Malaysians do not comply with Covid prevention measures, putting people around them in danger.

“Some people are required to self-quarantine in my building, but they continue to use the elevators and go out normally,” she laments, saying she will not be able to afford a hospital if she gets infected. “I must stay healthy and be vigilant.”

Vietnamese workers in Kuala Lumpur are given noodles, rice, and fish sauce by Ha Quoc Minh and his friends, May 2021. Photo courtesy of Ha Anh Minh.

Vietnamese workers in Kuala Lumpur are given noodles, rice, and fish sauce by Ha Quoc Minh and his friends, May 2021. Photo courtesy of Ha Anh Minh.

One stitch saves nine

Stranded in a foreign land, Vietnamese communities in Malaysia try their best to support each other.

In Kuala Lumpur, Minh and his friends buy instant noodles, rice and fish sauce for their compatriots in need.

“We have no idea when this ordeal will stop, so we must hunker down and give a helping hand to others,” he says.

On Facebook, many overseas workers motivate each other to strictly adopt pandemic prevention measures and avoid crowds.

With the healthcare system overloaded, the government is speeding up the pace of its national vaccination program.

The program, started on February 24, progressed slowly until the end of May because of erratic vaccine supply, the government said.

Many foreign workers, both documented and undocumented, have no idea when they will get the vaccine.

In the meantime they yearn for home.

Vietnam closed its borders in March last year, and has only allowed in foreign diplomats, specialists and investors since then. Special flights have been operated to repatriate Vietnamese, but the numbers are limited. Around 75,000 citizens were brought home last year.

On May 31, the Vietnamese embassy in Malaysia said it would temporarily stop accepting registrations by citizens who want to return home to the immense disappointment of many people.

“I am not worried about the pandemic, but I am worried about my income here,” Ngoc says, asking, “How can I live if the pandemic keeps raging?”

Last year there was one repatriation flight every month taking around 300 Vietnamese home each time, but this year there have been only three so far.

The last one, in April, was prioritized for those released from jail, according to the embassy.

An embassy employee told VnExpress International there has been demand for thousands of tickets on repatriation flights, but no one knows when repatriation would again become feasible.

In the meantime Minh and his friends, knowing the pandemic is likely to last months, still wait for a miracle that will take them home soon.

“The last time I visited home was in 2018 for my son’s wedding. Now my grandson is two years old and I have never seen him in person,” he says with tears in his eyes. But he says he never cries in front of his children because he wants them to know their father is fine.

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