Hotline clears Covid-19 barriers

Hotline clears Covid-19 barriers

Special report: Public health advice at hand for migrants forced out of work

Maw la Myine, right, with his colleague Zaw Zaw Latt at the launch of the migrant hotline for Covid-19 in Khmer, Lao and Burmese languages. photo by the World Health Organization Thailand
Maw la Myine, right, with his colleague Zaw Zaw Latt at the launch of the migrant hotline for Covid-19 in Khmer, Lao and Burmese languages. photo by the World Health Organization Thailand

When Maw la Myine, 45, was a child growing up in poverty-stricken Mon state in Myanmar, he dreamed of becoming a lawyer to help his people understand the law and seek justice.

A bright student, he enrolled at university to study law but by his third year his family could no longer afford to keep him there.

"I had to drop out because of poverty. I had to support my mum and four younger siblings," he said.

Mr Maw soon found himself propelled from the library at law school to the shrimp-shelling factories of Samut Sakhon, where labourers from Myanmar and Cambodia clean shellfish for long hours each day.

Mr Maw has a gift for languages, having been a volunteer Mon language teacher to children at home. His ability to speak Thai led to him becoming a translator, liaising between the factory bosses and the workers. "I was lucky to be able to use my language skills to help workers communicate with management," Mr Maw said.

In this role, people would often ask him for information about health topics or to read and translate something for them. After about seven years in the factories, it was a natural progression for Mr Maw to take up a role with the NGO Raks Thai Foundation, educating his community about public health issues such as HIV and TB.

His work has shifted gear dramatically since Covid-19 hit Southeast Asia, with the vast majority of migrants working in factories to construction sites to restaurant kitchens experiencing an abrupt halt to their daily incomes.

Mr Maw now spends his days advising migrant workers on how to stay safe from Covid-19 and dispelling misinformation and myths about how the virus is spread, as well as debunking quack cures.

He is proud of his work and his ability to serve his community.

"The reason I went to law school was to assist my people and even if I am not a lawyer, I can say that I am achieving that goal now," he said.

"They ask if it is true that Covid-19 can be cured by boiling a certain plant and drinking the water. Some have asked if it is true that the virus will be banished if they pray a lot. Others want to know if this virus is karma."

Last week saw the launch of a migrant hotline (1422) for Covid-19 in the Khmer, Lao and Burmese languages, with Mr Maw as one of the hotline's responders. This means migrants can get culturally and linguistically appropriate information not just on how to protect themselves, but how to access testing and treatment if necessary.

Migrants often live in overcrowded conditions without adequate sanitation for handwashing, and where it is almost impossible to practice physical distancing.

In addition, they may struggle to access health-care services and public health information. Language challenges and a fear of engagement with officials may increase the barriers.

The majority have lost all form of income since the Covid-19 crisis began, so are unable to meet their own needs for basics such as food. This makes it difficult for them to use measures practiced by the rest of society, such as wearing masks when ill and using hand sanitiser when soap and water is not available.

"Someone who shares one room with eight people cannot practise physical distancing," he said. "So we emphasise other measures such as leaving the room if you need to sneeze and then washing your hands so you don't spread germs."

This pragmatic approach is echoed by the IOM chief of Mission to Thailand, Dana Graber-Ladek. The IOM recently conducted a rapid assessment that looked into the mass of misinformation to which migrants with lower literacy levels are susceptible. "This hotline is crucial to ensure that migrants can get the facts they need, and use that information to protect themselves," she said.

"There is an undeserved stigma about migrants and the virus. Their physical environment -- such as overcrowded company housing or cramped factory production floors -- is beyond their control. They are working in Thailand to send remittances home and take care of their families."

Aree Moungsookjareoun, of the WHO Thailand's Migrant and Border Health programme, was part of the team from various government departments, NGOs and UN agencies that put the hotline project together.

"The callers are not just getting information in their own languages, but also counselling and support," she said. "This means we can connect this group to the government system in line with our goal of a 'whole of society' and 'whole of government' approach."

This story was supplied by the World Health Organization Thailand.

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