Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic and the invisible workers. A thought piece.

I thought I'd shake this blog up a bit by writing the occasional thought piece. If you want to discuss this, see me on my FB page.

As non-essential workers are being told to stay home, I'm trying to figure out what to do to help M, the lady who cleans for me once a week. 

M is not local and she's a cleaner by day for a big company. She and her colleagues have been told to stay home, and their employer gave them a 5kg bag of rice for the fortnight.  That's it.

Now, in the West I would send a pile of cash and that would be it. But here things are rather different.

As most of you don't know Asia very well, I would like to explain.

We have a tonne of foreign workers here in Malaysia, some are rich and spoilt like me but many others come from neighbouring countries and they tend to be poor and uneducated. M belongs to that group.

First, M speaks Indonesian as her second language and I speak it poorly, so she and I can only communicate on small matters.

I fixed that by roping in Charlie's mum to phone her. Charlie's mum is a career woman with a massive team and she's used to talking to ladies like M. Also, they know each other. While Charlie's mum is currently a couple of hours away, the magic handphones are coming into play.

Second, M is illiterate and rather cut off, so she only learned about the crisis when we informed her. It's taken Charlie's mum three calls over three days to explain what is happening, what a virus is and what curfews are all about.

Third, M doesn't have a bank account or a credit card. As I haven't seen her in a week, she probably has no cash, either.  So sending her money is not a matter of pressing buttons.

Fourth, the reason I hesitate to hand over a pile of cash is that M comes from a society where women are routinely deprived of their earnings.  Also, there is almost no privacy. What M knows, everyone around her hears and sees. There are no secrets.

So, if I hand over a bunch of moolah, it's very possible she ends up with no groceries while her male relatives back home go out boozing.

Just writing that makes me worried about infantalising her. She's a grown woman with kids, for goodness sake!

Then again, when I lived in Indonesia, I made that mistake once with another lady. During a mini economic downturn there in 1989 I handed her a load of money so she could keep her kids afloat. Her relatives spent it on booze and hookers, which created a massive fight in the family. I learned from that and won't repeat the error.

Do unto others is a crap rule when their culture is completely different.

So, what can I do? If M were standing in front of me, I could use Google translate and we'd spend an hour trying to figure out what she would like from me. But she's not here and talking to her over the phone is not easy even for Charlie's mum.

M is not comfortable with phones and this situation scares her. Also, she will find it hard to speak honestly about her family as we're outsiders.

So, I'm afraid circumstances have conspired to make it impossible for her to open her heart.

Then there's a further complication. As M is foreign, she can't go out by herself easily. She is a legal worker with permits etc but the police here regularly hassle foreigners and extort money from them.  With the controlled movement orders, it's probably best she doesn't leave her home.

I thought of sending a boatload of groceries. But M lives in a warren of tenements and the supermarket won't deliver there.

As Charlie's mum knows the problems too, we have devised a few questions that will hopefully help. We'll ask M to give us a list of groceries that she needs, and I will have the supermarket deliver to me. Then I will arrange to meet up with M someone near her place for a handover. (The police won't hassle me because I'm white).

I think the plan will work - as long as the controlled movement order doesn't turn into a lockdown.

Why am I telling you this? Mainly because Western news agencies don't cover this kind of story. There are references to gig workers and so on, but people like M tend to be overlooked. It's as if they're invisible.

I'm an optimistic person usually and I'm hoping that this pandemic will lead to some serious positive changes in society. We need more equality, fewer billionaires, and a more consideration, thought and heart for the poor.

Hopefully, sharing this will contribute to the conversation.