The unprecedented Covid-19 crisis disrupted economic activity in all countries and affected all citizens including migrant workers. The coronavirus outbreak caused multi-dimensional difficulties for migrant workers such as fear of being sent back, insufficient healthcare rights and benefits, family insolvency, fear of deportation, uncertainty about the future, and crowded accommodations that endangered their health. Mohammad Rezaul Karim of the Bangladesh Public Administration Training Centre examines the effects of pandemic on the mental health of migrant workers from Bangladesh.
Still seeking work and opportunity: Migrant workers at Dhaka airport in line for a pre-departure Covid-19 test, October 2021 (Credit: Mamunur Rashid / Shutterstock.com)
Labor-intensive development activities in many parts of the world (e.g., the Middle East, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea) as well as aging populations in many developed countries (e.g., Italy and Japan) have stimulated a demand for migrant workers that has underpinned sustainable economic growth. In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, the need for migrant workers has not lessened; rather, the contributions of these workers have become of even more vital, especially if economies are to get through the lingering pandemic and recover.
The remarkable economic contributions of migrant workers are not limited to only their home countries but also strengthen the host countries by allowing them to meet the challenges of labor shortages and higher aggregate production with cheaper migrant labor from developing countries. For instance, some 13 million Bangladeshi migrant workers engaged in more than 100 countries contribute US$15 billion to Bangladesh’s economy every year. Approximately 30 million family members depend on their income.
Pandemic stress and anguish on top of everyday hardship
The unprecedented Covid-19 crisis has disrupted economic activity in both host and home countries. The coronavirus outbreak caused many difficulties for Bangladeshi migrant workers such as fear of being sent back, insufficient healthcare rights and benefits, family insolvency, inability to repay loans, fear of deportation, uncertainty about the future, and crowded accommodations that endanger their health. Even in normal situations, Bangladeshi migrant workers experience mental disorders such as depression, high workload, poor accommodations, and the stress of being away from family members. The intensity of their already precarious situation was accelerated by the ripple effects of the pandemic. In the same way that Covid-19 has adverse physical health-related effects, it can also cause prolonged psychological problems including depression, mental illness, fear and panic.
Sudden loss of income has exacerbated family hardship. This situation produces tension for both remittance senders abroad and dependents at home. Remittance-dependent family members have abruptly had to deal with various issues such as difficulties in meeting their food needs, threats to their health, and lack of money to pay for their children’s education and other expenses. Research shows that 60 percent of family members who completely depend on remittances for their daily expenses and 70 percent of workers are suffering a financial crisis. The pandemic has worsened their vulnerabilities.
Precarious working environments including unhealthy accommodations have become an urgent issue of public health. Crowded accommodations shared by many migrant workers are a main cause of the spread of coronavirus among them because it is impossible to maintain minimum physical distancing. They also share kitchens, dining areas, common spaces, and personal belongings; one filthy room may house more than 80 people. The cramped and unsanitary environment escalates Covid-19 infections among dormitory dwellers, outbreaks trigger fear of higher infection rates, and restrictions generate stress that compromises mental health.
As of December 2, 2021, about 16 million people in Bangladesh had tested positive for Covid-19. The number of daily cases hit a peak in late January 2022. A significant number of Bangladeshis outside the country had been infected, ranging from a few hundreds to several thousands in the bigger host nations. There have been many deaths.
Workers have suffered from the lack of healthcare services and hygiene supplies, including simple hand sanitizer. Research revealed that 64 percent of migrants have struggled to get access to information about health services in their host countries. Moreover, factors typical of workers from Bangladesh such as poor education, the lack of consciousness about their health and good health practices, and language barriers to communicating with health professionals have impeded many from seeking and receiving appropriate care. In addition, news of the increasing number of deaths and infections alarmed family members back home.
A significant number of Bangladeshis have already returned to their country because of the coronavirus fallout. The emergence of the Omicron variant intensified the challenges migrant workers face and increased fears of having to face multiple difficulties such as restriction, deportation and compulsory isolation. Bangladesh has imposed a compulsory 15-day quarantine for migrants returning from seven African countries.
The economic recession and financial downturns of the host countries may force even more to return. This has led to anxiety, stress, suffering and paranoia for both remittance senders abroad and their dependents in Bangladesh. Deportation due to Covid-19 deepened the crisis and produced tensions among workers. Returnees have been stigmatized as they were not welcomed home by neighbors and relatives. Panic spread during the pandemic as local government bodies struggled to track recent returnees. Returnee migrants including those who tested positive were reported to have suffered from social stigma, hatred, and denial of health services.
Call for help
Due to their precarious working environment and economic conditions, workers’ vulnerabilities must be addressed to keep them mentally and physically sound. The governments of the host countries and Bangladesh need to ensure mental health services as an immediate solution and shore up workers’ financial security through reintegration, employment, and the provision of loans as a long-term solution. Host countries should concentrate on better work-life balance, at least in this pandemic period, to improve mental health among migrant workers.
Moreover, both host and home countries should continue efforts to spread information about Covid-19 among migrant workers as they have lower educational attainment. They should also ensure access to public healthcare resources to address mental health issues and to establish better communication channels with health professionals in the host countries to compensate for poor communication skills among migrant workers.
Karim, Mohammad Rezaul; Islam, Mohammad Tarikul; and Talukder, Byomkesh. (December 2020) “COVID-19’s impact on migrant workers from Bangladesh: In search of policy intervention”, World Development, vol. 136, article 105123, Elsevier, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Karim, Mohammad Rezaul. (October 17, 2021) “Demographic dividend and development paradox of Bangladesh”, Khabarhub, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Reyes, Nancy Mullins; Saxena, Sanchita Banerjee; and Tripathi, Salil. (August 5, 2021) “The Most Vulnerable: The Pandemic’s Impact on Bangladesh’s Garment Workers”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Mohammad Rezaul Karim
Bangladesh Public Administration Training Centre