During this pandemic, however, many migrants are themselves vulnerable to the virus and the economic downturn caused by it. COVID-19 cases are on the rise in the Gulf and Malaysia. Many workers are on the verge of losing their jobs or having hours cut, and unlike last time, returning home is not an option.
Oil prices have crashed and reached the lowest levels in two decades, hitting Gulf economies hard. Disruptions in international mobility and supply chains, local economic slowdown, delay of construction projects and cancelation of large scale events have all impacted on Nepali workers.
While workers have been assured basic salaries despite the lockdown, others are being asked to take unpaid leave, or are in danger of losing their jobs. A sense of panic has spread among migrant communities already dealing with the fear of being infected.
A Nepali security guard working in Malaysia told me over the phone this week that he had opted to stay home: “I could have earned more, but I thought who will provide for my family if something happens to me?”
He was in Chitwan when the earthquake hit in 2015. “The earthquake struck, it destroyed then it left. This disease is slow and uncertain. We cannot be with our families back home for each other. In fact, we are threats to each other and I keep reminding my family to stay home at all costs.”
Indeed, while both have been covariate shocks, the response during the earthquake allowed for a more social and collective response to ensure everyone had an indoor to go to, while COVID-19 has forced us all indoors. With this crisis, the whole world is in unchartered territory.
As the caseloads rise in destination countries for Nepali migrants, there is uncertainty and distress among workers and their families. Social safety nets are required more than ever because the informal support networks that the poorest rely on during times of distress, whether at home or abroad, are all affected by COVID-19.
One quarantined worker in Qatar whose family is in Kapilbastu puts it like this: “I am more worried about my family than myself. Anything can happen anytime and I am in constant fear.” Whether during earthquake or COVID-19, migrant workers are gripped by a deep longing for home during times of disasters.
In 2015, Nepalis came together to raise funds for those affected back home. A Nepali in Qatar who is in the non-resident Nepali organisation remembers providing support to relief efforts in the districts, and contributing to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund.
“We raised money to help workers who had lost family members or homes, and employer and colleagues also provided support,” he recalls. This time, it is difficult to lend any support due to restricted mobility, lack of fungible funding, and the need to be frugal. But there are examples of Nepalis helping Nepalis – for example in Ajman in the UAE, Nepalis provide free food to fellow Nepalis displaced by COVID-19.
With informal support networks also affected, the Nepal government needs to make bold steps targeting the poorest. It has launched a relief package to cushion the impact of COVID-19 that includes a mixture of food aid, waiver for one month’s rent and school fees, discounts in utility bills and support for contribution to the social security fund, among others.
Whether this help will reach the most vulnerable internal migrants and their evolving needs will depend on its proper implementation. Similarly, some overseas Nepali workers face the prospect of being sent home to a country not adequately prepared to transport them back, and without enough quarantine facilities. The government and its embassies need to ensure that at least their basic food and lodging needs are sufficiently covered.
A Nepali who works as a ground handler has seen flights airlifting foreigners from Nepal land at Doha airport. He wonders when he will be similarly repatriated. His work is relatively safe, but other Nepali friends have riskier jobs as cabin cleaners or work in customer service with whom he shares his room.
Over the phone, his voice sounds worried: “Ideally, I would like to go home. I can always earn in the future. But if I don’t live, how will I earn?”