Only two Bangladeshi migrant workers died from Covid-19 in Singapore till December 2020, while 1,254 died in the Gulf countries during the period, revealed a recent research.
In the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, at least 2,223 Covid-19 deaths among nearly 80 lakh South Asian migrant workers were reported, while only two deaths were documented from 1.91 lakh of such workers in Singapore, according the report titled "Covid-19 Death Disparities Among International Migrant Workers of South Asian origin: A Comparative Study between the Gulf Cooperation Countries and Singapore."
The rate of Covid-19 deaths per million of South Asian migrant workers in the Gulf countries is 27 times higher than that in Singapore, said the report published in the Journal of Global Health Economics and Policy on 5 October.
Besides, 93% of all cases reported in Singapore were migrant workers, while the rate was 76% in Saudi Arabia, revealed the report.
"Because of poor living conditions, the number of international migrant workers infected with Covid-19 was disproportionately high compared to the local populations in both settings," said Dr M Sorowar Hossain, the executive director of Biomedical Research Foundation, Bangladesh.
The GCC includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait that host around 3.5 crore migrant workers, representing 10% of the global migrant workers, according to the International Labour Organisation.
According to an unofficial estimate, around 50 lakh Bangladeshis are working in the Gulf states and 1.5 lakh in Singapore.
Both settings (Singapore and GCC countries) have similarities in terms of economy (similar GDP per capita), destination of healthy and young adult migrant workers mostly from South Asian countries who are often engaged in energy-intensive construction and domestic works.
Around 2,700 Bangladeshi have died due to covid-19 infection in various countries of the world till June this year, according to the Brac Migration Program, which uses data provided by Bangladeshi missions abroad, media reports and migrant communities. Among them, the highest around 1,200 died in the KSA.
Why such a high number of migrant deaths in Gulf countries
In the GCC countries, employers are supposed to provide basic healthcare services to regular migrant workers. However, domestic workers and irregular migrants, a significant proportion of migrants, are largely ignored in healthcare insurance due to the existing policy and regulations.
Around 22 lakh Bangladeshis are working in Saudi, according to an unofficial estimate.
Syed Saiful Haque, chairman, Welfare Association for the Rights of Bangladeshi Emigrants (WARBE) Development Foundation, told TBS, "When we interviewed the Bangladeshi migrants in the Middle East, they complained about not getting proper treatment especially in Saudi. Even, many employers never cared to enquire after them."
"The irregular workers are the main victims in any disastrous situation like Covid-19 as they avoid taking treatment publicly," he added.
"An estimated 10-15% of international migrant workers are irregular migrants in the GCC countries. They try to hide in fear of legal action. As a consequence, it is likely that irregular migrants and domestic workers suffering from Covid-19 complications would report to the hospital as late as possible. This delayed presentation might contribute to disproportionate mortality rates in the GCC countries," reads the research article.
Besides, cultural and linguistic barriers augmented by the lockdown and curfew measures might have also contributed to the delay in reporting the Covid-19 cases, it added.
However, Md Aminul Islam, Bangladesh labour counsellor in Jeddah, Saudi Arab, told TBS, "The Covid-19 treatment in KSA was free for both illegal and legal workers.''
Acknowledging the higher number of deaths in Saudi Arabia, he said, "Perhaps, a large portion of the illegal migrants did not come to avail treatment despite the government announcement of free treatment for all."
According to the report, Singapore has relatively less problems with the issue of irregular migrants because of transparent and proper implementation of immigration laws and regulations and recruiting process.
In addition to that, Singapore managed the Covid-19 situation by adopting a multilingual communication strategy and by setting up an onsite healthcare facility, making it accessible to all migrant workers.
"Around 47% of all migrant workers were infected in Singapore, but only 25 of them required ICU support. These well-executed rapid responses might have contributed to lower mortality in the country," said Dr M Sorowar Hossain, who is also an associate professor at Independent University, Bangladesh.
In contrast, higher prevalence of co-morbidities resulting from adapted new lifestyles in the Gulf countries (consuming junk food and lack of physical activities) could be a factor that contributed to the high number of deaths of migrant workers there.
Referring to a recent study, the researchers said migrant workers had significantly higher risks of obesity, hypertension, and depression in the GCC countries compared to the non-migrants of the origin countries.
Another recent research titled "Disparities in excess deaths from the Covid-19 Pandemic among Migrant Workers in Kuwait", published on 14 September in BMC Public Health, also reported an unusually high number of Covid-19 deaths among the migrant workers in Kuwait.
"That report's findings seem consistent with our study," said Dr Sorowar.