I was watching the news as businesses were busy preparing for their “freedom day” reopenings. People were being interviewed about what they were looking forward to in the coming days.
A few young people said they were excited to attend concerts, go clubbing and finally watch movies in the cinema again. A couple said they were looking forward to attending a wedding with 100 people and seeing old friends again at the party.
I feel estranged from the term “freedom day” – I work for organisations catering to East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) migrants in the UK, including undocumented migrants. Their battle with the effects of Covid is far from over. Many undocumented migrants are too afraid to get the vaccine or get tested for the virus, as it means exposing themselves to the UK’s hostile environment.
ESEA communities in the UK have been deeply affected by the pandemic, from the increase of Covid-related hate crimes towards them to those who have been stuck in limbo over their immigration statuses. Then there is the high proportion of Filipino healthcare workers, some of whom have died fighting Covid.
My husband is one of the thousands of Filipinos in the UK working relentlessly for the NHS throughout the surge of coronavirus patients. During the height of the pandemic, he would come home exhausted, some of his colleagues were infected by the virus, he felt vulnerable wearing the inadequate protective equipment provided to him.
The pandemic has also taken a toll on his mental health – he wakes in the middle of the night, screaming due to nightmares and flashbacks of patients he’s seen die from coronavirus. Sometimes he talks in his sleep – he asks for oxygen and medication as if he is on hospital duty.
Becoming Forest is a community-oriented healing project I work with at SEEAC (Southeast and East Asian Centre), it builds solidarity circles of care around ESEA refugees and precarious migrants. The organisation focuses on mental health issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. I frequently meet participants who are undocumented migrants. One of them is Myrna, who is cheerful, devoutly religious and arrived in the UK around 20 years ago. She’s open and often shares her struggles – she lives in fear and uncertainty, due to her immigration status.
Myrna works part-time to make ends meet, but the pandemic has worsened her already precarious situation. During one lockdown, she had no sense of taste and smell and was too frail to work. Despite her ailing condition, she was reluctant to go to the GP to access healthcare or even get tested for Covid. She was frightened and anxious that she might get reported to the Home Office and get deported. For two months, she suffered the effects of Covid-19 alone, unable to work, with no income and unable to afford her rent. Luckily, the Filipino organisation Kanlungan provided her with vouchers for food.
Myrna is just one of the thousands of undocumented migrants who’ve suffered in silence with Covid, and struggled to access the Covid vaccine. Without an NHS number, it’s almost impossible to get health treatment. She had to make the decision to tackle Covid alone or face potential deportation.
When the NHS announced that undocumented migrants could register at a GP to access the vaccine without documents or ID, members of our organisation convinced her to get the vaccine. She prayed for days to find the courage to go to the doctor.
On the day of her vaccine, staff from the GP asked for proof of address – she became anxious, but remained composed and told officials that she was told she could access the vaccine without a proof of address. She got her first dose and was scheduled for her second vaccine. She encouraged some of her friends with the same immigration status to do the same, but they refused, too scared of the consequences.
Our community coordinators in SEEAC are constantly reaching out to Southeast Asian communities in the UK, asking about their current situation, providing them with translated vaccine information, and accompanying them to the GPs or to pop-up clinics. Despite these efforts, some still prefer not to get vaccinated.
I also work with East and Southeast Asian Scotland (ESAS). A large number of this community didn’t come here by choice – they were trafficked to the UK, some as children. Like Myrna, most of them are undocumented, have no access to healthcare, and are hesitant to get tested and treated for Covid.
The pandemic has exposed the effects of the hostile environment on undocumented migrants in the UK, many are needlessly suffering in silence in the UK.
ESEA organisations are tirelessly working to bridge the gap between government policy and the effect it has on migrants. We will only get a firm grip on the virus when the majority of people living in the UK are vaccinated – for this to happen we need better assurances from the government that undocumented immigrants will not be punished for protecting themselves and the wider community.
Dianne Magbanua is the communication officer at Southeast and East Asian Centre and the digital communication officer at East and Southeast Asian Scotland
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