Health experts: Spraying migrants with disinfectant unscientific defence against Covid-19, likely to cause harm instead

Health experts: Spraying migrants with disinfectant unscientific defence against Covid-19, likely to cause harm instead

Immigration Department personnel round up foreign workers during a raid on a construction site in Cyberjaya June 6, 2021. — Picture by Hari Anggara
Immigration Department personnel round up foreign workers during a raid on a construction site in Cyberjaya June 6, 2021. — Picture by Hari Anggara

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KUALA LUMPUR, June 10 — A recent video depicting officers from the Immigration Department rounding up migrants in Cyberjaya, Selangor for a mass disinfection exercise to prevent the spread of Covid-19 drew consternation from public health advocates.

Three health experts who weighed in said the treatment of the migrants was demeaning and the disinfection method used, unnecessary.

They said spraying an individual with disinfectant directly onto their bodies is not a proven way of killing bacteria; adding that those who inhale it may harm their internal organs.

Head of the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy Azrul Mohd Khalib said efforts to prevent Covid-19 from spreading should be guided by the science and evidence of what works to be effective.

He emphasised that cleanliness and hygiene are extremely important, and that it has been widely known since July 2020 at least, that disinfection exercises have little or no impact on the transmission of Covid-19.

“It means that there is no need to implement indoor or outdoor sanitation.

“It also means that there is no benefit or effect gained from spraying people directly with disinfectant. Instead, it will likely be harmful or dangerous to the individual.

“Direct spraying of disinfectant on people this way is not only demeaning and degrading, it also violates human dignity, and has no clear, demonstrable benefit to prevent Covid-19 infection,” Azrul told Malay Mail.

The Immigration Department inspected 202 migrants during an integrated operation at a migrant settlement in Cyberjaya last Monday night. It released 46 who had legal documents and detained 156 others who had none.

Its director-general Datuk Khairul Dzaimee Daud said the immigrants were from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar and India. This included 12 women and two children.

A video taken during the raid that has since gone viral on social media showed immigration officers spraying a liquid — later identified as Dettol — directly onto the immigrants’ heads and hands. The Immigration Department later posted its own video on Twitter showing its officers also getting sprayed with Dettol.

The videos were widely condemned and many internet users labelled the action inhumane, predicting that such raids will only make the immigrants run away and hide.

“For Covid-19 protection, these actions are uncalled for,” said former Malaysian Medical Association president Dr N. Ganabaskaran.

“Dettol is an antiseptic useful for washing hands and body while bathing. It should be used like a solution or lotion.

“The bigger issue would be the migrants that are now scared and will run away from the authorities. There’s supposedly 2.5 million undocumented migrants so the moment they start going after them, they will hide and it’ll then be harder to achieve herd immunity,” Dr Ganabaskaran said when contacted.

He suggested that a way to encourage undocumented immigrants to step up and get themselves vaccinated would be for the authorities to waive taking legal action.

For president of the Malaysian Pharmacists Society, Amrahi Buang, blaming one another or calling out each other now would not be wise.

He suggested sticking to the guidelines from the Ministry of Health (MOH) and World Health Organisation (WHO).

Amrahi said the focus when conducting large scale operations should be on hygiene and adherence to SOPs.

“Go back to basics. Use the guiding principles from WHO and MoH but both parties must be synchronised.

“When we do these raids if their personal hygiene looks bad then give them some space, provide a toilet and some water to clean up and then immediately vaccinate them,” said Amrahi.

“If you spray them and there’s too much of it, it can cause a lot of harm as there are a lot of chemicals in it which are not diluted properly and can be harmful. It’ll cause irritations and so on.

“Besides at the end of the day they are human too, so treat them as human beings.”

The Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) too has spoken out against the government’s strong-arm treatment of the undocumented migrants, warning that such methods will complicate efforts to curb Covid-19.

MMA president Datuk Dr Subramaniam Muniandy said spraying Dettol directly on the rounded up migrants is not part of the standard operating procedures from the National Security Council or the Health Ministry.

“Undocumented migrants are one of the most important groups to vaccinate. If half of the Malaysians in the country have yet to register for the vaccine, imagine the enormous challenge it will be to get the two to three million undocumented migrant workers vaccinated.

“We may not achieve herd immunity if we fail in our efforts to vaccinate our significantly high migrant worker population,” he said in a statement yesterday.

He added that to get both documented and undocumented migrant workers to cooperate, the authorities need to first start treating them like human beings

Prior to the Monday night Immigration raid, the Academy of Medicine of Malaysia (AAM) called on the government to prioritise Covid-19 interventions that will help reduce cases, as well as protect hospitals and intensive care facilities during the full-scale lockdown.

It criticised the practice of public sanitation which was first carried out in March last year, adding that there is no evidence of its efficacy.

AAM supported Universiti Malaya infectious diseases expert Prof Dr Adeeba Kamarulzama who also told the government that the resources used on the outdoor disinfection exercise would be better spent elsewhere.

In a tweet, Dr Adeeba had said that the resources spent on the exercise could be better channelled towards personal protective equipment, high flow nasal cannulas, ventilators, oxygen saturation meters and food for volunteers, among other things.

Following that, the political secretary to Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin criticised her for questioning the ministry’s public sanitisation initiative by calling it a “waste of resource”.

Nor Hizwan Ahmad said the public sanitisation initiative was an effort that was approved by the government as part of efforts to minimise the risks of Covid-19 infections in public places.

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