Sat, May 17, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Epidemic mirrors class distinctions

By Lan Pei-chia 藍佩嘉

The SARS virus has no eyes, and our bodies are pretty much the same regardless of our class. Wherever there are weaknesses, the virus can invade. Nevertheless, in the transmission of the virus as well as in channels for disease prevention, there are differences between people arising due to variations in the quantity of social resources they can afford.

Those who have higher incomes can obtain more complete and accurate information and have more resources to protect themselves (eg channels for buying high-quality surgical masks and use of private vehicles instead of taking public transportation). People from relatively disadvantaged social groups, especially foreign workers and the homeless, lack sufficient information and resources to protect themselves.

In the battle against SARS, they have become the ones who are sacrificed on the front lines and become suspected of being dangerous transmitters of the disease.

Four foreign caregivers have lost their lives due to SARS. They died on the job, but their passing received no accolades. Such a high number shows that the work of foreign caregivers exposes them to a high degree of risk. The patients they accompany and care for are frequently in the hospital or visit hospitals regularly.

Generally, these caregivers work year round with no vacation and are on call 24 hours a day. Caregivers are positioned at the bottom reaches of the health-care system. They have long-term, direct contact with patients, but unlike other health-care workers, they lack the professional equipment and training that could give them appropriate protection.

Even more unfortunate is that because they work in a foreign land, most of them can not obtain sufficient information to understand SARS and protect themselves because of the language barrier or lack of access to the media.

For foreign maids and caregivers who work in their employers' homes, the Monday through Saturday work week is like living under quarantine. Only on their time off on Sunday can they come out for some fresh air, see a few friends and enjoy a brief moment of freedom. Public spaces such as train stations become their "home," where they can feel truly at ease. Under attack from SARS, they have been forced to abandon such gathering places to avoid the risk of exposure to the virus.

The Foreign Worker's Counseling Centers in each city and county should quickly draw up and disseminate information about SARS in foreign workers' native languages as well as provide surgical masks in order to help them establish effectively protection themselves.

In recent weeks, we have also heard that some employers use the SARS threat as a justification to prohibit their foreign workers from taking time off, and at the same time, they have not paid their workers overtime as stipulated by law.

Taking time off is a basic human right of workers. It should not be forcibly taken away from them. Employers should instead provide sufficient information to their workers and suggest that they go to relatively safe open spaces. This will allow foreign workers to increase their immun-ity to disease through rest and at the same time protect employers themselves from infection.

The homeless people in Taipei's Wanhua District have also been considered dangerous disease carriers who could ignite a local outbreak of SARS. These people on the margins of society are unable to live a mainstream life because of job loss, mental illness, abandonment by their families, or some other factor. For a long time they have been solitary figures going unnoticed by the general public. But suddenly, in the midst of the panic over SARS, they have been put under the spotlight and have become a pariah.

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