Separated by coronavirus, Malaysian mothers in Singapore freeze breast milk for babies at home

Joseph Campbell and Daveena Kaur, Reuters

Posted at May 15 2020 03:37 PM

A Malaysian mother who is residing in Singapore checks in her frozen breastmilk to be delivered back to Malaysia for her child, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Singapore May 11, 2020. Picture taken May 11, 2020. Edgar Su, Reuters

SINGAPORE/JOHOR BARU, Malaysia - Before the outbreak of coronavirus this year, Malaysian accountant Jazerel See used to travel regularly between her country's southern state of Johor and neighboring Singapore where she worked, going home once a week to her parents and her 7-month-old boy.

But after Malaysia banned citizens from travelling overseas in mid-March in a bid to stem the coronavirus outbreak, See and hundreds of other Malaysian women were cut off from their families if they wished to continue working, and unable to breastfeed their newborn children.

See said the women, communicating via social media, then pooled together funds to ship supplies of frozen breast milk to their babies back home.

"We sought help from all the mummies and we tried to save and share the cost, because it's not really cheap to send back the milk," 32-year-old See told Reuters.

In Johor Baru town, her mother Wai Lan Moy said: "(I like that the baby) is drinking her mother's breast milk, because drinking breast milk is better for the baby's immune system. It's easier to take care (of the baby) that way."

An estimated half a million Malaysians live and work in Singapore, with thousands commuting regularly to the wealthy city-state from Johor.

Although Malaysia allowed citizens to return, they have to undergo two weeks of quarantine. Many of those working in Singapore were reluctant to go back fearing the spread of the virus as well as the risk of losing their jobs. Singapore also set up restrictions of its own in late March, barring or quarantining visitors.

"If I go back (to Malaysia) now, I might bring back the virus," See said. "I keep telling myself to just bear it for a moment to ensure a better future."

So far, four shipments totaling about 7,000 kilograms of milk have been sent from 200 mothers in Singapore, Johor state lawmaker Andrew Chen Kah Eng said. Such a shipment has never been made before, he said.

"I talk to officers from CIQ (Customs, Immigration and Quarantine), they have never done that before, even from agriculture department, ministry of health and also customs, they have never done that before.

"They are willing to help."

Singapore has among the highest number of coronavirus infections in Asia, with more than 26,000 cases, mainly due to outbreaks in cramped migrant-worker dormitories.

Malaysia had the highest number of cases in Southeast Asia until mid-April but the daily rise in infections has steadily declined since the curbs were imposed, with a total of around 6,800 reported so far.