ABSENCE makes the heart grow fonder, as some might say.
But for couples separated in different countries during the pandemic, it is getting tiring to be apart.
The sharp spike in Covid-19 cases here is also not an encouraging sign.
Malaysia’s borders have been closed since March 18, when the movement control order (MCO) was enforced and will stay that way until the end of 2020.
At present, the government allows foreign spouses and children of Malaysian citizens to enter Malaysia upon application, but there is no ruling made on unmarried couples.
“It is unclear on how the government can categorise this group for now.
“But we have never stopped those who are legally married from entering or leaving Malaysia.
“Their application is however subject to approval from the Immigration Department,” Senior Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob tells Sunday Star.
Nevertheless, a group of Malaysians who are separated from their loved ones abroad – including unmarried couples and those planning to wed – want the government to allow them to be reunited, possibly under “sweetheart visas”.
So far, some countries in Europe like Germany, Austria, Norway and Denmark, have introduced “sweetheart visas”, which exempt couples from the travel ban.
This is following calls from the “Love Is Not Tourism” global movement to reunite binational couples and families who are kept apart in the pandemic.
Representatives from Love Is Not Tourism Malaysia recently started an online petition that has garnered over 11,000 signatures to ask the government to allow such reunions.
Aside from writing to the Prime Minister, they have met Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri on Sept 21, who said she would try to bring the matter forward to the government.
In the meantime, Love Is Not Tourism Malaysia representative Khanusha Shereen Neesha says its 1,700 member-strong group will continue advocating their cause.
“We’re all making sacrifices to fight the coronavirus, but we refuse to lose our human rights in the process - to get married or be with our loved ones.
“We understand it’s a logistical challenge to arrange all the quarantine and testing capacity for incoming travellers so there is a limit to the number of people who can arrive every day,” she says.
Khanusha says while the group understands that the government can’t open borders for everyone anytime soon, it is unreasonable to expect Malaysians to live without their partners or children for months.
“It may soon be even more than a year for many.
“We will continue to create awareness regarding this stressful situation and hopefully this will help expedite the response from certain authorities,” she adds.
“The sweetheart visa is a great solution which has been implemented by other countries.
“With clear SOPs and requirements as evidence to the authorities to prove the relationship is valid, there is no reason why Malaysia can’t implement the same strategy for couples separated,” she says.
Khanusha suggests that genuine, unmarried relationships can be proven in Malaysia in the same way as other countries with sweetheart visas do.
“The government can choose requirements for how long people have to have been in a relationship, how often or how long they have to have met in real life to be eligible to apply.
“Couples then have to fill in a form with their personal details, how long they’ve been in a relationship, the dates and places of their meetings and sign that under penalty of perjury (the offence of lying under oath).
“In addition, they have to provide supporting documents to prove the meetings and length of relationship mentioned in the form are true,” she explains.
Examples of such documents are flight tickets, passport stamps, pictures together, chat and call history, shared rental agreements or bank accounts from previously living together, cancelled wedding arrangements and so on.
Based on a survey done among 550 couples in the group, 38.4% are engaged and plan to marry as soon as possible.
Another 32.4% plan to marry later, while 8% are married but have yet to register their union in Malaysia.
Of the 211 engaged couples, 92 cancelled their weddings due to the travel ban.
Another 52 couples, who plan to marry between now and Dec 31, will cancel their nuptials if the ban continues.
The time apart has taken a toll on emotional and mental health, as the group found that 92.2% of its survey respondents suffer from stress due to the prolonged separation from their partners.
Some 71.8% have difficulty sleeping, 69.8% suffer from excessive fear, worry or anxiety.
More worryingly, 20.7% say they have had suicidal thoughts.
Malaysian Mental Health Association president Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj says such separation can induce powerful negative emotions such as anguish, despair, blame leading to feelings of uncertainty and isolation.
“It is important to prioritise positive coping strategies during this time to preserve good mental health.
“Failing which, they will be prone to developing psychological symptoms such as anxiety and clinical depression,” he says, adding that the government must come up with solutions to the problems faced by separated couples.
Extraordinary times such as this pandemic also requires some flexibility in enforcing rules, as long as precautions against Covid-19 are taken, adds Dr Andrew.
“This is the time to give hope and show compassion without putting up barriers to couples seeking to be reunited with each other,” he says.
On his advice to those affected by the separation, Dr Andrew urges them not to neglect their emotional and physical health.
“We must accept that some things are beyond our control. The pain is real but so is hope.
“Coming out of this pandemic may take some time, but restrictions will ease and separated couples will once again be able to travel and see each other,” he says.
Despite the uncertainty, it is good to plan for the future and think about how to spend time together when the opportunity to be reunited materialises.
“It is important to focus on the things we are able to control rather than be engrossed with things that are beyond our control.
“Maintaining a routine and keeping a busy schedule will also help cope with loneliness,” he advises.
Those struggling to cope mentally or having symptoms of overwhelming anxiety or depression should seek professional help before it is too late.For emotional support, call Befrienders Kuala Lumpur’s 24-hour helpline at 03-76272929 or visit befrienders.org.my
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