Toothache as existential crisis

Posted by on April 5, 2012 in Articles, Stories

By Xinlin

Basir Ullah is a stout man with an easy smile. However, when he came to TWC2 last Tuesday, it was not a smile but a face contorted in pain that we saw. He had a bad toothache in his right jaw which had been troubling him for the past two months. Lately, however, the pain had become so great that simple things like eating and drinking would cause him distress.

“When rice go into teeth,” said Basir Ullah as he tapped against his jaw, “very pain – I cry.”

For a while, Basir took care to chew only on his left side and sleep on his left side too, but the pain progressed, spreading to his right eye and ear, giving him a migraine. Over-the-counter painkillers and drinking salt water helped, but these measures were effective for only two or three hours.

He had already been miserable for over a year. On 28 February 2011, Basir Ullah suffered a back injury that left him unable to work. For the past one year, he has been receiving treatment and physiotherapy, but he has also been jobless. A condition of the Special Pass issued by the Ministry of Manpower is that he cannot work.

Nor can he go back to Bangladesh, as the treatment and work injury compensation process directs that he should remain in Singapore until investigation is complete. Left with neither a job nor an income to support himself, Basir Ullah did not have the means to pay for dental treatment.

So that Tuesday night, he came to see TWC2 treasurer Alex Au at the soup kitchen operated by the organisation.

“Sir, I need to see dentist,” Basir said, wincing in pain and trying his best to hide his tears, “but I no money.”

Thanks to donors, TWC2 has a Care Fund just for such purposes. This fund is used to help pay for urgent medical treatment in circumstances where getting employers to pay may prove very difficult.

In Basir’s case, his toothache was not work-related, having no connection with his back injury (which was). While getting his ex-employer to pay for his dental treatment might be theoretically feasible — the Ministry of Manpower has explained (in other cases) that a condition of the Security Bond put up by employers included providing medical care even for non-work-related healthcare needs — the prospect of waiting weeks to process such a request would be cruel to a man who was already in agony.

Alex straight away gave the nod to classify Basir’s dental emergency as a Care Fund case. With that green light, Muni Roger, a senior case help volunteer, took him to a dental clinic nearby and negotiated a rate. Unfortunately, it was late and the clinic was closing, so Basir’s appointment had to be made for the next morning. Muni then passed Basir the money he would need to pay the clinic after the treatment.

Three days later, Alex came to the soup kitchen again. Basir was in a cheery mood, and posed cheekily for the picture above, trying to show the hole where the tooth had been extracted. He was also eating happily without too much difficulty.

The bill came to $90, for which the clinic had issued a receipt, which Basir passed to TWC2 for our records.

To the donors to TWC2’s Care Fund, Basir Ullah is one man for whom you’ve made a difference.

The donors to TWC2’s Cuff Road Project (which provides the free meals) also made a difference, for two reasons: Firstly, Basir Ullah has been helped with daily meals ever since he lost his job;  secondly, as explained by Alex: “Since he was on the meal program, TWC2 had every confidence that when we gave him the money to go to the dentist, he would not run away with it. If he had, he would be embarrassed to come for his meals ever again. We could trust him precisely because he was on the meals programme.”

Yet, this simple case of a toothache presents a larger, more troubling issue: when a back injury treatment and compensation process takes so long, how does a person like Basir Ullah survive the wait? To leave a man stranded here without giving him a basic monthly allowance is to take away the independence of a person to support himself, and to strip away his very dignity, reducing him to begging for help. The longer it is for one to stay in Singapore without the monetary means to be self-sufficient, the more likely it is for simple daily problems like a toothache becoming a major issue.

Basir Ullah’s story asks a crucial question: Why can’t we design a better system?

TWC2 is an organization that is dedicated to assisting low-wage migrant workers when they are in difficulty. We are motivated by a sense of fairness and humanity, though our caseload often exceeds our

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