Hani Bin Sha'ari spent more than two decades rising through the ranks at STMicroelectronics NV's facility in Malaysia. He prided himself on working hard to provide for his wife and four children. So when the chip plant remained open through a spike in COVID-19 infections last year, he kept doing his job.
Then one morning in July, the 43-year-old woke up with a fever. His wife, Nancy, took him to a local clinic, requesting a coronavirus test because of infections at the plant. The results came back positive. Hani was soon quarantined in a hospital. He lost so much weight he started avoiding video calls so as not to alarm his family. When the couple spoke by phone later, Hani was out of breath and she urged him to rest. It was their last conversation.
Hani was one of at least 20 workers at STMicro's facility in the Malaysian district of Muar who died from COVID-19 after the delta variant raged through the country last year. That spike in cases in Malaysia crimped the auto industry's microchip pipeline last summer, just as automakers in Asia, North America and Europe had begun to hope they had seen the worst of the 2021 chip shortage.
Authorities in Malaysia, as in many other countries, were concerned about keeping their economy on track during the pandemic, and they granted chipmakers exemptions while much of the country locked down.
STMicro kept its chip assembly and testing plant running as the company raced to meet surging demand from automakers and other customers.
"I'm really upset, because if ST shut down the plant when people were getting infected in June, I don't think my husband would have died," said Nancy.
COVID-19 has killed millions of people around the globe, and the toll continues to climb. In Malaysia, 1 in 1,100 people died from the virus since the start of the pandemic, according to the country's Ministry of Health. But deaths at the Muar chip facility were substantially higher, amounting to 1 in 210, according to Bloomberg News reporting.
STMicro declined to comment on the specific number of workers who have died at the Muar location.
"Since the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020, ST's actions and strategy have been driven first and utmost by the will to maximize the prevention of infection and supporting our employees and their families," the company said in a statement to Bloomberg News. "To do so, the company deployed a broad range of measures in close collaboration with the relevant public health authorities in every country it operates, and also relied on expert third-party guidance."