Singapore has been consistently praised by the international press for how it has contained the spread of COVID-19. However, during the first week of April 2020, this country registered a dramatic increase in the number of infections, which have mainly affected migrant workers. This situation has raised concern about possible neglect of migrant workers about how the Singaporean government is acting in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On April 7, the Government announced that it would impose a “short circuit”, which would put the entire country – along with its 5.7 million inhabitants – under confinement. Singapore's Minister of Health stated:
We need to apply brakes, hard brakes, to slow the transmission. This is what we mean by a circuit breaker. Enhanced safe distancing is necessary to significantly reduce movement and interactions in both public and private places.
We need to squeeze the brake, hard brakes, to slow down the spread. This is what we mean by a short circuit. It is necessary to reinforce a safe distance to significantly reduce social mobilization and interaction in public and private spaces.
On April 21, the Prime Minister declared that the “short circuit” period would last until June 1.
As of April 24, Singapore had registered 12 075 cases of COVID-19, of which almost 80% were foreign workers living in dormitories. Singapore now concentrates the largest number of COVID-19 cases in all of Southeast Asia, although the Government claims that this high number is because they have been forcefully and comprehensively tested.
Singapore is home to more than 300,000 licensed workers who live in dormitories. Most are men who come from South Asian countries like Bangladesh and India. They live in bedrooms with bunk beds that hold 12 to 20 people, making social distancing difficult.
Suddenly, many of these bedrooms have become clusters of COVID-19. Workers cannot leave, as the government sent doctors to do screening tests and implemented quarantine procedures.
Singapore quarantined nearly 20,000 workers in two dormitories after they were linked to at least 90 coronavirus infections. Migrant workers living in these camps say they are like a coronavirus time bomb waiting to explode https://t.co/BppsWDV1RT pic.twitter.com/liQSkdS2Hq
– Reuters (@Reuters) April 7, 2020
Singapore quarantined nearly 20,000 workers in two dormitories, after they were associated with at least 90 cases of coronavirus. Migrant workers living in these camps say they are a time bomb (coronavirus) about to explode.
A controversy arose when the decision was made to maintain a separate category of COVID-19 patients living in these dormitories. Coconuts, an independent news platform for Southeast Asia, reported:
The government has also made the controversial decision to keep separate tallies: one for migrant workers, and one for Singaporean citizens and permanent residents. It has been accused of “othering” the migrant population, especially by euphemistically referring to citizens and residents as “the community.”
The government also made the controversial decision to keep separate records: one for migrant workers and one for Singapore citizens and permanent residents. It has been accused of a “process of alterization or otherness” (N. of T. alterization is the process by which the foreign migrant is represented in a problematic and negative way) towards the migrant population, especially when using euphemisms to refer to the citizens and residents as the “community”.
On April 13, the Singaporean Ministry of Labor carried out a sanitary inspection to assess the sanitary conditions of the factories that were adapted as dormitories:
Minor lapses were found in 57 FCDs, with the most prevalent issue being a lack of sickbays and isolation areas. The cleanliness levels of some of these FCDs were also found to be unacceptable.
Minor failures were detected in the 57 adapted factories as inspected dorms. The most recurrent problems were the lack of infirmaries and isolation zones. The level of cleanliness was also found in some to be unacceptable.
Labor Minister Josephine Teo responded to the criticism and said that the government should have carried out the COVID-19 screening tests in the dormitories since February:
Because at that time, healthy workers were going to hospitals in droves to ask for tests. The worry was that thousands would show up and overwhelm healthcare workers.
Because back then, healthy workers flocked to hospitals to order tests. The concern was that thousands would start arriving and that health workers would be overwhelmed by demand.
In a televised speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong assured migrant workers that the government would not abandon them:
To our migrant workers, let me emphasize again: we will care for you, just like we care for Singaporeans. We thank you for your cooperation during this difficult period. We will look after your health, your welfare and your livelihood. We will work with your employers to make sure that you get paid, and you can send money home. And we will help you stay in touch with friends and family.
To our migrant workers, I reiterate that we will take care of them just as we take care of all Singaporeans. Our thanks for your cooperation during this difficult situation. We will take care of your health, well-being and livelihood. We will work with your employers to make sure they get paid so they can send money home. We will also help them keep in touch with their families and friends.
The NGO Transient Workers Count Too has been providing assistance to dormitory workers. He informed the media and the public about those workers who had allegedly been locked up by their employers. He also reported on some workers, whose medical condition was not being adequately addressed because the Government had decided to focus on containing the spread of COVID-19. Finally, he contested the impression that workers are blamed for living in dirty bedrooms.
The point here is that structural constraints play a huge part in whether a place is clean or dirty. Design of spaces; density of habitation; controls over movement; work-life balance demanded of foreign workers, management systems and procedures – all these count.
It’s not the men. It’s the system. Before blaming the workers at the bottom of the heap, look at the caliber of the people sitting atop it.
The point here is that structural constraint plays a crucial role in whether a place is clean or dirty. Design of spaces, number of occupants, mobility control, as well as the balance between work and family that foreign workers were required plus the management systems and procedures – everything counts.
They are not these men. It is the system. Before we blame the workers at the bottom of the social ladder, we need to measure the caliber of the people who are above all else.
Lawyer and ex-diplomat Tommy Koh wrote on Facebook that the COVID-19 cases in the dorms should be a wake-up call for Singapore to better treat its workers:
The government has allowed their employers to transport them in flat bed trucks with no seats. They stay in overcrowded dormitories and are packed likes sardines with 12 persons to a room. The bedrooms are not clean or sanitary. The dormitories were like a time bomb waiting to explode. They have now exploded with many infected workers. Singapore should treat this as a wake up call to treat our indispensable foreign workers like a First World country should and not in the disgraceful way in which they are treated now.
The government has allowed employers to transport them in flatbed trucks without seats. They stay in saturated bedrooms because they put them in as if they were packing sardines: twelve people per room. These bedrooms are neither clean nor in sanitary conditions. They are a time bomb, which has already exploded with several infected workers. Singapore should see it as a wake-up call to treat our workers, who are indispensable, as a first-world country would, rather than treating them in such a disgraceful way.
Singaporean writer Kirsten Han tweeted that the problem “is both a public health issue, a humanitarian issue and a logistics issue”. In this reminder, he summarizes what both Singapore and other sectors of society should pay attention to:
18 / What should we learn from this? I think what we're seeing in #Singapore is that even if you do most things right, if you're not considering or proactively looking out for the most vulnerable and marginalized in your society, you're not going to effectively fight # COVID19.
– Kirsten Han 韩俐颖 is on a “circuit break” (@kixes) April 24, 2020
18 / What do we have to learn from this? I think what we are seeing in #Singapore (Singapore) is that even if you do the right thing almost always, if you do not proactively consider or care for the most vulnerable and most marginalized sectors of society, it will be impossible to effectively combat the # COVID19.