Covid-19 Recurs Among Singapore’s Migrant Workers

Island republic forced to open new front against Coronavirus

Photo Credit: Bloomberg

Singapore, whose authorities have led one of the globe’s most successful campaigns against the Covid-19 coronavirus, has awakened to the disturbing concern that the disease hasn’t been conquered, and in fact has recurred, with 287 new cases on April 9, followed by 198 on April 11 and one new death, bringing the total to a still-minuscule seven with 2,108 infections at the time of writing.

The infection appears to be centered in the island republic’s foreign workforce, which numbers 1.3 million in a total population of 5.07 million, with 200,000 of them from China, the original source of the coronavirus infestation.

Although among those 1.3 million émigrés are multinational businessmen, foreign bankers and other professionals, there are 250,000 maids primarily from the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries.  On any typical day, it is not uncommon to see foreign workers from India, China, Bangladesh and other countries building new housing blocks, working in shipyards, or on their days off relaxing in Little India, Kallang or on the thoroughfares of Chinatown.  

Open Borders a Mistake

Now authorities have awakened to the grim reality that keeping open borders may have been a mistake. More than half the new cases have occurred in foreign worker dormitories, which are emerging as the flashpoint. The elegant skyscrapers and sparkling streets in the central business district are a far cry from the cramped wooden dormitories where construction and other manual laborers live in discernibly unsanitary conditions typified by overflowing trash cans and toilets that Amnesty International once called “a recipe for disaster.”

Many of them, according to a report by the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin, “have to endure abuse, discrimination and violations of their rights but few can obtain legal redress. Their movements, behavior and even their ‘moral conduct' are tightly controlled by their bosses, who can terminate their employment and send them back to China at any time and without any justification."

Health care is Spartan at best.  A call center established by the government-linked Peoples’ Association with the Ministry of Defense to facilitate the distribution of disinfectant masks excluded foreign workers.

Their plight and their treatment have triggered protest, including from Tommy Koh, the influential former ambassador the United Nations, who said their predicament  “should be 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 former President, Wee Kim Wee, said in the 1990s that the country demonstrated what he called “mean-spiritedness” toward foreign workers.

Their plight now presents the single most difficult question for Singapore’s leaders.

Ring-fencing them in their dormitories would almost certainly backfire and replicate what Paul Tambyah, chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party and president of the Asia-Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, called a “Diamond Princess-kind of situation,” in reference to the stricken cruise ship anchored off Japan at the height of the crisis that resulted in 712 cases of the coronavirus, ultimately with 11 deaths. 

"You'll prevent the people [outside the dormitory] from getting it, but it will just spread through the population until you reach saturation point," Tambyah told Al-Jazeera.

Although plans are afoot to disperse foreign workers into military barracks, floating hotel, and convention centers, they are not eligible for the financial support given to Singaporeans in a budget statement delivered by the nation’s Deputy Prime Minister on 25th March, leaving them without incomes. Worse, most can’t afford airfares to fly back to their home countries as flights have been canceled. Social distancing is problematic for most migrant workers, live in crowded, congested quarters making that practice absolutely difficult to enforce, unless authorities install cameras in their dormitories, which is likely to be resisted fiercely.

The World Health Organization has recommended that crowded spaces like these “pose transmission risks for everyone,” probably no more than Singapore’s migrant workers in these conditions.

Two Fronts

As matters stand, the government is fighting the virus on two fronts: one with the general population at large, and the other with its migrant population.

Though virus infections with the general population have somewhat abated, the challenge in dealing with its migrant population is considerably more complex. Most have very little education. Their medical history and records are not known for Singapore doctors to study, undermining effective prescriptions. Added to that are cultural and linguistic barriers. Many if not most need to repay huge debts incurred from agents who arranged for their jobs and travel.

But the real question is just how effective are social distancing and forced isolation. The broadsheet daily Straits Times reported on April 6 that Singapore will step up testing, presumably of migrant workers, a Herculean task that will take a month or more to complete.

“We will always be behind the curve at such inadequate testing rates,”said a statement from the Singapore-based NGO Transient Workers Count Too.

While Manpower Minister Josephine Teo has pledged to pay migrant workers’ quarantine leave, the ministry’s employment laws do not provide for paid hospitalization, leaving the workers in a bind.