Migrant Worker Virus Spread Threatens Singapore’s Invincibility

An embarrassed government finally discovers its less-privileged

Photo Credit: Malay Mail

Singapore has learned with a shock the cost of ignoring the health needs of the 650,000-odd foreign workers who toil largely unseen in the city-state. On April 21, the Ministry of Health announced 1,426 new cases of Covid-19, a huge increase that – assuredly only temporarily – left the tiny island republic, with 5.7 million residents, with the highest number of infections in Southeast Asia.

For all of its egalitarian pretensions, Singapore, to its intense embarrassment, has been exposed as not that much different from the sheikhdoms of the Middle East whose indolent moneyed classes are supported by tens of thousands of poorly-paid, poorly-housed and poorly cared for workers.

Only 16 of the newly-announced infections were of native Singaporeans or permanent residents, a dramatic indication of the difference in health care and surveillance between the gilded denizens of the sparkling, parklike residential estates contrasted with the dormitories filled with the workers who live in teeming barracks unobserved and uncared for. It is clear that there has been a fatal oversight in how health authorities screened for infections among people who largely remain invisible and how they registered and recorded them.

“Suddenly all these flossy Singaporeans woke up and realized that they had tens of thousands of darkies crammed into sardine cans breeding virus cases,” said a western businessman ironically. “These darkies are to be trotted out wherever there is the risk of sweat. The latest numbers show that among actual human beings the virus is hardly present. Among the darkies it is rising exponentially it seems.”

Authorities, as the technocratic society could be expected to do, have responded with a ferocious effort to clean up. According to an expatriate based in Singapore, “I think they are going to test every single migrant worker in the country.”

“We are going all out to suppress the virus outbreak in the foreign worker dormitories,” said Lawrence Wong, the National Development Minister and Second Minister for Finance. “It’s a massive undertaking involving many people on the front line including the Singapore Armed Forces and Police Force officers, officials from the Ministry of Manpower, healthcare doctors and nurses and many private sector partners including security firms like Certis Cisco and food caterers like the Singapore Airport Terminal Services.”

To do that, what the minister really wants is to ask all those teams to in effect raid the dormitories of the foreign workers and isolate and pull the infected ones away from the healthy, and to ensure their overall well-being. Workers are peremptorily being moved out of their quarters to new ones in a bid to stop the virus.

For weeks, the World Health Organization had made Singapore one of its poster children for the remarkable way it had approached control of the virus. In February it was one of the first countries to impose restrictions on those who had traveled to and from China and South Korea, where infections were spiking. It had a strict hospital and home quarantine for potentially infected patients and an extensive regime of tracing families and acquaintances with whom those patients have been in contact. Its text and mobile tracking system was deemed one of the first and best in the world.   

Unfortunately, the superb tracking system had nothing to do with the worker community, which hails mostly from India, Bangladesh and China, has long been overlooked and which is proving to be a lightning rod of a kind that Singapore’s technocrat power elite would prefer hot to have. The migrants, including construction workers and domestic maids, do jobs shunned by Singaporeans and many do not ever get the kind of treatment that can be deemed as fair, equitable and humane.

Remarkably, only 11 deaths have been reported among the 8,014 total infections recorded, one of the lowest percentages in the world and a testimony to the island’s medical system, perhaps as well to the fact that the vast majority of the workers are young and tend to have very mild cough/cold symptoms that are usually be picked up by temperature checks alone. 

“The teams, meaning the mentioned uniformed groups, are working doubly hard to sweep through the dorms and test the workers, and this is also the reason why we are seeing such high reported cases every day,” Wong said. “We have to expect the numbers to remain high for some time as we continue this effort to swab, test and isolate the workers.”

Stretching Credulity 

Just on April 20 alone, the city-state registered a single-day bumper crop of more than 942 cases, making it the highest figure since records began in February – until the government’s shock announcement of the new 1240-plus cases at noon on April 21.  

Identifying it as the single greatest challenge, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his Facebook post: “We are still worried about hidden cases (a reference to the migrant workers) circulating in our population, which are keeping the outbreak going.”

Dropping the ball has not been without a price. As records now stand Singapore has more than a few knocks on its international standing, especially when the World Health Organization which had lauded the republic’s ability to manage the virus in February, as well as rather uglier exposures of a technocratic society that actually depends, as too many have, on sweat produced by the uneducated and underpaid.

Surprisingly, for an authoritarian nation that shows little stomach for democratic methods, Singapore did not adopt any of the measures the Koreans did. For not giving masks out early to its migrant community it stands accused of negligence because as Lawrence Wong himself explained it was a plain oversight. "The virus is moving so quickly. If I'd known, I would have done things differently. But no one can tell the next step,” the minister told local medial.

The Warning Singapore Ignored

Still, as the Korean experience proved, maintaining surveillance by CCTV and the tracking of bank card and mobile phone usage to identify whom to test in the first place proved crucial. Such measures, considered a violation of privacy rights in the west, was something Singapore either missed out on or showed no interest.

Nor did the government continue to test its populace even with a lockdown that had most of its population confined indoors. The exhaustive vetting of phone transactions and their usage would have given authorities instant knowledge of the movements of its citizens so that such data could be input into a customized government website. Such information, made available on everybody’s smartphones, would have helped in fighting the virus. It was an idea that Lawrence Wong could have easily tapped onto but, he did not.

Singapore’s Manpower Minister Josephine Teo attributed the rising instances of infections to the habits of its migrant worker population to socialize across dormitories and with different groups of friends.

“They might you know, cook together, eat together. Relax together,” Teo said. What has ailed the authorities is the renowned 400,000 sq. ft Mustafa Center, dubbed Singapore’s Harrods, which is immensely popular with migrant workers, locals, and tourists as the key point for the disease’s spread among workers.

For a nation that has prided itself on efficiency, Singapore’s lack of preparedness in tackling the crisis has been surprisingly lame. As early as March 23, the non-profit Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) wrote local media deploring conditions in migrant worker quarters and urging quick, remedial action. That counsel was seemingly ignored.  Now Singapore is paying the price.  

 “We at TWC2 knew it was only a matter of time before Covid-19 would begin to spread in worker dormitories, where conditions are nearly ideal for transmission of infection,” the organization said on April 3. “It gives us no pleasure to be proven right so soon after.”