Singapore combats growing virus cases among migrant workers

Published April 11, 2020
Over 200,000 workers from Pakistan and other Asian countries live in 43 registered dormitories across the city-state. — AFP/File
Over 200,000 workers from Pakistan and other Asian countries live in 43 registered dormitories across the city-state. — AFP/File

KUALA LUMPUR: After managing to keep on top of the first wave of coronavirus cases, Singapore is grappling with an alarming rise in infections among migrant workers housed in crowded dormitories.

Such cases now account for about a quarter of Singapore’s 2,018 infections. The government reported 287 new cases on Thursday, its biggest daily jump, and another 198 on Friday. More than 280 were linked to the foreign workers’ dormitories.

The tiny city-state of less than six million people was seen as a model for its early, swift response to the virus. But it apparently overlooked the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers living in conditions where social distancing is impossible. Now more than 50,000 workers are quarantined and others are being moved to safer locations.

The cases merit attention in a region where practically every country has large numbers of migrants working, commuting and living in crowded conditions.

On one recent night, masked foreign workers laden with luggage got off buses, each keeping a small distance from the others, to be registered and screened before moving into a Singapore army camp.

Over 200,000 workers from Pakistan and other Asian countries live in 43 registered dormitories across the city-state

The 1,300 workers moving into segregated facilities in two army camps will be required to observe strict health measures, stagger their meal times and maintain social distancing. They are due to stay in the camp until May 4.

Posing beside single cots spaced several feet apart, several gave thumbs ups in a short video on the defence ministry’s Facebook page.

Others are to be moved into unoccupied housing estates, an exhibition centre and other locations to help reduce crowding in their dormitories.

Foreigners account for over a third of Singapore’s workforce, and more than 200,000 are migrant workers from Pakistan, Bangladesh and other Asian countries living in 43 registered dormitories across Singapore.

Most work in construction, shipping and maintenance jobs, helping to support Singapore’s trade-reliant economy.

Virus clusters have emerged in nine of the privately-run dormitories that house up to 20 men per room, with shared toilets, cooking and other facilities.

By failing to act sooner, Singapore allowed the disease to spread more widely than expected in communities that already were relatively vulnerable, experts said.

This is a very major and urgent issue that requires active and urgent intervention, Lawrence Wong, the national development minister, said in televised remarks.

This week, the city tightened precautions with a four-week circuit breaker, shutting down non-essential businesses and schools until May 4.

“Hindsight is 20/20. In general, Singapore could have implemented measures earlier that would have blunted the initial surge in imported cases in the second half of March,” said Hsu Li Yang, an associate professor and programme leader for Infectious Diseases at the National University of Singapore.

“The important matter at hand is to swiftly disrupt the chains of transmission in the dormitories, as well as in the rest of Singapore,” Hsu said.

The more than 50,000 workers quarantined for two weeks in five dormitories that were declared isolation areas are being screened and tested. They are still paid wages and provided food and other essentials.

Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2020

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