COVID-19 In Singapore: Over 20,000 Migrant Workers Quarantined

On 9 April 2020, Singapore reported 287 new cases of COVID-19, the highest daily rise in the country thus far. Over half of these new cases are linked to the dormitory clusters, which house tens of thousands of low-wage migrant workers, most of whom are nationals of Bangladesh and India. As of 11 April, there are 738 active cases across 17 dorms. Seven of these dorms, which collectively house over 20,000 workers, have been gazetted as ‘isolation dorms.’ Their residents must remain in rooms of 8-12 people for two weeks to prevent further virus transmission. Migrant worker NGOs and the workers themselves have expressed concerns over crowded and reportedly unsanitary living conditions. Nearly 1 million low-wage migrant workers are housed in over 1000 of such dormitories across the island. This situation is continuing to unfold as Singapore enters its second week of the month-long ‘circuit breaker’, a semi lockdown period which began on 7 April.

Paul Tambyah, President of the Asia-Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection likened Singapore’s dormitory cluster situation to that of the Diamond Princess ship. He told Al Jazeera that such a ‘ring-fencing’ method would be effective in preventing those beyond the dormitory, but that within the contained population, the virus would spread ‘until…saturation point.’ Describing the environment of the isolated dormitories, Luke Tan, case manager at the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), a local migrant worker NGO, said there is ‘really not much difference from a prison.’ Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sought to allay fears of migrant workers’ families overseas and addressed them directly, saying: ‘We appreciate the work and contributions of your sons, fathers, husbands in Singapore. We feel responsible for their well-being. We’ll do our best to take care of their health, livelihood and welfare.’

Government and local NGOs are striving to meet and anticipate the needs of the migrant community amid these developments. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) formed an inter-agency task force to manage housing, food, sanitation and hygiene needs. Cleaning measures in dorms have been stepped up to ‘prioritise the well-being of workers who remain healthy.’ Alternative housing facilities have been sourced for healthy workers to de-densify dormitories. These include the Singapore Expo (Singapore’s largest exhibition and convention center) and public housing blocks. Members of Singapore Armed Forces, Singapore Police Force and MOM will be deployed to manage these sites. Unable to work, migrants are also facing growing financial needs, as many support their families back home. Currently, employers can claim up to SGD$100 allowance per quarantined worker, of which at least 70% is given to employees. In addition to distributing welfare packages of food, hygiene and sanitary items, local NGOs have also cooperated to serve migrants’ mental and emotional needs. Operating collectively as COVID Migrant Support Coalition, they have launched an online learning portal and other entertainment resources for workers during this period of isolation.

Whilst the consequences of the spread of COVID-19 amongst the migrant community is rightly of immediate concern, the scale and complexity of the situation demands greater accountability for Singapore’s treatment and attitude towards its migrant workers in non-pandemic times. Local migrant worker NGOs such as Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), have often spoken out about the inadequate housing facilities, as well as the insufficiency of local policies to uphold the dignity of migrant workers. Improvement in these aspects of migrants’ livelihoods would have undoubtedly relieved the pressures of the current response. Minister of Manpower, Josephine Teo, has given her ‘word’ that the standards of living in dormitories will be improved once the COVID-19 situation has settled.

Times of crisis like these alert our governments and communities to areas of vulnerability in our societies. It is imperative that we collectively support and assist those of greatest need during these periods. But it is perhaps even more important that once we return to even a semblance of normalcy, these needs are not forgotten, but rather thoughtfully and strategically addressed. When COVID-19 is overcome, Singapore must do more to care for its migrant workers, so that future storms can be weathered better than the last.

Naomi K L Wang