With restaurants and malls bustling, pre-pandemic life is slowly returning for people in Singapore — except for the more than 300,000 migrant workers who make up much of the city’s low-wage workforce.
Since April, these workers have been confined to their residences with limited exceptions for work. After an extensive testing and quarantine campaign, the government cleared the dormitories where most of these workers live of Covid-19 in August, letting residents leave for several “essential errands,” like court appearances and doctor’s appointments.
The government said last month it was working toward relaxing more rules for workers. Those plans are now under threat, with new virus clusters emerging in the dorms, where workers from China, India, Indonesia and elsewhere share bunks and tight living spaces.
“Some days I feel very upset and can’t take it,” said Mohd Al Imran, a Bangladeshi worker with a local engineering firm. After months of confinement at the dorms, he got Covid-19 anyway. He was sent to a coronavirus care facility and said it was “very free” by comparison. “At the dorm you can’t go out from your room,” he said in a text message. “They treat it like a prison.”
Singapore has been saying it’s taking appropriate measures, considering that migrant workers have accounted for nearly 95% of the city’s coronavirus cases. But the resurgence, so soon after the dorms were declared Covid-free, is raising questions about whether Singapore’s conditions for its low-wage work force undermine the efforts to stamp it out.
“If you’ve got relatively socio-economically deprived people in crowded housing, you’ll get Covid-19 transmission at a higher rate,” said Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases physician and a professor at the Australian National University Medical School. It’s not inappropriate to treat higher-risk groups differently, he added, but “it’s unreasonable to put restrictions on people when there are things you can fix up.”
While experts say it’s reasonable to cordon off specific areas to quash an outbreak, they also say the conditions in the dorms are ripe for future transmission. The ventilation isn’t always good, and bathrooms are shared among a dozen or more. Government standards currently specify a minimum of 50 square-feet of personal space, roughly equivalent to a third of a parking spot — conditions that “will always pose a risk of outbreaks,” said Raina Macintyre, a professor of global biosecurity at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
Poor and disenfranchised populations around the world have borne the brunt of the global pandemic, highlighting wide social and economic inequalities that existed long before Covid-19. In the best of times, Singapore’s migrant workers live with more restrictions than citizens and white-collar expats; with clusters rising again in the dorms, the prolonged lockdown-like conditions have brought new psychological stressors, along with renewed debate about the city-state’s deep reliance on this part of the workforce.
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A housing construction site stands idle in the Punggol area of Singapore in April 20.
In local media and on Facebook, reports of self-harm and suicide attempts among migrant workers have circulated. When asked, Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower said these tend to be isolated incidents that reflect existing, underlying mental illness or trouble back home. Either way, social service groups say they’re swamped with calls for help from workers.