Virus cases soar among Singapore migrant workers

Virus cases soar among Singapore migrant workers

Manpower minister vows to improve labourers' dorms, but says employers complain about costs

Migrant workers stand outside their dormitory rooms at Cochrane Lodge II, which has been declared an isolation area due to the outbreak of coronavirus in Singapore. (Reuters Photo)
Migrant workers stand outside their dormitory rooms at Cochrane Lodge II, which has been declared an isolation area due to the outbreak of coronavirus in Singapore. (Reuters Photo)

SINGAPORE: New coronavirus cases in Singapore have soared by a single-day record of 942, almost all of them among the thousands of migrant labourers living in dormitories in the city-state.

The disclosure on Saturday by the health ministry represents a setback for authorities, who had won praise from the World Health Organization for their success in mitigating the spread of the virus — but mainly among citizens and permanent residents, as it turns out.

The ministry said on Saturday that only 14 new Covid-19 cases were reported among citizens and permanent residents. Eleven people have died of the disease. But the national total of 5,992 cases, in a population of only 5 million, brings Singapore level with Indonesia (population 266 million) and the Philippines (population 106 million) for total coronavirus cases.

The disease is now spreading rapidly within the large migrant worker community, which accounts for about 70% of all cases, highlighting what rights groups say is a weak link in containment efforts. Authorities have ramped up testing in the dormitories, while the country as a whole remains under a partial lockdown that the government had dubbed a “circuit breaker”.

The number of cases is expected to rise as authorities conduct more testing within the foreign-worker community. There are more than 200,000 such workers, hailing from across Asia and serving key industries such as construction, who live in dormitories across Singapore.

Singapore has a Thai population of around 45,000, many of them domestic workers. Thais made up a large proportion of the construction workers in the city-state in the 1980s and 1990s, but in recent years they have been replaced by workers mainly from Bangladesh and other South Asian nations.

To arrest the upsurge in Covid-19 cases — more than 3,000 in the past seven days — Singapore authorities have shifted 7,000 workers employed in essential services such as logistics, transport and construction — and who were found to be free of the virus — to 18 temporary housing facilities. They include vacant public housing units on land meant for redevelopment, and floating lodgings commonly used in the marine and offshore industry.

Sports halls in the Singapore Sports Hub, a venue that has played host to the Women’s Tennis Association finals, will be converted as a temporary accommodation to house virus-free workers.

The government is even studying using cruise ships to temporarily house foreign workers who have recovered from the coronavirus and tested negative.

The surge in infected workers has also exposed the unsanitary and congested living conditions in the dormitories, making social distancing harder to enforce.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo has vowed to raise standards of living in dormitories, though each time her ministry attempts to do that, it faces objections from employers due to the accompanying additional costs, she said in a Facebook post.

Doing so is “not only the right thing to do but also in our own interests”, she said. “We should be willing to accept the higher costs that come with higher standards.”

Close to 80% of Singapore’s workers are now conducting business from home as the city-state enters its second week of a partial lockdown, with the closure of schools and most workplaces.

Critics of the government have seized on what they see as inadequate handling of the coronavirus. That has drawn a sharp response from Ho Ching, wife of the prime minister and head of the state investment company Temasek Holdings.

Singapore, she said, was hardly alone in misreading the pandemic’s spread among patients who don’t display symptoms.

“We all underestimated the asymptomatic transmission — not just SG, but the world over,” Ho said in a Facebook post late Friday night, using the abbreviation for Singapore. She said she’s frustrated by “I told you so” comments, adding that “hindsight is always beautiful and perfect”.

While she didn’t say who the cryptic rebuttal was directed at in the post, a report that went live on Friday said Ho admitted that the government made a mistake in bringing Singaporeans home when the number of infections surged globally.

A number of new cases before the latest increase came from the return of Singapore students and workers overseas. “It’s absolutely the right thing to do, to call our people home,” she said.

“To fight this Covid, we should expect mistakes, trips and falls,” she said. “When that happens, we pick ourselves up and correct course, and run again.”

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