Singapore set a new daily case record over the weekend as the city-state once lauded for its handling of the outbreak struggled to contain the virus’s spread among its 1m low-wage migrant workers.
The new overall infections, peaking at 942 on Saturday and dropping to 596 on Sunday, took the total number of cases in the city state to 6,588. More than 90 per cent of cases reported over the weekend were among migrants living in cramped dormitories, which represent Singapore’s largest coronavirus cluster.
The sharp rise in cases, infections have jumped 160 per cent in the past week, has forced Singapore to change tack after its successful deployment of an aggressive testing regime, self-isolation of infected individuals and contact tracing. A new wave of locally transmitted infections has forced authorities to put the island under a near total lockdown.
Migrant workers, mostly from countries including India, Bangladesh and China, account for almost three quarters of the country’s cases, as authorities increase testing in dormitories.
Critics said Singapore did not do enough to prevent the outbreak after a handful of foreign workers tested positive as early as February. About 300,000 of the labourers live in tightly packed dormitories, where there can be up to 20 people sleeping on bunk beds in a single room.
Josephine Teo, manpower minister, said when transmissions started earlier this month that while there was always a risk of contagion in the dormitories, it was “no different from what it is from our own homes”. Officials also said they took preventive steps before the outbreak including closing dormitories’ communal spaces and staggering meal times and recreation hours.
But Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Singapore researcher at Amnesty International, the human rights group, said overcrowding in dormitories makes living conditions far riskier than in households, especially during a pandemic. “This may not have been taken into account early enough and it may have led to a rise in infections we’re seeing now,” she said.
“It is part of the whole Singapore economic model where we tend to overlook 1m people on our island,” said Alex Au, vice-president at Transient Workers Count Too, a non-governmental organisation.
Gan Kim Yong, Singapore’s health minister, admitted last week that the foreign worker dormitories had become “an important front” in their fight against Covid-19.
Since the start of the outbreak this month, authorities have isolated 16 dormitories, in which people are not allowed to leave their rooms for two weeks. They also deployed teams helping larger dormitories with meal delivery and medical support, with plans to assign them to smaller structures as well.
About 7,000 healthy migrants working in sectors that are still operating, including “essential” aspects of construction, marine engineering and manufacturing, have been moved out of their dormitories.
But the vast majority of workers remain in these structures, with some reporting cramped and unsanitary conditions.
A 29-year-old Indian construction worker who goes by the name Raja has spent almost two weeks in a room with 15 other men after some workers in his dormitory contracted coronavirus. He only steps outside twice a day to go to the restroom. There is no WiFi or air conditioning.
“Most of the people watch movies or sleep so that they don’t think,” he said.
His floor, which hosts up to 200 people, has a single bathroom with fewer than 20 toilets. “The cleaning work is not so good,” added Raja.
“The dormitories are not designed to hold people for so long,” said Mr Au. “The system is breaking down”.
Other countries in the region share some of the same risks as Singapore but so far have limited coronavirus spreading among migrant workers.
Taiwan has almost 720,000 foreign workers, according to government statistics, many of whom work as caregivers and in manufacturing. They account for just two of the island’s 420 coronavirus cases, even though manufacturing workers live in dormitories similar to those in Singapore.
After an undocumented caregiver tested positive for the virus in late February, Taiwan stepped up checks on dormitories, arranged information events for labourers and discouraged large gatherings.
A Filipino caregiver whose husband works in a factory in western Taiwan said she had not seen him for more than three weeks because he was not allowed to leave his quarters even during his time off. “The company does not want to risk that someone gets infected when they go to church, or go shopping with friends at the weekend,” she said.
The difficult conditions are not enough to turn workers against their host countries and force them to go home early, with many having to work to repay onerous debts taken on to move abroad.
Raja intends to remain in Singapore before returning to his wife and baby daughter in India. “I still want to work in Singapore,” he said. “Once I earn enough, I can do my own business.”