News World How Singapore fell from its position as the poster child for coronavirus recovery
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How Singapore fell from its position as the poster child for coronavirus recovery

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It wasn’t long ago Singapore was being held up as the “gold standard” for halting the coronavirus.

Its aggressive monitoring and contact tracing had allowed the city-state to remain open as others shut down.

As recently as two weeks ago, it looked like Singaporeans could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

Then a second wave hit, and doctors think the worst is yet to come.

“It certainly wasn’t part of the plan, but this is a really difficult outbreak. I think every country would like a moment back,” said Professor Dale Fisher, an infectious diseases expert at the country’s National University Hospital.

In February, Singapore was the envy of the world, praised for its COVID-19 prevention strategies.

This week, case numbers have soared – there were more than 10,100 confirmed as of Wednesday night.

In a nation of five million people that could comfortably fit between Bondi and Penrith, those numbers are already worrying.

Dr Fisher thinks the peak is still more than a week away.

Hotel rooms light up to show solidarity in Singapore’s battle with COVID-19. Photo: Getty

The surge has happened largely in Singapore’s 43 migrant worker dormitories, which house mostly Bangladeshi, Indian and Chinese nationals who work on construction sites across the island.

Up to 20 workers might sleep in a single room, and bathroom and cooking facilities are generally shared.

The pandemic has highlighted the yawning gap between Singaporeans and the low-paid, imported workers who have helped to build this city.

They’re extremely important to Singapore’s economy.

“They build and maintain critical infrastructure, including desalination and water recycling, public transport, ports, land reclamation,” the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics states.

“They clean our streets and public housing. They drive our buses.”

In the wider community, cases have slowed to a trickle.

When the Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced a new round of additional restrictions on Tuesday night, some Singaporeans lined up for one last bubble tea before the outlets were officially declared non-essential and shut down.

It was a different story for migrant workers.

About 200,000 of them live in purpose-built dorms across the island.

Many dorms have been under quarantine for several weeks already, and as of Wednesday, workers weren’t allowed in or out of any dormitory campuses.

HOME expressed fears for the workers’ mental health, saying “they are in constant fear of being infected, especially through asymptomatic transmission”.

Others were worrying about hygiene, and have described it as a “nightmare scenario”.

Ethan Guo, the general manager of Transient Workers Count Too, said some workers worried about their health in packed and dirty dorms.

The toilets are not properly cleaned, they are not given adequate cleaning supplies. They are having to share soap.’’

The government has intensified the sanitation regime within the dorms.

And while there’s little doubt that crowded conditions aren’t helpful, Dr Fisher points out that they can be managed.

He said there are entire floors at some dorms that are completely free of the illness.

If there is a silver lining to this dark cloud, it’s that the workers are mostly young. And, so far, the great majority of cases have been mild.

The World Health Organisation said Singapore was in a good position to deal with the surge in cases.

And the government has swung into action both to limit its spread within the dorms, and to stop it leaking out into the wider community.

In a televised address, Mr Lee addressed the workers directly.

“To our migrant workers, let me emphasise again: We will care for you, just like we care for Singaporeans,” he said.

Migrant workers in the construction industry have been served with a 14-day stay home notice from April 20 to curb the transmission of the coronavirus at work sites. Photo: Getty

And while advocates have expressed concern, some migrant workers think Singapore is doing a good job taking care of them.

AK Mohsin, the editor of local Bengali newspaper Banglar Kantha, said many workers were thankful because the government has guaranteed they’ll receive their salary during lockdown.

They were also being fed three meals a day.

Some have taken to social media to express their gratitude.

“Many of them posted their wall with a photo of PM Lee,” Moshin said.

Nevertheless, there is a growing recognition that things might need to change. But Singapore’s reliance on foreign workers throughout its economy might limit its hand.

Song Seng Wun, an economist with CIMB Private Banking, told The New Daily: “Without the foreign workers, whether they come across daily from Johor [in Malaysia], whether they stay in fancy condos or in workers dorms, there is no Singapore economy”.

“Those in dorms may be the small gears, but without them, the bigger gears cannot move to keep the economy that’s so very dependent on trade in goods and services going,” he said.

In a Facebook post, Singapore’s Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo said that standards in the dorms, without question, needed to be improved.

But she also suggested there’ll be immediate pushback from employers.

Foreign workers at the S11 Dormitory, a declared isolation area. Photo: Getty

“Each time we attempt to raise standards, employers yelp – these are added costs which they must eventually pass on. They ask MOM, ‘are people prepared to pay more?’,” she wrote.

By Australian standards, migrant worker wages are meagre – and conditions can be tough. Workers are often ferried from dorms in the back of open trucks to worksites, where they work long hours – usually for six days a week.

It’s not uncommon to see exhausted staff napping on the concrete during their lunch breaks.

Still, they make far more than they would at home, and their remittances help to improve living standards of their families.

And even critics like Mr Guo concede that conditions for migrant workers in Singapore are better than they are in the Middle East or Malaysia.