News World Singapore had 1,000 COVID cases a day. Here’s how they got on top of it

Singapore had 1,000 COVID cases a day. Here’s how they got on top of it

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An initial coronavirus success story, followed by a sudden surge of infections. Victoria’s recent spike in coronavirus cases is eerily similar to Singapore’s.

The second wave was largely driven by an outbreak among migrant workers, who live in crowded dormitories in conditions ripe for the virus to spread rapidly and dangerously.

As the first migrant worker cases began emerging, the dorms were locked down to stop the virus running rampant through the wider community.

The rest of Singapore had an eight-week ‘circuit breaker’ to get on top of community transmissions.

A man in a singlet holds a thermometer in his mouth
Singapore guaranteed wages would be paid during the lockdown, sent food, and provided free healthcare and internet access. Photo: Singapore Ministry Of Manpower

“It was highly coordinated,” National University of Singapore professor Dale Fisher, who also chairs the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, told the ABC.

The infection tally outside the dorms has now fallen to about 20 cases a day.

“The dormitory outbreak is still smouldering on with perhaps 200 cases a day, but we’re working our way through that,” Professor Fisher said.

“That’s very complex and of an enormous scale.”.

This is how Singapore contained its second surge

The broader Singaporean community has been almost totally cocooned from a major outbreak because of the dormitory lockdowns.

Men in face masks with bags of groceries walk through a courtyard surrounded by brightly coloured buildings
Singapore was lauded for bringing its coronavirus outbreak under control, but a second wave grew out of housing for migrant workers. Photo: Singapore Ministry Of Manpower
The response — which has been dubbed a ‘circuit breaker’ — involved restrictions similar to Melbourne’s current lockdown.

People in the wider Singapore community were asked to stay indoors, and work from home if they could, while restaurants were only able to offer takeaway orders.

Even after the lockdown was eased, measures to contain the virus remained strictly enforced, according to professor of public health at the National University of Singapore Yik-Ying Teo.

“In Singapore you get an official formal warning by the police before official penalties if you don’t wear your mask repeatedly, if you don’t keep to your social distancing,” he told the ABC.

“You get fined and in some of the more drastic cases, some [foreigners] were deported for breaking certain rules.”

With Singapore once again appearing to have a handle on the virus, Professor Teo says there is still a risk of lockdown fatigue.

“It can lead to a resurgence in the community or in the migrant worker dormitories if we’re not careful.

“We constantly have to remind the public to be vigilant to a potential resurgence.”

Migrant workers endure brutal lockdown

When numbers began climbing in the tightly packed migrant dormitories, the Singaporean Government took swift action.

Older workers who were considered more vulnerable to COVID-19 were taken to separate isolation centres.

The government guaranteed workers’ wages would be paid during isolation and gave them food, free health care and internet access.

A man in a window gives a thumbs up
At its peak, Singapore reported 1,426 new coronavirus infections in April. The daily tally has dropped down to about 300 cases in July. Photo: Singapore Ministry Of Manpower

Testing was ramped up and health workers who spoke the native languages of the workers were also deployed to the dorms.

“It was a deliberate effort to care less about the numbers and care more about the deaths,” Professor Fisher said.

“The Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Manpower led the effort and they engaged all the hospitals and many GPs to deliver health services.

“Every one of the larger dorms … had a medical clinic that ran seven days a week so that men could come down … [and] were looked after and given constant reassurance and good communications.”

The vice-president of the advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too, Alex Au, said the men are usually housed 10 or 12 to a room, “sometimes as many as 16 or 20”, and that the quarantine rules mandate they must spend up to 23 hours a day inside.

“It would be almost what a prisoner would experience, and they have done nothing wrong,” Mr Au said.

A man in a face mask sweeping a dorm room floor
Some migrant workers say they have been unable to leave their crowded rooms for months amid containment measures. Picture: Singapore Ministry Of Manpower
A 28-year-old Bangladeshi man who was still in lockdown said he was sharing a room with 13 other workers and was unable to go outside.”I cannot go outside, I’m not working and I have tension and headaches and my mind is no good,” the man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the ABC.


He said despite guarantees from the government that wages would be paid, he had not received his full salary and was worried about repaying debts.

“I also need the money to buy medicine for my family back home,” he said.

He’s not alone. Some are also fearful of what will happen if the money from the government dries up, with many sending back their wages to their families.

“They’ve been remarkably stoic about it … however, that doesn’t mean they’ll continue to be stoic,” Mr Au said.

An empty balcony with bright pink railings
Some of the dorms were locked down for several months, with the workers not allowed out of their rooms. Photo: Singapore Ministry Of Manpower
But Professor Teo said the government should be commended for its efforts during a difficult period.

“I do think that the package that has been put in place for the migrant workers in Singapore has been among one of the best packages for migrant workers affected by COVID-19,” he said.

The ABC attempted to contact Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower for comment, via phone, Twitter and web form. No response was received.

A line of men in between two buildings as the sun sets
The migrant dormitories remain at the centre of Singapore’s second spike, but daily cases continue to fall. Photo: Singapore Ministry Of Manpower

Singapore now looks to prevent a third wave

With its second surge now under control, Singapore is taking no chances on the possibility of another spike in infections.

The government has deployed teams of experts to anticipate where potential ‘weak spots’ could lead to a ‘leakage’ of the virus.

Aged care homes and prisons are considered high risk zones where coronavirus could flare up again.

“The [next] weak spots won’t be those that we already know,” Professor Teo said.

His team at the National University of Singapore is studying whether sex workers may inadvertently contribute to another spike in case.

“Different countries will have to take the transparent lens to find out what weak spots they have,” he said.

“It’s much better to have a group of people actively identifying which are the possible weak spots than wait for … additional clusters, and that’s when you realise you might be a little bit late.”