COVID-19 surge exposes wealthy Singapore’s dark underbelly

By Noel Caballero

Bangkok, Apr 21 (efe-epa).- The unskilled foreign workers living in small rooms and unhygienic conditions in squalid working-class dormitories of Singapore have become victims of a rapidly spreading COVID-19 outbreak.

The crisis has led the number of coronavirus cases tripling within a week in a country touted as a model for containing the epidemic.

As many as 1,091 of the total 1,111 fresh cases reported nationwide on Tuesday were detected in these dormitories, situated away from the wealthy center of the city, which consists of tiny quarters that house up to 20 people.

“A large number of cases at the dorms is a serious problem. To assess the extent of the spread, we have tested aggressively (…) also, those who are not showing any symptoms,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a televised speech on Tuesday.

The city-state has become the country with the highest number of confirmed cases in Southeast Asia with 9,125 patients, although the number of deaths has been relatively low at 11.

The main hotspot of the ongoing outbreak is in the poor accommodations made of plastic sheets and wood that house more than 200,000 unskilled migrant workers and most of them are from South Asia, according to local authorities.

The prosperous country, among the first outside China to report Covid-19 cases, had acted rapidly by restricting access to and from the worst affected country.

Singapore efficiently handled the movements of the patients with the help of technology, with a response model cited as an example by the World Health Organization.

On Apr. 7, when Singapore had less than 1,500 cases, authorities enforced stricter measures and closed down all non-essential businesses, although this did not cover a large number of the people living in the dormitories, who are mostly employed in the construction and sanitation sectors.

“Contact tracing suggests that transmissions at common construction worksites may have contributed to the increase in numbers,” nonprofit Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), which works for migrant rights in Singapore, said in a statement.

TWC2 highlighted that a majority of the patients in Singapore are workers with temporary work permits and criticized the quarantine policy enforced by the authorities in these quarters, where healthy and infected people, who might have light or no symptoms, share small living spaces.

The NGO said that the accommodations were designed for a high density of residents and social distancing was impossible amid such conditions.

The economy of Singapore, where around one-third of its 5.6 million people are of foreigners, depends almost exclusively on foreign workers for unskilled jobs.

Of the total 43 dormitories, the authorities have identified at least 17 as infection hotspots and nine of them, which house around 50,000 people, have been designated as “isolation zones”.

Residents in these zones are not allowed to even step out of their quarters, according to the ministry of health.

The colonies have already reported epidemics of other diseases earlier, such as a chicken-pox outbreak in 2008, and a high number of cases of tuberculosis, according to TWC2.

The nonprofit also pointed to the employment-related vulnerability of the workers.

“Some employers of foreign workers have a company policy that imposes fines that are several times a worker’s daily salary for failing to show up at work. We have also heard of employers who refuse to recognize medical leave of more than one or two days’ duration,” said the statement.

“Such measures discourage workers from seeing a doctor when ill; they also require sick workers to remain at work despite symptoms.” EFE-EPA

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