Frank asks a worker where he gets his Covid-19 information from

Volunteer Frank spent three evenings talking to Bangladeshi clients of TWC2 about the Covid-19 pandemic. Interviews were conducted at the end of March and the beginning of April 2020.

“Mum everyday call me,” says Raju, “How are you?  How is Singapore now?”  Her questions are the same ones that my mother asks me during our calls.

Migrant workers have mums too, and they are worried for their sons’ safety in a foreign country during a global pandemic.

“You hand washing?” Ahmmed’s mum always asks during their daily phone calls.  Most workers are on the phone with their families multiple times a day, and all are reassuring their mums that they are washing their hands.

“One day two time, three time call, [she asks] are you any place going?  You cannot any place go,” Ahmmed’s continued recitation of his mother’s questions again reminds me of mine.

Staying home may make Ahmmed’s mother happy, but it may be more dangerous for him than going out.

On March 30th, the first cluster in a dormitory was announced. By close of workday 7th April, there were

  • 98 cases from the S11 dormitory in Seletar North,
  • 34 from Westlite dormitory in Toh Guan,
  • 18 more at the neighbouring dormitory, also at Toh Guan,
  • 18 cases at Sungei Tengah Lodge,
  • 17 cases at Tappines Dormitory,
  • 7 cases at Cochrane Lodge 1
  • 5 cases at Cochrane Lodge 2.

making a total of 197 in these seven clusters.

Arsad describes his dormitory to me: twelve men per room, more than six rooms per floor, eight toilets per floor.  “Top and below [bunks] one metre have [distance between them], side…maybe not…maybe 500 or 400 [mm].”  Meaning, if a man is asymptomatically infectious, there is only half a meter between his bed and another, far closer than the recommended one-metre distance.

“They very worried for me,” Raju says of his siblings, mother, and grandmother in Dhaka.  “I am not worried.  I just try to take care of myself.”

How well-informed are they?

How do the workers take care of themselves?

“Separate, separate talking,” says Ahmmed, meaning to keep a distance even in conversation.

“Never touch anything, handwash,” according to Pradhan.

“PPE use, hand is not put the eyes, nose, mouth, handwash minimum 20 seconds,” says Arsad. “PPE” is short for personal protective equipment.

Munshi stays in a dormitory with 24 other men in his room.  The workers there were all given masks by their employers, and all the dormitories take temperatures regularly.  Despite this, the men are worried.  “All person is scared,” Munshi tells me.

Information posters in three languages beside the door of TWC2 DaySpace

Most of the men know how many cases of the virus there currently are in Singapore and Bangladesh, getting their information from Facebook, Google, and news apps, just like the rest of us. Sharif shows me the website on his phone when I ask him how many cases there are in his home country.

Migrant workers in Singapore also see the same guidelines on health and safety as the rest of us, and are doing their best to comply.

“This mask can use two days,” Hossain says of his disposable face mask. Ahmmed has two cloth masks that he alternates between on a daily basis. Rengasamy wears a surgical mask so thin that I can see his lips move as we speak. Raju wears no mask (don’t tell his mum), but has some in his dormitory.

Some of the workers face financial obstacles to complying with guidelines. Uddin has only one disposable mask. “Sure I want to buy more, but no money.”

Most workers, like Uddin, are anxious about their own well-being.  A few, like Sharif, claim not to be. “I am only scared for my country,” he tells me.

“Everybody is scared, but Singapore is OK,” Hossain chips in. Referring to the standard of healthcare, he says “Bangladesh treatment so low, Singapore treatment so high,” using his hands to emphasise the difference, and echoing a popular opinion among migrant workers.

Arsad is of the same view. “I stay in Singapore, I not a lot scared.  If I stay in Bangladesh, I scared.  If many many [cases], I think most [will] die because in Bangladesh, hospital is not good.”

Most of the men, including Hossain and Arsad, just sound resigned but Pradhan is unusually indignant in his response.  “They [the Bangladeshi government] say, we are ready for corona but cannot even provide doctors with PPE.”

The men are as worried for their families as their families are for them.  Uddin’s parents, “quite old” in his own words (his mother is 56 and his father is 60), both have preexisting medical conditions.  “I still worried they get virus.  I tell them don’t go outside.”

Badruzzman tries not to discuss the situation in Singapore with his family for fear of worrying them, but he makes sure to tell them to wash their hands whenever he calls home.  “If I inform them, they tension as well.  They also handwashing.”

“Come home,” mothers cry out

Many of their mothers are urging their sons to return home, so why haven’t they left Singapore yet?

The main reason is the same reason they came to this country in the first place: feeding their families. “Scared, but also need money,” says Sikdar. “Every man have family.  If we have money we no come Singapore for working.”

Hossain, sitting next to Sikdar, nods in agreement.

Uddin had a similar response when his family asked him to come home around the time the coronavirus first appeared in Singapore — February, 2020.  “They want I stay safe [but] I need work for them.”

“Mother wanted [me to] come back Bangladesh. I say I stay working so you have makan [food],” recalls Arsad of the conversation he had with his mum in February. “[If] I no working, who give makan for you?”

That month, Singapore had the 3rd highest number of cases globally.

“Now no one call me coming Bangladesh.”  Arsad laughs.  On 26 March 2020, Bangladesh instituted a ten-day national lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus within the country.  As of 7 April, the World Health Organisation reports that Bangladesh has had 123 confirmed cases and 12 deaths — a  10% mortality rate.  All of the workers think the true number must be much higher.

“All person is scared,” Munshi tells me.  He’s right, of course, but some of us have more to fear than others.  Self-isolating is not pleasant, but at least it offers the security of knowing you are safe from infection.

But most migrant workers in Singapore do not have the luxury of isolating. If they don’t work, their families may not eat.  In any case, private space in their crowded dorms is virtually non-existent. Yet, if they do work and have to move around, they risk becoming seriously ill.  Who will feed their families then?  There are simply no good options.