The proper title for this article is actually “In defence of people who have to live in squalor”.

When news broke of Covid-19 cases proliferating in foreign worker dormitories, the media stories were often accompanied by mentions of the unsanitary condition of the dorms. Some disgusting pictures were circulated. Official press statements would reinforce this angle by highlighting how clean-ups were being organised.

Nobody seemed to have applied any critical thought to the matter, a lack that does not speak well of Singapore.

Trash is an unrelated issue from Covid-19. As far as this writer knows, there is no indication that the coronavirus breeds in trash. It breeds in human bodies, which is why distancing is so critical. And which is why even film stars and royalty have caught the disease though it is most unlikely that they live amidst trash.

Of course, it is better to live in clean places. We wouldn’t want dengue, typhoid or leptospirosis or any number of trash-related diseases to break out too. But the unthinking incantation of the trash meme with stories about Covid-19 is a red herring.

Worse, it tends to create two unfair associations. Firstly: that to some degree, the migrant workers brought Covid-19 onto themselves by poor hygiene in their quarters. Secondly: that they are inherently dirty people, which in turn dogwhistles moral aspersions. You won’t hear either of these associations verbalised explicitly; people know they cannot be said in polite company, but that doesn’t mean that (some) people don’t think these thoughts.

What’s really needed is a clear-eyed understanding of why it is so difficult to maintain cleanliness in a worker dormitory.

It’s always going to be hard when ten to twenty men are crammed into a room. They have luggage, standing fans, helmets and lines of laundry in the way. The density alone makes it a challenge to maintain standards.

Consider too their long work days. A typical construction worker has to wake up at six in the morning but doesn’t get back until 8pm or maybe even 10pm. His clothes and boots are all dusty and dirty, and he is fatigued. He has to take dinner, a shower, and maybe make a call to family, and then it’s straight to bed. There is simply no time for housekeeping.

It’s no use pontificating from a middle-class distance. We have to understand their lives.

Now, look at the header picture. That was taken from inside Sungei Tengah Lodge on Saturday 11 April 2020, three days after it was declared an isolation area and locked down at midnight between Wednesday 8 April and Thursday 9 April.

Men were told to stay in their rooms and not allowed to circulate. The header photo is of the corridor outside a worker’s room. It looks awfully different from the picture painted by a statement by the Ministry of Manpower, also dated 11 April, which trumpetted

With the experiences gleaned from the management of the first three dormitories gazetted as isolation areas in the earlier part of this week, the Taskforce is able to stabilise the food distribution, cleanliness and hygiene standards at Sungei Tengah Lodge Dormitory and Tampines Dormitory within 48 hours of them being gazetted as isolation areas.

As our header picture shows, it’s a bit premature. But again, we can’t blame the men who are staying there.

With the lockdown, food is delivered to their rooms in containers, and they have to eat where they sleep. Unable to leave their rooms, the corridor is the only place they can put their empty containers and other refuse. But then, no vermin-proof bins are provided. So naturally the trash piles up, now just outside their doors.

What’s the problem here? Poor management skills. Somebody directed that food be delivered to workers’ rooms and insisted that workers eat their meals right there without organising immediate refuse collection or bins.

No soap available in washrooms, even when handwashing is strongly encouraged

The point here is that structural constraints play a huge part in whether a place is clean or dirty. Design of spaces; density of habitation; controls over movement; work-life balance demanded of foreign workers, management systems and procedures — all these count.

It’s not the men. It’s the system. Before blaming the workers at the bottom of the heap, look at the calibre of the people sitting atop it.