As at noon on Saturday, 18 April 2020, Singapore saw a new daily record of 942 Covid-19 cases. The “vast majority” of these are work permit holders living in foreign worker dormitories, the Ministry of Health said.

This pattern has been the case every day for more than a week.

Why are the lockdowns and strict safe-distancing rules apparently ineffective? In our opinion, they are built on faulty assumptions.

Our authorities go on and on about enforcing rules to minimise cross-contact and socialising in the communal areas of dormitories, such as the dining areas and the ground floor spaces. Everytime the infection numbers spike up further, the authorities sing the same song about greater enforcement of these rules, and how workers must remain in their rooms except for maybe 2 hours a day when they may come out. Implicit in these reminders is the accusation that the rules are being flouted by “unruly” foreigners.

However, based on reports that TWC2 regularly gets from workers inside the dorms, they are abiding by the rules. They are staying in the rooms, and no doubt complaining about it too.

The problem, in our view, lies in the rules, which only address the two hours or so in a day when dorm residents can leave their rooms. What about the other 20 – 22 hours? They are confined to a tiny space, shared with 10 – 20 other workers. No social distancing is possible in those long hours. In fact, the rules, by demanding they stay in their rooms, demand social non-distancing.

Advice to work from home, stay home and avoid socialising with others is sensible only when “home” is a safe space. This is true for the vast majority of Singaporeans who live in one-family homes. But it is not true for migrant workers in dormitories. Their rooms are not safe spaces, but dangerous spaces. Demanding that they stay in for 20 – 22 hours a day may increase transmission, not reduce it.

This point was made by TWC2 vice-president Alex Au in a Straits Times video of 17 April 2020:

It’s disappointing to see how our authorities are blindly transposing stay-at-home guidelines for single-family households onto foreign workers whose living conditions are so vastly different.

“Home” for foreign workers must be made safe

Once we recognise that having such high densities in the dormitory rooms lies at the root of the problem, it becomes obvious that reducing density must be top priority. TWC2 has been urging, from before dorm clusters appeared, that action must be taken to move large numbers of workers out to alternative accommodation. With some 300,000 workers in dormitories of all kinds, we will need to move about 150,000 out to reduce density by 50%. That will still leave 5 – 10 persons per room, but it should make a difference in transmission velocity should one man become infectious.

A similar outbreak and rapid spread of Covid-19 occurred in a Rome building housing migrants and refugees. See Fears for African refugees as coronavirus hits crowded Rome squat from Al Jazeera (18 April 2020). 500 residents on nine floors sounds very much like the density we have in our dorms.

The government has said that they have moved about 7,000 workers to alternative accommodation, and this number may increase slightly, but at the same time, the criterion for moving seems to be workers in essential sectors. Not only is 7,000 a mere 2% of the 300,000 living in dorms  — and so can make no perceptible difference to the crowding there — but choosing to move only those in essential sectors foghorns the real motivation: to protect Singapore’s basic infrastructure. In other words, what little relocation there has been was not done out of concern for workers’ health, but out of economic self-interest.

All the others are being left to the mercy of the virus in the dorms. How callous we are!

It is not that moving so many out is an impossibility. Singapore has not exhausted all possibilities for alternative temporary accommodation. We just haven’t displayed any willpower to do it.

Among the many possibilities are the acres upon acres of multi-storey and basement car parks, many of which are virtually empty during the lockdown. In particular, we can think of the shopping malls’ carparks and that at Changi Airport. There’s also the entire Terminal 2 at Changi which has suspended operations for 18 months. Surely its numerous holding rooms and vast concourse area can be used to house a few thousand workers.

Big Box

The header picture shows Big Box at Jurong East. It used to house a hypermarket,  a huge furniture showroom, an electronics store and several food outlets. It has at least four retail floors and several underground garages. Business was bad, and the building has been sitting almost empty for the last 6 – 12 months.

Why has it it not been requistioned to serve as alternative accommodation for workers?

Below are five more photos taken from inside the vast building. Most shops were shuttered, but a few were open to view. Just look at the available floor space!

Toilets, showers needed

Of course, floor space alone won’t do the trick. We’ll need to put in toilets, showers, power points for workers to charge their phones, wifi and furniture. To use car parks, especially basement properties, we may need to boost ventilation systems. The furniture is the easiest part — just move them from the existing dorms. As for putting in temporary toilets and showers, or laying electrical cables around, adding ventilation, or even putting up partitions to enable some privacy for sleeping areas, it seems absurd to wring our hands over these problems when the very workers we’re trying to move are mostly construction workers themselves.

They of all people have the skills to make a space habitable. Among them are plumbers, electricians, carpenters, tilers, partition-wall builders and painters. Many would have experience setting up temporary toilets and showers at HDB upgrading projects or fairgrounds. Just organise the materials they need, have a simple plan and let them get to work.

We are aware of the concern that carparks aren’t suitable for habitation, particularly because of ventilation issues. But these are emergency times. Singapore should not get into the mode of saying “No, cannot, because it is difficult”, which is ultimately defeatist and means no solutions can be found unless they are easy solutions. Sometimes no easy solutions are available.

Instead, we should recognise the difficulties, but say, “These are the difficulties before the space can be made habitable, so let’s plan and set about getting it done.”

Even basements can be made habitable. Have we forgotten bomb shelters?

But these are private properties

One possible reason why the government is not (yet) taking up our suggestion is that many of these available spaces are private properties, however empty they may be. They may feel they do not have the powers to requisition private property or do not want to have to pay rent. On the first point, we’ve have laws passed in just one day’s sitting of parliament, so there is precedent for immediate action if circumstances warrant it.

Not wanting to pay rent is perhaps the bigger stumbling block, because it goes totally against the grain of a policy principle — which is that the State is not responsible for the social safety net of foreigners.

We see this thinking manifested in the way the Ministry of Manpower expects employers to be responsible for a worker’s housing, repatriation, “maintenance and upkeep” (to use the words in the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act) even when the employer has terminated the work permit of the foreign worker.

Such a policy is not wrong in principle, but right or wrong is not the only test for good policy. Being operationally practical and realistic is an equally important test, as is awareness of unintended consequences.

In normal times, when accommodation costs are more or less predictable, or medical costs can be insured, passing the responsibility to employers is defensible policy. But in times like this, to stick to one’s guns, is just pigheaded. Employers cannot suddenly pick up the cost of hiring Big Box or Changi Terminal 2; it’s just not realistic.

It’s very telling that when the pandemic came, among the first things the Singapore government announced was that treatment for Covid-19 would be free. This applies to foreign workers too. So here is an example where the State decided very quickly that if employers were pressed to bear the cost, they would cover up infections or refuse treatment for their workers, actions that would be epidemiologically disastrous and very much against the public interest.

The same argument must now be applied to temporary alternative accommodation for dorm residents. Reducing density is critical for public health reasons. If the State has to step in to pay rent for private properties to rehouse workers, so be it. It’s against the public health interest to be obstinate.

And if obstinacy wins the day?

What lies ahead if infections continue to spread in the dormitories? The lockdown must continue. Even if there were to be a partial lifting for Singaporeans only, huge sectors of our economy would still be paralysed because they depend on foreign workers. The supply chain effect would be such that many other sectors would be impacted even if those other sectors didn’t rely much on foreign labour.

The economic cost may prove prolonged and horrendous.

And what about the risk that our healthcare sector becomes overwhelmed? From figures in page 27 of the publication Singapore in figures 2019, there were 10,826 hospital beds in public sector acute hospitals and another 1,776 beds in community hospitals (in 2018).

If Covid-19 infections rise to 10,000 or 20,000 — now within the realm of possibility — we will be in deep, deep trouble. Anyone with cancer, heart disease, dengue, appendicitis, or any number of non-Covid diseases may find it hard to get timely medical attention. Bear in mind too that even in normal times, our hospitals tend to operate at close to 100% capacity — without Covid-19 adding to caseload.

So, why aren’t we getting a move on the dorm problem?