On 18 April 2020, the Ministry of Manpower put up a “precautionary” notice requiring all work permit and S-pass holders in the construction sector to observe a mandatory two-week isolation at home. It explained that

The recent rise in the number of foreign workers infected with COVID-19 has been mostly concentrated in dormitories. However, contact tracing suggests that transmissions at common construction worksites may have contributed to the increase in numbers.

We know that several purpose-built dormitories have been put under quarantine for some time now. Residents of those dormitories are not allowed out and if there were any workers in essential sectors, they would have been moved out to alternative accommodation.

Our sense is that residents of dormitories that have not been declared as Isolation Areas, i.e.not put under quarantine, have been going out to work, though within the dorms themselves, there have been stricter and stricter rules about mingling.

However, when the “circuit breaker” was applied throughout Singapore on 7 April 2020 closing all non-essential offices and requiring widespread work-from-home, we thought that most construction sites would also be made dormant. So we’re somewhat surprised to infer from this latest notice that worksites have still been operating.

Be that as it may, we wondered, in light of the latest advisory, how serious the problem of transmission was in dorms whose residents might still have gone out to work.

Now, as an NGO, we don’t have access to the government’s data. However, we have a very capable team diligently collecting whatever they can find from announcements and media reports. Thus, our figures cannot be taken as absolutely accurate especially when official announcements sometimes change their format and classifications, leaving us a little perplexed.

Also, as with all infection numbers, much depends on how active testing has been at certain sites. The more testing is carried out, the more cases may be found.

Anyway, this is what we found:

In those dormitories where nobody was allowed out, the number of Covid-19 cases have been increasing by an average of 23% each day from the previous day’s figures.

In those purpose-built dorms that have not been put under quarantine, our trawled data shows that cases have been increasing by an average of 64% each day.

We cannot draw any conclusions about modes of transmission with just these simple numbers and without access to contact tracing data. But the rather stark difference in transmission rates between quarantined and non-quarantined dorms suggests that either

(a) mingling of workers within non-quarantined dorms is much greater; or

(b) infections are bring brought into the non-quarantined dorms from the outside, or both.

(and possibly more reasons too).

Going to work while infectious

From the start of this pandemic, TWC2 has been concerned about workers going out to work while infectious. Some may be asymptomatic, but others may be mildly symptomatic.

Why are the symptomatic ones still going to work? Why aren’t they going straight to the doctor?

Unfortunately some employers make it difficult for workers to get to a doctor. Company rules may say that workers must first ask for permission before they can visit a clinic, permission that is not easily obtained.

Some employers have also instituted penalties for workers missing a day’s work. These penalties are imposed even for reasons such as being ill with medical leave (unless very severely so). TWC2 has heard from countless foreign workers over the years that their employers levy a fine for absence from work of as much as $50 per day in addition to docking the wages for the day. The typical wage could be just $20 to $25 per day, so the fine is a very big financial loss. Effectively, the worker loses three days’ wages for being absent for one day.

TWC2 has highlighted this problem before. Even prior to the emergence of dorm clusters of Covid-19, we had written to the Straits Times to point this risk out. Regrettably, we haven’t seen any preemptive action from the authorities against such abusive employment practice that discourages workers from getting immediate medical attention.

Once a worker is infected through a colleague at a worksite, he brings the virus back with him to the dorm where, with 10 – 20 men sharing a room, the cycle of infecting others repeats itself.

Imagine: all it takes is one infected man in a room and it can multiply to 10 or 20 new cases given the close quarters that they live in.

Exponential growth

Let’s come back to our table. What does an 64% average daily increase of cases mean? That’s the figure from the non-quarantined dorms. It’s terrible. It means the number of cases doubles in a day-and-a-half.

This is not to say that the situation in quarantined dorms is much better. Although the 23% average daily increase of cases for this group of dorms looks much lower than the non-quarantined dorms, 23% is actually very bad too. At this rate, the number of cases doubles every three to four days.

This is very worrying for it means that despite a severe lockdown, with men required to stay in their rooms at all times except for perhaps 2 hours a day, with them having to eat meals in their rooms — i.e. as strict as a maximum security prison — the virus is still spreading.

Cases till rising at S11 Punggol and Westlite Toh Guan

It’s been two weeks since the first two dorms (S11 at Punggol and Westlite Toh Guan) were locked down. Since entry and exit would have been severely curtailed, one might expect that infection rates would eventually plateau though at a high level because of crowding in the rooms. Below is a table showing the cases — again based on our collection of public announcements and media reports — at these two dorms through the same mid-April period.

With the caveat that our dataset is small (we’re only covering six days) cumulative infections do not appear to be plateauing. If the average rate of increase continues, S11 with an average 19% increase each day will see doubling of cases every four days, while Westlite Toh Guan with an average 11% increase each day will see a doubling every week.

When is it going to stop rising? We certainly hope it will be soon. How much damage to the economy will we suffer before it does? And how much pressure will it put on our healthcare system if infections only begin to plateau at a very high level?