By TWC2 volunteer Frank P, based on a phone interview in April 2020

“My feeling is happy.”  Raju has been diagnosed with the coronavirus and is serving a quarantine order.

How could he be happy?

“Very nice place.  Sleeping place, location, doctor every time call me…Ministry of Health give me the good food.  Many things take care me.” Referring to his staff at where he’s staying, “Anything I need I call him, he bring me.  Every way is good.” He’s never been so pampered since he left mommy’s lap.

So, where is he staying?

Raju is currently at D’Resort in Pasir Ris, which has been converted into an isolation and recovery facility for patients who are Covid-positive but don’t need hospitalisation. See this Straits Times article from 24 March 2020. It’s like a 3-star hotel but now requisitioned, and paid for, by the government.  The conditions sound more comfortable than any purpose-built dormitory in Singapore.

He has TV, Wi-Fi, good food, a bed and balcony.  The resort typically costs over $100 per night.  He, like most foreign construction workers, earned a basic salary of about $500 a month.  Out of this income, he would send about $300 home to his family in Bangladesh and keep the remaining $200 for living expenses.  A resort like this was beyond his means when he had a stable monthly income.  Now unemployed, it’s yet another strange twist of fate brought about by the coronavirus.

He shares a room in a resort with one other man and likes the food he’s given.  In comparison, worker dormitories typically house 12-20 men per room, and reports of food quality have varied widely.  It seems that catching the virus has put Raju in much more comfortable housing than the vast majority of migrant workers in Singapore.

Probably caught it from his room-mate

Raju had been living in a rented room in the Lavender area, and another man sharing the room was the first to exhibit symptoms. Soon, Raju himself felt ill. “Some days before [going to hospital] feeling not well.” He tried to self-medicate. “Some general medicine tried, but no good body.”

On the night of Friday, 3 April, at the advice of TWC2’s social worker David, Raju called an ambulance for himself and was taken to Raffles Hospital to be tested.  The same night, he was transferred to Tan Tock Seng Hospital.  Two days later, he was told he’d tested positive for the coronavirus.

“I no is scared.  I just surprised…I just thinking, this something ah.  Happened only.”  He was not afraid of the virus, but bemused at how quickly his hospitalization and subsequent diagnosis turned his life in unexpected ways.

“Hospital I stay five days [until 8 April], then transferred to this resort, isolation.”  Raju’s case seems relatively mild, thankfully.  At D’Resort, he is tested once a week and reports on his condition multiple times daily.

“When I am negative, that time I go home.  But I still positive that’s why I stay here.”  Our understanding is that he will need two consecutive negative results to be released from isolation.  In the meantime, he receives phone calls from medical personnel three times daily and reports on his temperature and condition.  He watches YouTube videos on his phone.  He says he doesn’t use the TV, but he calls his family every day.

Mother sobbed on hearing the news

It was on 5 April, while he was still at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, that he called to tell his family he had Covid-19. “My mother listen.  She many cry. Five minute cannot talk.  Hurtful.  My brother also many cry.  Everyday call me.  Looking me, seeing me [on video calls].” But the family also say, “You is very lucky, Singapore treatment is very good.”

When Raju is Covid-free, he wants to go back to work.  “I want to work Singapore because now my family is very crisis.  One person, only income.”  Raju is the sole provider for four family members in Bangladesh.  He is painfully aware that he hasn’t sent money home since 12 March.

His life has been eventful enough even before Covid-19. He was injured at work in December 2019 — and that’s how he originally came to TWC2’s attention.

According to him, his boss told him soon after the accident, “If you can work, can stay at my company.  If cannot work, must go back [to Bangladesh].”  Since he couldn’t work following the accident, Raju’s work permit was cancelled. However, in view of the fact that he was under medical treatment for the elbow injury and pursuing an injury compensation claim, he was put on a Special Pass. This allows him to continue staying in Singapore, though technically, he is no longer an employee of the company.

The government has said that foreign workers unable to work because of the coronavirus are entitled to salary. Specifically, the statement on a webpage of the Ministry of Manpower says,  “All employees (whether locals or foreign) who are issued with [Quarantine Order] will be treated as being on paid hospitalisation leave and will be paid their salaries as normal.”

It is not entirely clear, but But Raju is probably not entitled to a salary since he is no longer on a Work Permit.

The above advisory from MOM, telling companies to pay their workers under quarantine, is good, but men like Raju who have already been cast aside by their companies fall through the cracks.  If Raju’s employer had been willing to wait out Raju’s recovery and let him resume work when well enough — which good employers are supposed to do —  Raju would still be employed and able to rest more easily, knowing his family would be cared for.

Unfortunately, Singapore has acquired a habit of seeing migrant workers as disposable items — use and throw. So employers are quick to cancel Work Permits as soon as an employee is injured.

Throwing workers away is throwing money away

Besides the financial peril that such actions put people like Raju in, there’s also a greater irony. Singapore is spending a  lot of money nursing Raju back to health from Covid-19. His injured elbow will probably recover in the period he spends at the resort. But because his Work Permit had been cancelled by his employer, as soon as his injury compensation case is over, he will likely be repatriated — such being the usual endpoint of an injury case.

So the irony is that after spending all that money, and after he has (probably) acquired immunity to Covid-19, we throw an asset like him out of Singapore, probably to be replaced by a fresh-faced inexperienced worker newly imported from Bangladesh, who may not have immunity.

Are we such a smart nation, after all?