By John Gee

Although Singapore was one of the first countries outside China to have COVID-19 cases and international understanding of this new illness was then pretty rudimentary, the government mounted a vigorous and effective response that came to be viewed with admiration across the world – with justification. As infection elsewhere soared, Singapore’s main outstanding problem seemed to be how to prevent imported cases from reigniting a wider infection in the country.

Then came the first cases identified in migrant worker dormitories, which multiplied over the following days. Here was Singapore’s Achilles heel.

News announcements during the early circuit breaker period that said, “The majority of cases reported are in migrant worker dormitories” really didn’t do justice to the figures they describe: these are the overwhelming majority of cases – 764 out of a total of 799 on 27 April. It is indeed troubling that there are still new cases being found among Singaporeans and PRs every day, but if these numbers (just 14 on 27 April), were the country’s only cases, Singapore’s reputation for dealing effectively with the coronavirus outbreak would be pretty well intact today.

One way of assessing how the spread of COVID-19 among male migrant workers has affected Singapore’s case load is to compare the difference it has made to the country’s ranking among the world’s states in terms of number of infections. Worldometers publishes statistics on the outbreak that are updated throughout the course of each day as new figures come in. As of 27 April, Singapore had the 26th highest number of cases in the world, at 14,423. If Singapore’s dormitory-accommodated migrant workers (12,172 COVID-19 cases) were the only people in Singapore to be infected, the country’s ranking, at 29th place, would hardly change, but if the dormitory cases were subtracted from Singapore’s total, it would drop right down to 62nd place, below Greece and above Oman, even though this figure of 2,251 others still includes some male migrant workers who did not stay in dormitories.

The explosion of infection among migrant workers seemed like a bolt from the blue to most Singaporeans and PRs, although NGOs, including TWC2, had previously warned of the potential for infectious diseases to spread rapidly once one took hold among migrant workers. Many were shocked at the consequent revelation of the conditions in which the great majority of migrant workers live. The fact that the infection first took hold in the purpose-built dormitories that are meant to be the best male migrant worker accommodation only underlined just how poor conditions are overall. Out of a sense of humanity and empathy, many say that there must be far-reaching change. Another factor weighing in favour of reform is a sense of the reputational damage that Singapore may face as a result of what migrant workers in the country are undergoing.

NGOs and citizens have been critical of various aspects of the authorities’ handling of the infection among migrant workers, and this has played a part in identifying key areas of concern and honing official responses, as well as encouraging an outpouring of public generosity. However, it is only fair to say that the growth in cases has stretched public health resources to the limit and outstripped testing capacity: in the circumstances, response gaps were inevitable and difficult choices would have to be made at times.

A more basic problem underlies the current difficulties in countering COVID-19. The vulnerability of male migrant workers to infection is not primarily due to anything that has happened since the outbreak began, but to a pre-existing condition: the status established for them years before COVID-19 appeared.  It was constructed from policies, practices and attitudes that housed male migrant workers in crowded accommodation, kept their wages low and made them dependent on keeping the goodwill of their employers in order to remain employed. The workers tolerated poor conditions of accommodation and transportation and other poor treatment, often including putting up with illness rather than seeking medical attention and time off, as the price to be paid for retaining a job.

Simply tweaking the existing conditions will not be enough to put this situation right: a little more living space and a few more showers won’t fix it. An overhaul of migrant worker policy is long overdue, but now at least, there may be stronger public support for it than ever before and a readiness to accept that, no matter what pleas of cost or inconvenience may be made, there are minimum standards for the treatment of these fellow human beings that must be affirmed, in deeds as well as words.

John Gee is a former president of Transient Workers Count Too and continues to actively contribute to our research efforts.