By Rebecca L, based on interviews and review of case notes in April 2020.

On 19 April 2020, Sorandi (an alias) was taken to Tan Tock Seng Hospital in an ambulance after suffering severe chest pains. He had been requesting to see a doctor for more than a week by then.

Sorandi is only one of several workers at Sungei Tengah Lodge who faced difficulties seeing a doctor for non-Covid-19 illnesses in the early days of the quarantine. One of his dorm-mates, Ghisao (an alias), was initially told by dormitory security that he would have to pay $150 in ambulance charges to get Panadol to relieve pain from his earlier hip injury. See our story Need paracetamol? Call ambulance, pay $150.

“They take care of big problems,” explained Ghisao, “but not small problems.”

Indeed, when the quarantine began, employers, ministry, and dormitory managers seemed uncertain and unprepared to deal with the full brunt of workers’ needs. To a degree, teething problems are understandable, but when someone is in pain and needs a quick response, any wait or absence of clear information soon becomes bewildering and frustrating.

Sorandi’s merry-go-round

Sorandi had been feeling unwell since February. As news of the Covid-19 pandemic broke, he informed his employer, and took the initiative to visit Changi General Hospital on 5 April (possibly 4 April), where he was then given five days’ of medical leave and prescribed medicine to last the same five days. He says he was also given a Covid-19 test, receiving the result (negative) a day later. Because Sorandi’s English is weak, we at TWC2 are not 100% sure that what he calls a Covid test is really a Covid swab test.

In any case, after finishing the course of medication, he did not get better.

“After five days medicine finish,” said Sorandi, “same problem coming: coughing, sore throat, body pain. But this time, lockdown already, cannot go outside.”

He finished his medication on 10 April, a day after Sungei Tengah Lodge was gazetted as an ‘isolation area’, i.e. put under quarantine. So he couldn’t just go out on his own to see a doctor or top up a prescription anymore.

His subsequent pleas for medical attention were met with conflicting answers. When he approached dormitory security, he was told that since he did not have a fever, he would need his employer’s permission to see a doctor. When he called his employer, he was told that “MOM [Ministry of Manpower] would be taking care of workers in the dorms.”

Then he called Migrant Workers Centre (MWC) and Sorandi says he was told to call his employer.

TWC2 subsequently stepped in and requested MWC’s assistance on the matter.

Out of medicine for days

Soon after the lockdown, a medical post was quickly established at Sungei Tengah Lodge. However, by the time Sorandi was able to see the doctor there, he had already been out of medication for four days. On 14 April, he says, he was tested again for Covid-19 at the medical post, and given another three days worth of medication. However, the results never came back, and Sorandi’s symptoms continued to persist even after he finished his new round of medication.

On 19 April, after days of anxiety and stress, Sorandi’s condition took a turn for the worse.

“That night, suddenly many pain coming. My friend all inform security. Security coming, say my body problem very serious.”

In the evening, Sorandi was then taken to Tan Tock Seng Hospital in an ambulance, where he was tested for Covid-19 again. The next morning, the results came back (negative once more). After his condition stabilized, he was encouraged to return to the dorm and not linger in the hospital, risking exposure to the coronavirus from other patients. Sorandi took the advice and returned to the dorm to rest in his own room.

Sorandi has been feeling well after being discharged from the hospital. However, the result of the test taken on 14 April in the dormitory has not (yet) been returned to him.

“I think test negative,” he explains. “That’s why they never give result.”

Beybul’s circus

Even with the establishment of a medical post at Sungei Tengah Lodge, ill workers continue to face conflicting instructions and poor access to healthcare. 

Like Sorandi and Ghisao, Beybul stays at Sungei Tengah Lodge. He has suffered from chronic gastric problems for the last five years. On 26 March, he visited Ng Teng Fong General Hospital, where he was prescribed three months worth of medicine. However, at the time, he only collected 20 days of medicine, intending to return for the rest later. He did not expect that he would suddenly be placed into quarantine. Sungei Tengah Lodge was declared an “isolation area” on 9 April 2020, the fourth dormitory to be quarantined.

As he ran out of medication, he soon found that the medical post at Sungei Tengah Lodge was not equipped to deal with his gastric problems.

“Actually, they are only checking for Covid symptom, I think,” Beybul said at the time to TWC2. “If emergency, then go hospital.”

But what if it’s not an emergency?

The medical post stocked only one out of Beybul’s three prescribed medications. Beybul was also given only one week’s worth of medication, even though he had been prescribed three months’ worth, and told that he could ask the dorm to fill out the rest of his prescription at a pharmacy.

But let’s be realistic. Can dorm staff be expected to act as errand-runners for as many as 25,000 residents within?

Unsurprisingly, Beybul was skeptical that the dormitory would help him, especially as other workers staying in Sungei Tengah Lodge had previously had bad experiences with dormitory managers.

“Before this, when we complain not feeling well, dormitory security angry,” another worker at the same dorm explains. “Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t listen, sometimes angry. Very angry.”

TWC2 intervened to assist Beybul, liaising with Healthserve (a heathcare-focussed NGO), MWC, and dormitory managers to get Beybul his medicine. Responding to our request, Healthserve managed to establish contact with the medical team at Sungei Tengah Lodge. A message was then passed to Beybul that he could seek help from the medical post directly to fill his prescription.

Not allowed to leave his room to see a doctor downstairs

Yet, when Beybul first attempted to visit the medical post, he was barred by security from leaving his room to see the doctor. Although TWC2 caseworkers eventually managed to reach the dormitory to explain the situation, by the time Beybul was released, the doctor had already left for the day.

The next day, Beybul made a second attempt to visit the medical post, and was barred from leaving again. This time, the guard took his work permit and prescription down to the medical post. Some time later, the guard returned with two charcoal tablets, not the medication that was prescribed.

By then, it had been more than a week, with Beybul still in pain and growing anxious without his medicine. TWC2 despatched a volunteer to fill the prescription and deliver it to Sungei Tengah Lodge. However, this seemingly simple operation was yet again met with setbacks. Because Beybul was not physically present, the first polyclinic the volunteer visited refused to dispense the medicine. At another pharmacy, our volunteer was quoted $160 for only two weeks of medicine, when Beybul would have paid only $30 at a public clinic or hospital. In the end, despite the price, our volunteer bought the drugs, and delivered it to Beybul at Sungei Tengah Lodge.

Thinking the matter resolved, caseworkers heaved a sigh of relief. However, they were soon puzzled to hear that the medicine had not reached Beybul. The next day, we called dormitory managers, and were horrified when they said they knew nothing about the medicines. Caseworkers insisted that they look for the package.

Finally, 24 hours after it was delivered to the dormitory, the medicine was recovered and sent up to Beybul. TWC2 caseworkers are coordinating to have the remaining one-and-a-half weeks of his prescription delivered to him.

No system in place

Although both cases were eventually resolved, the important take-away is this: Sorandi and Beybul both faced challenges that would have been insurmountable without external help. In other words, there is no system in place; just to achieve these rather basic objectives of seeing a doctor and getting prescriptions filled required multiple phone calls and ad hoc work-arounds.

With hundreds of thousands of migrant workers currently in lockdown, we can’t help but wonder just how many workers are stuck in situations like our two clients, with no way out.