SINGAPORE – With a partial lockdown in effect, Singapore is grappling to contain its worsening Covid-19 outbreak amid a nearly threefold rise in cases since April 1.  

As stricter penalties for non-compliance come into force, the health crisis has brought the plight of the country’s badly-affected foreign worker community into sharper focus.

A single-day record high of 386 new cases was reported on Monday (April 13), along with the ninth causality to perish in the city-state since the onset of the epidemic.

The island-state recorded 2,918 Covid cases as of April 13, with the majority of recent infections affecting foreign worker dormitories across the island republic.

Singapore’s largest cluster, the S11 Dormitory in Punggol, houses some 13,000 workers and has 586 cases. There are 43 foreign worker dormitories in the city-state, where some 200,000 low-wage work-permit holders mostly from South Asia reside.

Eight dormitories have so far been sealed off and gazetted by authorities as “isolation areas.”

Local transmission is occurring on a smaller scale in Singapore’s wider community with apparent links to an earlier “second wave” spike in imported cases carried by residents returning from contagion-hit countries such as the United States, Britain and neighboring Malaysia.  

Commuters wearing face masks as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus leave the Mass Rapid Transit train station in Singapore on March 18, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Catherine Lai

According to the Ministry of Health (MoH), the number of imported cases rose until around mid-March, but has since come down to zero.

Stricter “circuit breaker” measures took force on April 7,  closing schools and non-essential businesses and banning social gatherings of any size.

Residents have also been called upon to stay indoors, but may visit supermarkets, convenience stores and pharmacies to purchase foodstuffs and other essentials.   

From April 12, those who do not adhere to safe distancing at hawker centers and markets will face a S$300 ($212) fine, where previously only a warning was issued for first-time offenders. Face masks have also been made mandatory for all customers visiting grocery stores and shops.  

“The problem is actually the compliance,” said Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases doctor at Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Hospital, alluding to reports of Singaporeans failing to abide by social distancing, prompting authorities to issue thousands of written warnings and hundreds of cash fines.

Foreign worker dormitories, however, are under a total lockdown with occupants expected to remain in their rooms and confined in some cases to the specific floors of the buildings where they reside.

Anywhere from eight to 20 men share a room, cramped conditions that prevent social distancing measures needed to curb Covid-19’s spread.

Migrant foreign workers at a construction site in Singapore. Photo: Twitter

“[I’m] afraid, we beware from the virus,” said a 32-year-old construction worker quarantined at a worksite dormitory that has not been gazetted. “But no go home is better, because now [I] stay here, it’s safe,” said the worker, who requested anonymity to avoid complications with his employer.

Having worked in Singapore’s construction sector since 2011, the native of Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka, earns S$1,400 (US$989) per month, part of which he remits to his family. His earnings, however, have been hit by the contagion-caused economic disruption.

“This month [I] cannot send [money] because company delay to pay. Last month, they pay,” he said.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a video message on April 10 that the government has been responding “comprehensively” to improve the welfare of foreign workers and contain the transmission of Covid-19 in their living quarters.

Moreover, worker salaries would be paid by employers and their medical needs would be provided for, he said.

“They came to Singapore to work hard for a living, and provide for their families back home…We feel responsible for their well-being,” said the long-serving premier in reference to foreign workers. “We will do our best to take care of their health, livelihood and welfare here, and to let them go home, safe and sound.”

Initial local media reports of squalid and unsanitary conditions in the dormitories prompted a public outcry, with the city-state’s former ambassador to the United Nations Tommy Koh describing conditions there as “a time bomb waiting to explode” and calling the treatment of foreign workers “disgraceful.”

Authorities have since worked to remedy poor conditions in the dormitories with a new multi-agency task force overseen by Teo Chee Hean, a senior minister and known confidant of Lee who is tasked with establishing medical facilities and triage clinics at the dorms, as well as managing food supplies and housekeeping.

Christine Pelly, a volunteer and executive committee member with local migrant workers’ rights group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), told Asia Times that workers inside the gazetted facilities they spoke to attest to various improvements at some of the dormitories since the isolation measures began.

Foreign workers wearing face masks as a preventive measure against the spread of the Covid-19 novel coronavirus look out from a fence of a workers’ dormitory in Singapore on April 9, 2020. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

“There is a concerted effort to try and address the issues, I get that sense. I think they’ve been working to put things right,” said Pelly in reference to the city-state’s Ministry of Manpower (MoM), whose minister Josephine Teo vowed in a Facebook post to raise the standard of dormitories after the Covid-19 outbreak is over.

Though Pelly said the quality of the catered food served to the workers had improved and that the cleaning regime had been stepped up, she raised concerns that the combination of movement restrictions and overcrowding could still expose otherwise healthy workers to Covid-19.

“From what I understand there is action going on to thin out the density of the dorms. Alternative accommodation is being arranged in various parts of Singapore. Though there are still conditions existing where social distancing is extremely difficult, where conditions are such that the cluster can increase. We still have that concern,” she said.

On March 23, prior to the recent uptick of infections, TWC2 published a letter in local broadsheet The Straits Times warning of the “undeniable” risk that a cluster could break out at a foreign worker dormitory. The rights group had then called on authorities to announce in advance their plans to rehouse workers should an outbreak occur.

“The outbreaks in the dorms highlight the problem with the PAP ignoring civil society and the people and thinking that they know best,” said Paul Tambyah, opposition politician and president of the Asia-Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, referring to Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

“TWC2 had highlighted the issue of crowded foreign worker dorms some time back, but their advice was unfortunately neglected,” said the infectious disease expert, who compared the dormitory lockdowns to the Diamond Princess cruise ship that became a Covid-19 hotbed after Japan barred passengers from disembarking the vessel in February.

Jolovan Wham, a labor and civil rights activist, said he believed the government “has the resources to nip the problem in the bud” but still needs to do more to provide decent living conditions to ensure as few transmissions as possible. Foreign workers “need to sleep in places which are hygienic, well ventilated, and with sufficient space,” he said.

A foreign worker at a dormitory in Singapore on April 9, 2020. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

More than 5,000 workers have reportedly been moved to temporary accommodation, including vacant public housing flats, multi-storey car parks, military barracks and offshore floating lodgings used in the marine and offshore industry, in an effort to reduce high-risk population density in the dormitories.

“In order to quickly control [virus spread at] the dormitory, we need to separate the dormitory workers as quickly as possible,” said Leong at Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Hospital. “The more we test them, the better we can control. It is imperative that we detect people even if they have mild symptoms.

“People who are screening the dormitory workers should be willing to do the test at the drop of a hat. Otherwise, they will still be exposing the other workers,” said the doctor, who expects island-wide infections to peak within the coming weeks as testing increases and unlinked cases of community transmission continue to rise.