Singapore’s initial success at combating the spread of the Corona virus had earned Singapore and its government international praise. This positive attention brought international recognition for Singapore’s status as a rich, efficient and well run first world country.
That media scrutiny, however, comes at a price.
Now that Singapore appears to have faltered in keeping COVID-19 in check as cases spike, the world’s media is also broadcasting these developments to an international audience.
Cases increasing daily aside, the global press coverage may have also publicised a less favourable side of our pristine nation state — that of how our blue collar foreign labour live and the parallel universe that exists within our shores.
Most of the new cases of infection are found within the ranks of our foreign blue collar workers. A large part of why this is the case is because they live in cramped quarters where isolation will be of limited success. Pictures of their quarters have now been published in the international media and makes for uncomfortable viewing.
As the international media dig deeper to uncover how it all began to go wrong for Singapore, it also became apparent that while the government pulled out all the stops for its citizens, permanent residents and white collar employment pass holders, it completely disregarded the blue collar foreigner underclass and now it is this underclass that is exposing the weaknesses in our handling of COVID-19.
Under different circumstances, Singapore’s shortcomings might have gone by unnoticed but because Singapore was so highly praised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) at the start meant that Singapore will not be afforded the luxury of being ignored as things begin to unravel.
As of April 15, out of 3,699 cases recorded in Singapore, 1,711 were linked to outbreaks in migrant worker dormitories.
Reuters has painstakingly pointed out the catalogue of errors and seeming indifference to the plight of our foreign workers.
- Singapore government order restricting doctors to single hospitals to prevent them spreading the virus sharply reduced volunteer health services depended upon by some workers
- Nationwide mask distribution at the start of the outbreak excluded migrant workers living in dormitories.
- Measures introduced recently to confine tens of thousands of workers to packed quarters may increase the risk of infection spread
While it doesn’t paint a pretty picture, it is still a picture that we need to face up to.
There was zero regard for our foreign workers even though they live among us. Where is our Minister of Manpower Josephine Teo on all of this? Should she forfeit more than one month of her salary for this debacle? Or rather, is she even up for the job?
According to Reuters, Singapore’s health and manpower ministries have not responded to specific questions. Both ministries instead referred Reuters to previous statements they had made on their virus containment measures.
Do the failures to respond indicate that they know that they have dropped the ball in front of an international audience and have no satisfactory answer?
Reuters goes on to state that “the situation in the migrant dormitories highlights the different standards applied to the mainly Bangladeshi and Indian manual workers whose labour has helped build the glitzy, modern city-state, and the rest of the population. The government has put up Singapore residents returning from overseas in expensive hotels to limit contagion. Some migrant workers have been confined to bunk rooms that they said had blocked toilets and overflowing refuse bins“.
This is a crushing indictment on the racist and classist policies that our leaders have enabled. In black and white, it is indefensible.
HealthServe, a charity that runs volunteer led doctors and nurses to offer subsidised medical care to some foreign blue collar workers had also flagged to the government that its directive to restrict public hospital staff from working in more than one hospital to prevent cross contamination would deprive the most needy workers of medical care.
The government’s response to this was that nothing could be done. Was there really nothing that could be done? Surely protective clothing and hygiene observation would have prevented the spread? Therein lies the weaknesses of our reactive (and sometimes illogical) measures. This move would surely have exacerbated the spread and loss of lives.
Jeremy Lim, chairman of the medical services committee at HealthServe said that access to cheap healthcare could have made it easier to spot infections among migrant workers at an earlier stage.
Ignorance is not a defence and even if it could be a mitigating factor, it cannot be used here because the government already KNEW about the vulnerabilities of the foreign blue collar workers.
According to Reuters, “the potential exposure of Singapore’s migrant workers to infectious diseases was a concern of health experts before the coronavirus outbreak. A review of previous disease outbreaks in Singapore such as malaria, dengue, zika and tuberculosis showed migrant workers were disproportionately affected, in part due to their living and working conditions, according to a study by Singapore scholars published in the Journal of Travel Medicine in 2017.”
How does this revelation stack up against Manpower Minister Josephine Teo’s defensive retort: “It is not as if we have not done anything to try and manage the situation“?
Instead of dealing with the potential outbreak in foreign workers quarters, were the government instead stretching their resources trying to hold a general election?