Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) on Wednesday (29 April) lambasted an article by The Straits Times for its “callous” analysis on the daily number of new COVID-19 cases in Singapore.
HOME in its statement criticised the author’s purported position — that Singapore’s success in dealing with the outbreak should be evaluated not by the spike detected among migrant workers residing in dormitories, but instead based on the low number of cases in the community.
“Saying that our measure of success “is not the hundreds of new cases identified daily – mostly foreign workers in dormitories – but in the number of cases in the community”, as the author put it, is therefore a dangerous simplification of the extent of the problem, and also dismisses the systemic concerns that have been raised by and on behalf of migrant workers,” said the organisation.
“Claiming that infection numbers among the migrant worker community are not of ‘critical importance’ is also a callous attitude to take. Is this an indication that we will allow infections amongst the workers to spread as long as we can contain them within the dormitories?” HOME added.
Celebrating Singapore’s success in handling the outbreak within the community of citizens and residents, said HOME, “dehumanises the workers”, given how they are forced to face such distress while living under distressing conditions.
Overcrowding and food insecurity — the latter of which is particularly precarious for Muslim migrant workers observing the fasting month of Ramadan — remain as major problems in gazetted dormitories despite recent government attempts at intervention.
“That we may be on track to bringing ‘local cases’ of the virus under control but not in the dormitories is not an indicator of success, but a reminder that we have failed our migrant workers,” the organisation said.
Adopting a view such as that espoused in the ST article, HOME argued, only “reinforces existing attitudes that migrant workers are not individuals with equal worth as the rest of the population, but dispensable digits to our economy”.
“Migrant workers have played an indispensable role in building our nation – their well-being should be a matter that is of national concern.
“We must draw them away from the fringes of society and into the fold of our community. We can do better than to promote narratives that attempt to erase their visibility in our society,” urged the organisation.
Bernard Chen, former organising secretary for the Workers’ Party (WP) Youth Wing, separately said that the setting aside migrant workers from the rest of the Singapore community in terms of managing COVID-19 stems from the need “to isolate responsibility and celebrate our successes”.
“How selfish and arrogant can we be to continue to think that that we can be statistically separated from them?” Mr Chen questioned.
“Our numbers may be stable, but theirs are not. And that means that we are all not well,” he said.
“Singapore can only be as strong as our weakest link. Right now, we are weak and we have much to be ashamed of,” Mr Chen lamented.
Author’s statements in ST article “ignore reports” on complicated nature of COVID-19; migrant workers are no less susceptible to the virus regardless of age: HOME
HOME highlighted that the ST article had ignored reports regarding the complicated nature of COVID-19.
The organisation pointed out that “medical experts are still discovering new traits about it”, with accounts showing that the virus “may give rise to complications such as unexplained blood clots, and cause people to be susceptible to strokes” regardless of their age.
“It is therefore a false reassurance to the migrant worker community, and to the Singaporean population at large, to say that large numbers of infections in the dormitories are not a grave problem as those infected are “young and healthy”.
“We must accept that we are dealing with a novel enemy – we should avoid sweeping generalisations about how the virus will affect our bodies,” said HOME.
This was affirmed by infectious disease expert Leong Hoe Nam, who said in a webinar held by the Workers’ Party’s Youth Wing last Sunday (26 April) that even medical professionals are struggling to keep up with the ongoing influx of new information regarding how the virus develops.
Noting that the current understanding of COVID-19 is “very different” from virus outbreaks in the past, Dr Leong said that medical practitioners dealing with the virus are rapidly “changing our recommendations” according to the pace of knowledge obtained.
“As we gain knowledge, we change our tactic and cope with it,” he said. “The best analogy I can think of is that we are told to charge eastward … But the horse will be smarter than the rider. When it sees a cliff, the horse will stop, but the rider will jump forward.”
“As we see an obstacle, we realise we are making a mistake, and then make changes … But it makes things difficult for people on the ground, because we seem to be swaying and changing at our flight and fancy.
“We don’t seem to be on top of the situation, because we are discovering the behaviour of the viruses day by day,” Dr Leong explained.
The issue of food insecurity — migrant workers have raised issues with receiving food that is undercooked and unfit for consumption — is also a grave problem in dormitories.
Migrant workers in dormitories may consume less food than they need as a result of the poor quality of food, and this “may adversely affect their immune system and strength”, making them more susceptible to the virus, said HOME.
While dividing Singapore’s daily infection numbers into “community cases” and cases among migrant workers living in dormitories “may be useful in providing insights into infection patterns and for epidemiological reasons”, such a classification “should not be used as a tool to segregate and ‘other’ our already disenfranchised migrant workers”, said HOME.
“We should not believe that we have won the battle against the virus as soon as numbers in our community have gone down, while hundreds of migrant workers are hospitalised each day with the virus and the rest continue to face the fear and uncertainty of having the virus lurking in their living spaces,” said the organisation.
HOME previously urged increased capacity of mass testing for migrant workers in dormitories
HOME on 6 Apr earlier urged the Government to conduct wide-scale testing of migrant workers in accommodation with confirmed infections.
Highlighting that the high density of residents in such dormitories — coupled with the asymptomatic transmissibility of COVID-19 — may result in a new cluster of infections, HOME expressed its concerns regarding “recent cases where employers not only refused to cover workers’ medical expenses but also discouraged or even punished workers for seeing a doctor when unwell”.
“Unsurprisingly, workers usually see a doctor only when their symptoms are sustained or more serious. Workers’ poor access to timely medical care means those infected may go undetected until much later: lengthening the period that the virus may be transmitted.
“Keeping them in such living conditions creates systemic vulnerabilities waiting to erupt. This endangers the workers and the broader community: not only during pandemics, but even with smaller-scale disease outbreak such as TB,” the organisation warned.
Ministry of Health’s director of medical services, Kenneth Mak, said yesterday that while the Government will eventually need to test all migrant workers living in dormitories, “the first priority is really to get them out, make sure they are properly isolated, given the high rate of infection within those dormitories”.
“We’ve also seen in some dormitories that practically every foreign worker who presents to our medical team with symptoms of acute respiratory syndrome tests positive … Therefore, in those dormitories where the rate of infection is very high, it makes a lot of sense for us then to have as a priority, ensuring that all symptomatic foreign workers are isolated and taken away from their roommates,” he added.
Associate Professor Mak said that the Government carries out testing “a lot more strategically to target those dormitories where we are intending to find out a little more about where the level of infection is within them”.
Additionally, the Government is also aiming to focus on dormitories with isolated cases, as “that is where the chances of success are greatest in trying to disrupt the chain of transmission”, he added.