The Government should “reduce opacity” in terms of deciding on and explaining how it manages the COVID-19 outbreak among the migrant worker population in Singapore, said non-governmental organisation Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) in a statement on Thursday evening (7 May).
“We are repeatedly told that the graveness of the Covid-19 situation in Singapore is mitigated by the fact that the bulk of the cases are made up of young migrant workers.
“However, a pattern has emerged, where migrant workers in their 30s and 40s have contracted the disease, and passed away due to heart-related problems,” the organisation noted.
Increasing transparency regarding such a matter, particularly when it concerns life and death, will solidify public trust in how the Government manages the crisis among the migrant worker community, HOME added.
“Clearer explanations and reporting deaths due to comorbidities as part of daily situation reports will provide clarity on the parameters which the authorities are using to define whether a death is caused by the disease,” said HOME, noting that separating deaths from COVID-19 and deaths with COVID-19 “is a very technical matter, not understood by many”.
Singapore has recorded 20 deaths as at 12pm on Wednesday (6 May). A total of 20,939 cases were preliminarily confirmed by the Ministry of Health as at 12pm today.
Health Minister Gan Kim Yong on Monday told Parliament that Singapore has “managed to keep death rates low so far” despite the high case numbers, “partly because most of our patients are younger and partly due to the tireless efforts of our healthcare workers providing good and timely medical care for all our COVID-infected patients”.
“We must continue to do all we can to save patients who become gravely ill, and keep fatalities as low as possible,” he added.
HOME, however, highlighted that “there have been other deceased individuals who have been diagnosed with Covid-19, but whose deaths have not been included into the national death tally” for the virus.
The organisation observed that five out of six such individuals were migrant workers between the ages of 30 and 50.
While one of these deaths was caused by a fall from a height, HOME noted that the cause of death in the other four cases “have not been attributed to complications arising out of Covid-19, but to heart-related issues, such as heart attacks and ischaemic heart disease”.
“Besides stating that these deaths were not due to complications arising out of Covid-19, it has not been clear why they have not been counted into the official tally of Covid-19 deaths,” said the organisation.
Migrant workers, said HOME, will find it reassuring if the authorities informed them clearly about what is known about COVID-19 “rather than to state, without clear reasoning, why the deaths of their compatriots have not been classified as having been caused by Covid-19 when they have been diagnosed with the same”.
Over 80 per cent migrant workers living in dormitories reveal difficulty in practicing social distancing: HOME
The cramped conditions in migrant worker dormitories remain a huge risk to individuals residing in them — a risk that migrant workers are very aware of.
Findings from a survey released by HOME and CARE revealed that from 100 workers who took part in the survey, 60 per cent of them said that their rooms are cramped, and 80 per cent said that it was difficult to practice social distancing.
“We are also troubled by accounts by some migrant workers who have tested positive for Covid-19, who face delays in being removed from their crowded rooms to receive medical attention.
“Many migrant workers don’t receive regular medical attention and are afraid of seeing a doctor for fear of incurring higher costs for their employers and losing their jobs.
“As a result, they may also not be aware of underlying medical conditions they have developed and may have more adverse clinical outcomes while contracting an unknown disease such as Covid-19,” HOME warned.
“Our migrant worker population is anxious as they are aware that they are at high risk of contracting the virus,” said HOME, in calling for the Government to lower the density of the dormitories.
Singapore’s apparent “reluctance” to reduce the density of the dormitories, said HOME, “suggests that we are prepared to let migrant workers get infected as long as it does not spread to the rest of the population”.
Such a view “only reinforces discrimination and exclusion of the migrant worker community”, said the organisation.
Government looking into new housing arrangements for migrant workers, to be ready in a year or two: National Development Minister Lawrence Wong
At the end of last month, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong announced at a press briefing by the multi-ministry task force on COVID-19 that the Government is looking into new housing arrangements for migrant workers who have recovered from COVID-19.
Mr Wong stated that this new arrangement is part of the authorities’ long-term housing plans for the migrant workers, who typically live in sardine-packed dormitories provided by their private operators.
He added that the plan will begin now and eventually be ready in a year or two.
More recently, Mr Wong, in an interview with CNBC on Tuesday, admitted that the safeguards in Singapore’s migrant worker dormitories were not sufficient in the current COVID-19 outbreak.
When asked if the Government accepts that the conditions at the dormitories were appalling and unhygienic — and a ticking time bomb from a public health standpoint — and if so, whether such conditions will change, Mr Wong said: “The issue is really that these dormitories are designed for communal living, where the workers eat together, they live together, and they cook together.”
“And despite the best efforts at putting in place precautions and safeguards, reminding the dormitory operators that these non-essential communal activities have to be ceased at the start of the outbreak, I think the lesson we’ve learnt from this experience is that with this pandemic, the unprecedented pandemic, the safeguards were not sufficient, and the design of the dormitories have to change,” said Mr Wong.
“It cannot be designed in the same manner as it was before,” said Mr Wong.