Co-chair of Singapore’s COVID-19 task force, Lawrence Wong has in an interview with CNBC admitted that the safeguards in our migrant worker dormitories were not sufficient in the current COVID-19 outbreak.
When asked if the government accept that the conditions at the foreign worker dormitories were frankly appalling, frankly unhygienic and that this is an accident waiting to happen from a public health point of view and if so, are those condition going to change. Wong who is also the National Development Minister and Second Minister for Finance 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.”
He continued to state, “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. It cannot be designed in the same manner as it was before.”
How does this gel with the words uttered by his colleague, Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo who implied that she did not need to apologise to the migrant workers in Singapore for the corona virus outbreak because she was not aware that any of the migrant workers wanted her to.
If safeguards were insufficient as conceded by Wong to CNBC, shouldn’t Teo apologise nevertheless? The dormitories are after all under her ministry’s purview.
Secondly, Wong did not answer the question raised by CNBC directly. When asked point blank if he thought the living conditions were “frankly appalling, frankly unhygienic and an accident waiting to happen”, Wong instead chose to focus on how the dormitories have improved over the years.
“Their living environment has improved, their dormitories have recreational facilities provided within their compounds, there are convenient access to amenities as well.” said Wong in the interview.
This skirts the question altogether. Just because something has improved does not mean that it is not appalling, unhygienic or an accident waiting to happen. It would seem that up till this juncture where there are over 20,000 cases of COVID-19 in Singapore, the government is still not willing to concede that the living conditions of our migrant workers are poor and that the government had allowed it to be so under its watch.
He also implied that the spread of the virus was not due to the government dropping the ball in relation to migrant worker dormitories but rather, that the spread was caused by a “confluence” of factors such as social places and worksites.
It is of course likely that there was contagion at social places and common worksites but it is difficult to see how housing conditions would not have contributed to significantly to the spread and his unwillingness to take responsibility for that is disingenuous.
Instead of putting his hand up and admitting that the dormitories were not up to scratch for human habitation in a first world country, Wong deflected the question by saying that the dormitories were designed for “communal living”. But this begs the question of why it needed to be so communal in the first place? Was it a case of cost cutting over ensuring that the migrant workers were housed like grown men instead of boy scouts on a school camp?
The entire dormitory system needs to be overhauled and the ministry that enabled this whole fiasco needs to be answerable. It is not enough to finger communal living designs or blame a “confluence” of factors for the COVID-19 cases in the migrant worker dormitories. Nor does justifying how dormitories have improved over the years detract from the fact that under this government’s watch, COVID-19 infections exploded in our small country and exposed to the entire world how badly we treat our migrant workers.