Conducting mass testing of migrant workers living in dormitories is most effective when deployed as a part of “an overall strategy” in containing the spread of COVID-19 in Singapore, but may do very little in managing the outbreak if other basic elements are not attended to, said migrant labour rights non-profit organisation Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2).
In a statement on Friday (22 May), TWC2 said that while widespread testing “may give a good indication of the proportion of a population who have been infected but been asymptomatic, or who have recovered after a mild infection” and “a few active cases”, it will not serve as an efficient tool in situations “where testing kits may be in short supply and laboratories overstretched”.
The organisation pointed out that testing migrant workers who live in dormitories — which have been known to house as many as 12 persons per room — “did not make a lot of sense” if there have been no plans “to move out men who tested negative”.
This is because cramped conditions in a mega-dormitory where COVID-19 cases have been confirmed poses “a high likelihood of infection continuing to spread” where the workers residing there “could fall ill a day or two later” after being tested.
TWC2 said that instead of mass testing, a more focused approach towards testing would be more reasonable.
Noting that focused testing “was a key part of Singapore’s initial successful response to COVID-19”, TWC2 said that when individuals in the general population in particular were reported to have fallen ill, “a vigorous effort was made to trace their contacts and test them”.
“This meant that each group of infections that was formed could be ringfenced through hospitalization and isolation, limiting community spread.
“This is consistent with a dual approach of seeking to contain and eliminate the infection within the general population, where infection was limited and conditions for containment were favourable,” said the organisation.
In contrast, pre-existing conditions of migrant workers’ employment “meant that containment of infection meant isolating a big segment of the country’s workforce, whether ill or healthy”.
TWC2 also pointed out that the figures for testing in dormitories “seem low compared to those for the population outside, while the positive results are very high, compared to what has been found outside”.
The organisation referred to figures released by the Ministry of Health (MOH), which stated that around 82,000 migrant workers in dormitories have been tested from the start of the outbreak up to 19 May.
A total of 191,260 unique persons have been tested as of 18 May. The same day, around 26,000 cases of infections were confirmed in the migrant worker dormitories.
“This is approximately 32% of the 82,000 dorm residents tested, suggesting that nearly one-third of those tested were found to be positive,” said TWC2.
“Even if we only consider tests carried out since the dorm infections overtook other infections around 8 April, a figure we estimate to be about 144,000 tests based on other MOH data, dorm residents comprise only 57% of this figure,” the organisation added.
This is despite migrant workers living in dormitories making up more than 90 per cent of total confirmed infections in Singapore.
Mass testing does not address “basic problems” concerning migrant workers’ employment; changing policies on migrant workers’ protections a better move: TWC2
Noting that the Government’s assurance that it will ramp up COVID-19 testing of all migrant workers living in dormitories, TWC2 said that while the move is “good”, changing policies and practices that lead to problems and abuses of migrant workers “is better than endlessly dealing with damage that has already occurred”.
National Development Minister Lawrence Wong on 13 May said that 323,000 migrant workers living in dormitories would be tested for COVID-19, which, according to TWC2, indicates that “more attention is being given to how to resume work” in terms of the Government’s policy on COVID-19 crisis management.
TWC2 also highlighted that MOH on 12 May announced that it had been testing over 3,000 workers in dormitories daily.
Based on MOH data, the above number of workers make up around 62 per cent of people tested per day at that time, which TWC2 said is “indicative of significant stepping up of testing among these workers”.
“Testing migrant workers so that an increasing number can be pronounced clear of infection and return to work will be an important step in this process,” said the organisation.
However, TWC2 said that the “basic problems” lies in “a system of employment that discouraged workers from seeking medical assistance when they felt ill and incentivized them to carry on working, for fear of loss of income and being penalized”.
In addition to that, the arrangements for the migrant workers’ accommodation and transport have “ensured an explosive spread of infection once a handful of men had caught the disease”.
TWC2 stressed that “much of this response might never have been necessary” if the living and working conditions of the migrant workers “had been more like those of locals in the first place”.