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Gold standard no more? Singapore’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak begins to tarnish

The Independent logo The Independent 13/4/2020 Anna Maria Romero
Lee Hsien Loong sitting at a desk in front of a flower © The Independent Singapore

Singapore—Once considered the “gold standard” by many nations for its measures to address the coronavirus outbreak, the Singaporean Government is now facing criticism due to the rising number of local cases confirmed for Covid-19, as well as other issues that have recently surfaced, including poor living conditions at foreign workers’ dormitories, where 70 percent of new coronavirus cases are linked.

Activists previously sounded the alarm that the overcrowded dormitories of migrant workers would be a threat to public health, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reports.

Singapore’s foreign workers’ dormitories are home to around 200,000 individuals employed in construction and other industries. Medical and logistics staff have been assigned to man outbreaks in these dormitories, and a new task force for the specific purpose of looking after the migrant workers was formed, headed by Teo Chee Hean, Singapore’s senior minister in charge of security.

PM Lee assured the public in a video message posted on social media last week that the well-being of the foreign workers would be attended to.

“We have worked with their employers to make sure they will be paid their salaries, and can remit money home. We will provide them with the medical care and treatment they need,” he added.

However, others wonder if these measures could have been implemented earlier. Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a workers’ rights group, had written a letter to The Straits Times (ST) on March 23, asking the Government to disclose their plan of action in case a mass infection should break out in the dormitories of migrant workers, which would assure the “resident and non-resident community.”

“Currently, foreign workers are housed 12 to 20 men per room in double-decker beds. They are transported to work on the back of lorries sitting shoulder to shoulder. Neither of these conditions conforms with social distancing.

The risk of a new cluster among this group remains undeniable…we call on the Government to announce in advance what plans they have to rehouse workers should clusters break out in dorms,” the letter read.

While the issue of the welfare of migrant workers is not a new one, it has galvanized many Singaporeans into action, and more and more have commented on it, giving rise to a national debate.

Veteran Tommy Koh wrote on Monday (Apr 7) that “the way Singapore treats its foreign workers is not First World but Third World,” in response to an ST article concerning the unhygienic and overcrowded conditions in foreign workers’ dormitories, while social media influencer and YouTube comic Preeti Nair, more popularly known as Preetipls, in six days raised more than twice the goal amount of $100,000 she had aimed to donate to HealthServe and TWC2 to help migrant workers.

Local activist for foreign worker communities Kokila Annamalai took to Facebook to highlight the poor quality of meals the quarantined migrant workers had been receiving, with many netizens are taking up the same cry. Ms Kokila compared the meals the foreign workers were receiving to the ones that expatriates serving Stay Home Notices in posh hotels were being given. Within a day, Ms Kokila took to social media again to say the quality of the food had improved.

Veteran journalist PN Balji wrote in a commentary on Friday (Apr 10), “How quickly fortunes can turn. It was only a few weeks ago that Singapore was smelling like roses with the country being praised, both here and abroad, for its efficient handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Today, the same government is struggling to contain the quick spread of the virus as dormitories for migrant workers open up a new battlefront.” —/TISG

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