Singapore Sees ‘Enormous Challenge’ on Recovered Foreign Workers

(Bloomberg) --

Singapore faces an “enormous challenge” to figure out how to allow foreign workers who have recovered from the coronavirus to go back to work safely, while also giving them suitable accommodation.

The government must now get ready to ensure the recovery process is done right by scaling up facilities where the workers can get better, and to house those who’ve recuperated in suitable accommodation to cut the risk of transmissions happening again, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo told Parliament on Monday. She was speaking amid a surge in infected low-wage foreign workers that have propelled virus cases in the city-state to one of the highest in Asia-Pacific.

“This will again be an enormous challenge, and not just the logistics of it,” Teo said. Authorities are overseeing about 400,000 migrant workers, consisting of those living in dormitories as well as other types of housing like factory-converted facilities and construction temporary quarters.

Initially drawing praise for its virus containment efforts, Singapore was dealt a major setback following an outbreak among its migrant worker community living in congested dormitories. They now account for more than 85% of the total number of cases, which have reached more than 18,000 though just 18 have died.

How outbreak may have occurred:

  • Epidemiological findings provide some preliminary clues, Teo said. It showed that across different dormitories, infected workers were linked through common work sites
  • At the work sites, it was not uncommon for the infected workers to take breaks together, share food and utensils
  • Infected workers from different dormitories gathered during their rest days to socialise and shop
  • Back in the dormitories, workers spent time with their friends, cooking, eating and relaxing together
  • The virus may have spread through all of these activities, much like how it spread among family members, religious groups and even colleagues
  • Within dormitories that are virus clusters, not all blocks or rooms are equally affected

One recent finding is that most of the infected workers have mild symptoms, likely because they tend to be young, Teo said.

Many were uncovered only because of active case-finding or swab exercises. This may explain why up until the middle of March, the cases of workers at the dormitories testing positive were few and far between.

Though cases of infected migrant workers were detected in February, there was “no indication of higher prevalence” of the virus among migrant workers compared to the general community, Teo said.

Improving housing

Criticisms of the cramped quarters the workers live in have prompted the government to pledge it will raise standards of living in dormitories, where at least eight workers live in a room. While accommodation has improved over the years, authorities will see how standards can be raised, especially in the older dorms, Teo said.

“The virus respects no housing type, no nationality nor occupation,” she said. “We will therefore need to re-look how everyone interacts with one another at home and at our workplaces. Even the way we socialise will have to change. So the same for our migrant workers.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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