Thousands of People in Dorms Pose New Challenge to Singapore Virus Fight

Philip J. Heijmans and Abhishek Vishnoi
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Thousands of People in Dorms Pose New Challenge to Singapore Virus Fight

(Bloomberg) -- Tightly packed dormitories housing thousands of foreign workers have emerged as one of Singapore’s biggest challenges in its fight to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

The city state reported its highest daily increase of infections Thursday, and more than 200 of the 287 new cases were linked to foreign worker dormitories that house mainly low-wage workers in construction and other sectors. Those groups now account for about a quarter of the country’s 1,910 cases.

Authorities have moved swiftly to isolate the clusters. Two dormitories that together house almost 20,000 people were on Sunday designated by the Ministry of Manpower as “isolation areas” after new, linked virus cases emerged, while two more dormitories were gazetted this week. Residents were ordered to stay in their shared rooms for two weeks, but would still receive wages as well as deliveries of food and other essentials.

“It is honestly a difficult situation,” said Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases physician at Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Hospital, who drew comparisons to cruise ships like the Diamond Princess, where about 700 of its roughly 3,700 passengers were infected with Covid-19. “This is going to be a big mess.”

For Singapore, a country that has been championed by health officials for its methodical virus response since the outbreak began, the move to quarantine potentially exposed workers living in close proximity has raised questions about whether the conditions will allow for social distancing -- one of the key strategies utilized around the world to contain the outbreak’s spread.

“To try and sort this out, they need to remain in the rooms for weeks with no interactions,” Leong said, adding that Singapore would have to also navigate language barriers and cultural differences among the workers.

Adequate social distancing is already a challenge for those who don’t live in worker dorms. The government gave out more than 7,000 warnings to people who didn’t observe rules on the first day of a month-long so-called “circuit breaker” that has seen schools and most workplaces closed. The prime minister warned Thursday that people are still not doing enough to stay apart from one other.

Key Workforce

Foreigners make up about 38% of Singapore’s overall workforce, including foreign domestic workers, according to government figures through the end of last year. They have an outsize share in the construction industry, where three of every four workers is foreign, while foreigners account for about half of Singapore’s manufacturing workforce and 30% in services.

A fixture in industries that depend on low-wage workers, there are more than 200,000 migrants from across Asia who live in 43 dormitories in Singapore, Minister of Manpower Josephine Teo wrote in a Facebook post on Monday, noting there was “no question” standards in dormitories should be raised. Singapore charities that support migrant workers say they have seen 10 or more people share a single room.

With the coronavirus ravaging much of the planet, crowded spaces like these “pose transmission risks for everyone,” the World Health Organization said.

“When people are in quarantine, physical distancing becomes even more challenging,” a WHO spokesman wrote by email. “In such conditions, it’s especially important to follow guidance on regular hand washing, respiratory etiquette and other practices to keep people healthy and prevent disease spread.”

Singapore is providing on-site support, including food and essential supplies while preventive measures are being put in place in the dormitories, the spokesman wrote.

The government has so far closed non-essential amenities such as gyms and libraries, prevented inter-mingling between blocks, staggered meal and recreation times. It’s also established basic health care facilities at two of the dormitories, while the authorities are seeking to whittle down the number of residents in affected blocks. Some healthy foreign workers operating in essential services have been moved to vacant public housing apartments.

Meanwhile, Singapore has also deployed its army doctors, medical military experts and medics at the dormitories to take care of foreign workers who are unwell or infected, according to a Facebook post by Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen.

Singapore is not the only country with coronavirus clusters in foreign worker residences. In Malaysia, the government on Tuesday imposed an “enhanced movement control order” on two apartment facilities in Kuala Lumpur that house some 6,000 residents after 15 people tested positive for the virus, Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said on Wednesday. 97% of the residents are from abroad, mostly India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, he said.

Crowded Spaces

With 38 confirmed cases currently, the purpose-built workers accommodation Westlite Toh Guan was among the two facilities to be isolated in Singapore on Sunday. There, a total of 6,800 residents are spread across 687 apartment units with an average of eight to 10 occupants per room, according to emails with Centurion Corporation, which owns the buildings. The units include bathrooms, a kitchen, showers and dining space.

Like the other gazetted dormitories, residents there have received care packs consisting of masks, thermometers and hand sanitizer, and “after some initial hitches” meals are being delivered in a timely fashion, according to a government statement on Tuesday.

Ah Hlaing, a Burmese caregiver at a daycare center for the elderly who shares an apartment at the dormitory with about 10 people, said after initially being upset over the new rules, she acknowledges they are necessary.

She was “upset because we can’t go out and have to stay in the room,” Ah said, adding she has had access to the essentials including food and sanitary products. “We have to accept now that at this time, we can’t do anything.”

Some rights groups have expressed concern the government is not doing enough.

“The key vulnerability, crowding, is not really being addressed with sufficient determination,” said Alex Wu, vice president at Transient Workers Count Too, a registered charity that helps low-wage migrant workers. “Infectious diseases thrive through human proximity. In fact, requiring workers to stay in their rooms except for occasional periods will intensify contact, not reduce it.”

(Updates with new infection data in second paragraph)

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