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About 90% of Singapore's New COVID-19 Cases Linked to Foreign Workers Dormitories

This massive second wave of COVID-19 infections caught Singapore off guard.
by The Associated Press
May 11, 2020
Photo/s: AP/Ee Ming Toh, File

Infections in Singapore, an affluent Southeast Asian city-state of fewer than 6 million people, have jumped more than a hundredfold in two months — from 226 in mid-March to more than 23,000, the most in Asia after China, India and Pakistan. Only 20 of the infections have resulted in deaths.

About 90% of Singapore's cases are linked to crowded foreign workers' dormitories that were a blind spot in the government's crisis management. 

This massive second wave of infections caught Singapore off guard and exposed the danger of overlooking marginalized groups during a health crisis.

Despite warnings from human rights activists as early as February about the dorms' crowded and often unsanitary living conditions, no action was taken until cases spread rampantly last month.

Singapore's costly oversight was also an important lesson to other countries in the region with large migrant populations. Neighboring Malaysia recently announced mandatory coronavirus testing for its more than 2 million foreign workers after dozens were diagnosed with COVID—19.

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The slip-up highlighted Singapore's treatment of its large population of low-wage foreign workers, who play an integral part in the economy but live on the fringes in conditions where social distancing is impossible. The misjudgment was also an embarrassment for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's government ahead of a general election anticipated in the next few months that is expected to be the last for Lee, who has led Singapore since 2004 and is planning to retire soon.

Singapore's nanny state government, which won global praise for its meticulous contact tracing and testing in the early stages of the crisis, quickly moved to contain the problem by treating the flare-up in the dorms as a separate outbreak from that in the local community, a policy that some say is discriminatory.

The government shut schools and nonessential businesses island-wide on April 7. So-called "safe distancing ambassadors" were recruited to remind people to wear masks and stay at least a meter apart from each other in public places, or face heavy penalties.

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Meanwhile, all construction sites and dorms were locked down and foreign workers largely confined in their rooms. More than 10,000 foreign workers in essential services were moved to safer sites to reduce crowding, and testing was ramped up to include people with no symptoms.

Once belittled as a tiny red dot on the global map, Singapore has relied on overseas workers to build infrastructure and help power its growth into one of the world's wealthiest nations.

Some 1.4 million foreign workers live in the city-state, accounting for 38% of its workforce. At least two thirds are low-wage, transient migrants from across Asia performing blue-collar jobs that locals shun, such as construction, shipping and maintenance, as well as working as maids. 

Since last month, the government's infection data has separated foreign workers' cases from those among the general population. Although cases continue to rise among foreign workers, infections have decreased in the local community.

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The government plans to gradually reopen the economy on Tuesday before island-wide restrictions end June 1, eager to show that it has remedied the situation and that measures have worked.