Singapore migrant workers deal with anxiety as living quarters become COVID-19 cluster

Singapore will extend a partial lockdown until June 1 to curb a sharp rise in coronavirus infections in the city-state, a significant percentage of which have taken place in a dormitory for migrant workers who say sanitation and precautions have been lacking.

S11 dorm is home to labourers from India, Bangladesh and China

Migrant workers look out from their balconies at Punggol S11 dormitory during the coronavirus outbreak in Singapore on April 6. Some 2,000 cases can be traced to workers who sleep there, according to authorities. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

Singapore will extend a partial lockdown until June 1 to curb a sharp rise in coronavirus infections in the city-state, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Tuesday.

The measures, which include the closures of most workplaces and schools and are called a "circuit breaker" by authorities, were initially set to run until May 4.

The city-state reported 1,111 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, bringing total infections to 9,125, after a record daily jump of 1,426 cases on Monday.

"We will therefore extend the circuit breaker for four more weeks," Lee said in a televised speech.

Lee said the extended lockdown period would help bring community cases down decisively and make sure infections in migrant dormitories do not spread into the wider community.

Singapore's finance minister said at a media conference that the government would extend economic support measures, including wage subsidies, to help businesses offset the impact of the longer lockdown period.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong provides an update Tuesday on the COVID-19 situation in the city-state. Singapore extended its partial lockdown nearly a month. (Singapore Ministry of Communication and Information via AP)

The World Health Organization's regional chief said on Tuesday that Singapore — which has the highest number of reported cases in Southeast Asia — is facing "very difficult challenges" from a recent surge in infections but has the health-care system and risk management capacity to handle it.

The city-state has seen a sharp jump in cases in recent weeks fuelled by infections in cramped migrant worker dormitories, many of which are under government-ordered quarantines.

'Everyone is scared'

For Habibur Rahman, the only glimpse of life outside the four walls of the cramped Singapore dormitory room he shares with 11 other migrant workers are security guards urging people to stay apart and cleaners scrubbing down communal toilets.

The 25-year-old Bangladeshi is one of thousands of workers, mainly from South Asia, who came to Singapore to provide a better life for their families. Now, however, they are under government-ordered quarantine, battling boredom, frustration and anxiety in a sprawling dormitory complex called S11 at Punggol, home to about 2,000 of the overall cases.

"If one is infected, it would easily spread among others," Rahman said. "Currently we are confined to our room. Everyone is scared. We are just praying to Allah … praying five times a day."

S11 is one of many utilitarian housing blocks on the fringes of the modern city-state where more than 300,000 migrant labourers from Bangladesh, India and China live in rooms with bunks for 12 to 20 men, working jobs that pay as little as $20 Cdn a day.

These dormitories, in areas tourists seldom visit, account for more than 75 per cent of the country's total infections after the city-state recorded its biggest jump in new cases on Monday. Nineteen dormitories have been quarantined so far, according to government notices, affecting tens of thousands of workers.

Workers in the dormitory at S11 said they leave their rooms only to use the bathroom, and meals are delivered. (Ministry of Manpower Singapore/Reuters)

Rights groups have said the dormitories have highlighted a weak link in Singapore's containment effort, which has otherwise won global plaudits. And critics say such mass quarantines could increase the risk of infection in the blocks.

Singapore authorities say that they have taken preventative measures in migrant housing since the start of the city-state's outbreak in January but that the quarantine measures were necessary once the virus spread.

S11, the company that operates the dormitory, the Ministry of Manpower and Ministry of Health did not respond to requests for comment.

Reuters spoke with 12 residents at the S11 complex, a row of low-rise steel buildings of different colours behind high metal fences. Some workers declined to be identified for fear it would worry their families or put their jobs at risk.

The workers said they leave their rooms only to use the bathroom, and meals are delivered. Their days are spent streaming movies on their phones, peering out of balconies draped with laundry, or chatting with concerned family members back home, they said.

Fear of the virus

Some S11 residents complained about the sanitation, the lack of precautions and monotony in the dormitories. Others praised the Singapore government's response.

But all were afraid of catching the virus.

For Nayem Ahmed, a 26-year old construction worker from Bangladesh, that fear was realized.

One of his roommates had been infected, so when he awoke on April 8 feeling feverish, he immediately alerted medical staff in the dormitory.

They tested him and while he awaited the results, he said, he was moved to an isolation facility outside the dormitory. Two days later, he was told he had been infected.

'A new life'

"I can't express how I felt when I heard that. I thought I would not live anymore," Ahmed said.

Ahmed said he was given paracetemol, and underwent blood tests and a chest X-ray in a hospital. After a few days, he was moved to a converted conference centre called Expo, which is being used to house patients with mild symptoms.

"I feel like I have got a new life," Ahmed said.

Migrant workers queue to collect food at the Punggol S11 dormitory during the coronavirus outbreak. Workers told Reuters that despite the outbreak, precautions are not as strict as they could be. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

Ahmed said he is thankful to the Singapore government for providing health care and food, and making sure quarantined workers are paid. But he said more should have been done to address the risks of outbreaks in dormitories.

"Dormitories are crowded and dirty. No wonder the dormitories have become a hotbed for coronavirus infection," Ahmed said. "Now we are paying the price."

Other workers also flagged hygiene issues in the dormitories shortly after quarantine measures were announced on April 5.

The Ministry of Manpower has said it faced "challenges" at the start of the quarantine related to hygiene and the supply of food in the dormitories, but that it had been working with operators to improve conditions.

S11, which operates the Punggol facility and another near the city's airport, advertises the "cheapest dormitories in Singapore." The dormitory at Punggol can house up to 14,000 workers in four-story buildings on about 5.8 hectares, roughly the same area as eight soccer pitches, according to local media reports.

There are 43 such purpose-built dormitories in Singapore, housing 200,000 workers, 1,200 converted factories housing 95,000 workers and various other smaller temporary quarters, according to the Ministry of Manpower.

Few temperature checks

Since the start of the outbreak, the Singapore government has said it has been advising dormitory operators to monitor workers for fever, encourage personal hygiene and limit mingling in common areas to reduce infection risk.

But Nizamul, 27, and other workers who declined to be identified, said that temperature checks were rare at S11 and that a fingerprint scanner was used for entry and exit into the complex just days before the government quarantine.

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease. Scientists say it spreads through droplets from the nose or mouth via coughing or sneezing, and by people coming in contact with contaminated surfaces before touching their nose, mouth or eyes.

Nizamul said before the quarantine he had shared a room with an Indian man who was put on sick leave because of a cold and fever, then tested positive for the coronavirus days later when his health deteriorated.

Nizamul said he was moved to a public housing complex and given his own room, and has not tested positive.

Miah Palash, 27, was one of the few S11 residents Reuters spoke with who said he did not know of any cases in his block.

Only allowed to leave his room to use a shared washroom, Palash said the biggest challenge was finding ways to pass the time and trying to ease the anxiety for his family back home.

"They're just wishing for me. I'm the only son. They're worried but … I call them every day," Palash said.

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