Editor's note: This article has been updated to expound on assistance extended to migrant workers.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Singapore was lauded for its exemplary ability and extreme thoroughness in rooting out cases and curbing the spread of COVID-19. The initial stages of the outbreak saw the city state receiving international praise for being the “gold standard” in its contact tracing and detection capabilities.
The World Health Organization cited Singapore for “leaving no stone unturned” in testing everyone with influenza-like symptoms.
What leaps the country made in the beginning however, have since been eclipsed by an exponential increase in the number of new infections, a majority of which belong to its “invisible population”: migrant workers.
Singapore has a foreign workforce of over 1 million people, many of them migrants from developing countries, lured to the island’s shores for the promise of better wages and an improved quality of life. Upwards of 300,000 of them belong to the construction and labour force. Most hailing from South Asia, they participate in physically strenuous work, oftentimes risking grave injury to build the housing, transportation, and industrial infrastructure Singaporeans enjoy.
Dotting the island are dormitories where a bulk of these migrant workers are housed, usually located on the fringes of the island, far away from the glitz and glamour of the city centre. They are sprawling complexes, the biggest of which has a capacity of over 25,000 occupants, with conditions far from the futuristic impressions the country is associated with. Groups of men, sometimes 20 at a time, cram in dorm rooms with overused sanitation and disposal facilities. These accommodations are now hotbeds for the coronavirus.
As of last week, 88 percent of Singapore's coronavirus cases were linked to migrant worker dormitories. There are now a total of 19,410 cases of the coronavirus in the country. The severe oversight is a cautionary tale on what happens when a country neglects its marginalised populations.
Since the outbreak reached the dormitories, the government has ramped up its measures to tackle the outbreak amongst its migrant population. It is working more closely with non-government organisations focused on migrant workers' rights, and has offered free counselling to migrants living in affected dormitories. The government is also shouldering all hospital costs for COVID-19 patients and gave assurances that migrant workers would continue to receive their salaries during the pandemic. Some migrant workers have been relocated to alternative lodgings like hotels to reduce the spread of the virus. But there’s much left to be done.
VICE spoke to Farooq*, a migrant worker from Bangladesh. He shared what it’s like to be a migrant worker in Singapore, his experience living in a dormitory with coronavirus cases, and how he thinks the government could have done better.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am from Bangladesh. My father worked at a private company when I was in college but then our family got into financial trouble. I wanted to help them with money, so I decided to start working.
Why did you choose to come to Singapore?
I had family in Singapore. I had initially tried applying for jobs in countries including the Middle East but because they were here in Singapore, it felt like the better thing to do was to come here. The idea was to live with them so that I would be comfortable in a new country as well. I came here so that my family and I could finally live a better life. I have been here for almost 10 years.
Where did you live?
I used to live in one of the [government dormitories]. The living conditions there were terrible. Sixteen of us were stacked into a room that was about 200 square feet big. There were two bathrooms and a small kitchen. I’m sure you understand how difficult it was living there with so many people.
How did you first find out about COVID-19?
I watched the initial news reports of two people getting infected with COVID-19 here in Singapore. I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t know too much about the disease as well. Then the number of cases started increasing, but I didn’t pay a lot of attention to that until we started receiving news about [one specific] dormitory. I have a lot of friends and some relatives who live there and we communicate a lot.
When I heard that a lot of people were getting infected there, that is when the fear set in. All of us got scared. We knew that it was eventually going to happen in our dormitory as well.
How did the managers of your dormitory deal with this news?
It is difficult to reach the people who run these dormitories. Also, at first, everything seemed normal in Singapore. The partial lockdown was announced only on April 7. And that was when the security management kicked into gear at the dormitories. They would try and get the area cleaned and were also restricting the movement of people. But no one was infected until the lockdown. However, slowly, many people in my dormitory started falling ill. They complained of fevers and sore throats.
When the outbreak started in your dormitory, what safety measures were put in place?
They didn’t do anything, initially, to help us. They only put one rule in place, that only those who had jobs were allowed to leave the premises and the rest were supposed to stay inside. They only started working towards helping us when the authorities realised that the infection was spreading fast in our dormitory, they put in rules that banned us from leaving our rooms.
How did you manage food?
Before the outbreak, some cooked in their room, while others bought food. Even during the initial stages of lockdown, only the main gate of the dormitory was locked; we could still buy food from a little store inside the dormitory. I used to buy my supplies there.
Where are you now?
The government moved me out of my dormitory and gave me my own room and now provides me with meals.
Have you been in touch with your family?
I actually started calling them a lot more after all of this happened. My parents would watch the news reports about Singapore on Bangladeshi news channels and then worry a lot. My mother called me a lot during those times. They were terrified of what could have happened to me in the dormitory. But now, they are feeling much better knowing that I have been moved to a clean and safe environment.
What about you? How are you feeling?
I don’t know how long they will let me stay here. I have no idea who is footing all these bills. All I want is that until the situation is under control, until my dormitory is declared risk-free, that I should be allowed to stay here. I don’t want to go back there before that. Even if they want to move me from here, I hope they move me to a safe space.
What do you think of the government’s efforts?
I don’t think that the government took adequate steps to ensure our safety when the spread of the disease started. But now that it is spreading fast, they are taking steps. As far as I know, and as far as I can understand everything that is unfolding, I believe that if the government had taken steps to ensure that everyone remained safe, we wouldn’t be where we are today. They could have controlled this situation better.
What about your future?
I want to go back home to Bangladesh. But it’s not like things are way better there. I’m from a crowded and cramped city. The situation is not good there. But I really want to go and be with my family. I don’t want to live in Singapore anymore. I will try to get a job in some other country if possible. Who knows, I might even scrape together enough money to start a small retail business somewhere.
*Name has been changed for protection.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.