Of the 29,364 people infected by the novel coronavirus in Singapore, majority are migrant workers from Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan and the Philippines
For over a month now, Shawon (not his real name) has been living like a prisoner, spending almost all of his days and nights on his bunk bed. Although he is allowed to leave his room only thrice a day to collect his meals, unlike a real prisoner, he does not have the luxury of yard time.
To make matters worse, it is impossible for him to maintain social distance in the small room that is crammed with eight to 10 other people. Unsurprisingly, it is mostly low-income migrant workers who are getting infected by the novel coronavirus in Singapore, contributing to a surge in cases in the second wave of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Before the lockdown, Shawon used to work at an electric shop. But as soon as the government declared a lockdown since April 7, he has been confined indoors. A feeling of fear, distress and uncertainty always engulfs him as the metropolitan nation slowly turns into the next epicentre of coronavirus in Asia.
The country that was once lauded for combating Covid-19 successfully has recently come under fire for neglecting its marginal migrant community.
Although the Singapore government started testing in January, they had failed to test a majority of migrant workers having asked employers to not send the healthy workers for screening, even though the first infections were found among migrant workers, according to a media report.
The report further says the Singapore government claimed that it has developed the capacity to conduct more than 8,000 tests per day, it is still conducting about 3,000 tests a day on the migrant workers in the dormitories.
As of May 20, a total of 29,364 people have been affected by the novel coronavirus in Singapore so far. Of them, majority are migrant workers from Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan and the Philippines. In April, when infections hit 18,788 in Singapore, Bangladeshi workers made up about 8,000 of those infections, including one fatality.
Public Health Expert and Associate Professor Alex Cook at the National University of Singapore predicts that Singapore will hit 30,000 or 40,000 infections in May due to congested living conditions.
Experts think the reason behind this recent surge is the unhealthy living conditions of these workers. Not only do eight to 10 people live in the same room, they even use the same dining space and washroom, often sharing one bar of soap.
Under Singaporean law, workers cannot live outside dormitories. Their employers have to arrange for living accommodations in state-approved dormitories.
"Around 3.23 lakh migrants are working in Singapore. Of them, 16,998 tested positive for coronavirus – meaning 5.3 percent migrant workers are affected.
Some 25 dormitories have been put under isolation," said Taher, a supervisor at an electronic company in Singapore.
"According to an estimation by the High Commission of Bangladesh in Singapore, around 1.30 lakh Bangladeshi migrants are working in Singapore. Most of them live in crowded dormitories. Of the total affected, roughly 40 percent are Bangladeshis," Taher added.
However, Singapore has taken full responsibility for treating Covid-19 patients. Through rigorous testing, the authority is isolating the infected ones and putting those who came in contact with the infected ones into quarantine.
"One thing good about Singapore is that the government has taken our full responsibility. We received a full salary. The government is providing us with free food three times a day, and also giving free treatment to the affected ones. They have also provided us with masks, hand sanitiser and disinfectant," Taher said.
The Singapore government began randomly testing in all dormitories when the asymptomatic outbreak started. The government has enforced a countrywide "circuit breaker," i.e., a lockdown. Only restaurants and pharmacies are open. People can buy these things wearing masks. The government has imposed stern actions to curb the spread of the virus. Anyone seen flouting the rules will be fined and if any migrants break the rule, their work permits will be cancelled.
Police are on standby 24/7 in front of each dormitory with an ambulance. If anyone falls ill, they take the patient to the hospital. Covid-19 treatment is free at the hospitals.
"Since the circuit breaker began, we have been given free access to WiFi," said Rakibul Islam, a Bangladeshi migrant worker.
"The government has given thermometers to each individual. We have to check our temperature in the morning and upload the information with our details – names and work permits – to a database of the Ministry of Manpower for record," he said.
The airport catering service cooks food for them and they have separate categories for everyone – halal, vegetarian, non-vegetarian.
"We are quite satisfied with the service provided by the government," Rakib said.
He added that the government has also set up some mobile booths with doctors and technicians from the General Hospital. People can get tested and get primary treatment from there as well.
But workers are worried about their futures as the lockdown could prolong.
Seeking anonymity, a Bangladeshi accounts officer at a private company, said, "So far, we have received salaries for April, and probably will get for May as well. The circuit breaker has been extended till June 1. But if it continues, the government has issued a directive to the companies and organisations that they can consider annual leaves and working days as alternatives for pay."
Another big challenge Bangladeshi migrants are suffering from is the expiration of documents.
Some workers' visas and passports have already expired. But the Ministry of Manpower of Singapore has issued a notice of extending the work permits and passes automatically until July 1.
Although the government has taken responsibility for now, how long it is able to pay them remains as a big concern.