As of today, the number of Covid-19 cases in Singapore has almost hit 21,000. The majority of cases, we are told, are from the dormitories that house low-wage foreign workers. Packed 12+ men to a room, 60+ men sharing a toilet, these “purpose-built dormitories” have been singled out as hotbeds of infection.
The government has taken action, mobilising the military to quarantine the dorms, providing food and medical care through rapidly deployed clinics, mass testing the workers to isolate the sick and break the chain of infection. They have also moved some workers out to rapidly erected alternative housing in vacated public housing blocks, disused schools and converted sports halls. The government has also assured the foreign workers that they will be paid their salaries even as they are confined to their dorms.
Ordinary citizens have also come together to donate care packages for workers in the dorms and signed up as volunteers to take care of those in isolation facilities.
Often shunned or invisible, Covid-19 has cast into the uncomfortable limelight low-wage foreign workers and their dismal living conditions. And I believe that as a nation, we are embarrassed, uncomfortable and ashamed.
In Parliament this week, a Nominated Member of Parliament, Anthea Ong, posed a question. She asked “Will the government consider issuing an apology to the migrant workers, given the dismal conditions that they are currently in, because the conditions of the dormitories and all the other conditions? Especially now that they’re in complete lockdown, for the sake and safety of Singaporeans.”
You can watch the Minister for Manpower, Josephine Teo’s response here.
While I am relieved at my country’s response to the crisis unfolding in the dormitories, Minister Teo’s comments made me wonder; once all of this is over, will we slide back to the status quo in terms of how we treat these our fellow men, who build our shiny cold city in the sea?
I hope not.