The BBC interviewed foreign workers living in dormitories recently and published an article today exposing the dire situation faced by foreign workers in Singapore (‘Covid-19 Singapore: A ‘pandemic of inequality’ exposed‘, 18 Sep).
One of the interviewed was Zakir Hossain Khokan who came from Bangladesh. He was infected with COVID-19. After being hospitalised, he recuperated in temporary accommodation before finally being taken back to his dorm. Thereafter, he went back to work.
Zakir’s dormitory was declared cleared of the virus and he thought his worst days were behind him.
But last month August, a new cluster developed at the dorm, and like thousands of migrant workers, he was ordered back into his room to be quarantined.
The room which he shares with 11 others is bare, except for 6 bunk beds. It measures only around 6m by 7m. Clothes and the odd towel hang in front of the beds to provide some privacy.
“Day and night, we are just inside one room,” he told BBC. “It’s actually torturing our mind. It’s like jail.”
“Then we can’t social distance because there’s no space,” he added.
With regard to the conditions of his dorm, Zakir said, “I left the dormitory (to hospital) on 17 April, and when I came back on 9 July, I didn’t see any improvements.”
“They say we should social distance, but to us, that’s a joke you know,” he quipped. “How do we have space to distance inside the small room?”
Each floor is home to 15 such rooms – or up to 180 men assuming each room is fully filled. They share one toilet facility, with six basins, shower cubicles, toilets and urinals, said Zakir.
“They ask us to keep clean but inside the soap dispenser there’s no soap,” he added. “I see some people from my dormitory, they call their family and say they cannot take the situation… They cry and say they want to go home.”
Zakir doesn’t know when he will be released. His greatest hope now is to be able to go back to work.
“Many of us have spent a long time here. For me, I have been here 17 years – it’s like we are already part of Singapore,” he said. “We are not asking to be treated like a citizen. Just treat us like you would treat a human being – like we are a part of society. If it could be like that, that would be very nice.”
Dormitories declared cleared of COVID-19 by MOM
In the past before COVID-19 struck, it was normal for up to 20 men to share a dorm room. In late March, migrant rights group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) warned the government that the “risk of a new cluster among this group remains undeniable”.
Not long after the warning, the activists’ predictions came true. Then, the number of COVID-19 cases exploded in Singapore with tens of thousands of migrant workers infected at the dorm.
Finally last month (11 Aug), MOM released a statement saying that all the dormitories in Singapore have been declared cleared of COVID-19.
“All dormitories have been declared cleared of COVID-19, with the exception of 17 standalone blocks in six Purpose-Built Dormitories (PBDs) which serve as quarantine facilities,” MOM declared. “This means that all workers living in dormitories have either recovered or have been tested to be free from the virus.”
But soon after, new virus clusters have emerged in a handful of dormitories again.
Early this month (2 Sep), PM Lee told Parliament that Singapore has done well in handling the coronavirus pandemic, although its response was “not without shortcomings”.
Defending his government’s handling of the pandemic crisis, PM Lee said that with hindsight, the government would have done some things differently.
“Communal living in any form poses risks,” he said.
“We stepped up precautions. For a time, these seemed adequate. But then bigger clusters broke out in the dorms, which threatened to overwhelm us.”
Though he conceded that missteps were taken, he ended by saying, “In the fog of war, it is not possible always to make the perfect decisions.”