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Packed with migrant workers, dormitories fuel coronavirus in Singapore

Singapore Health Ministry officials suspect that Mustafa Center, a 400,000-square-foot mall, is the starting point for the infections at the dormitories. The shopping center is popular among migrant workers, local residents and tourists

By Weiyi Cai and K.K. Rebecca Lai
Published: Apr 30, 2020

Packed with migrant workers, dormitories fuel coronavirus in SingaporeThe S11 Dormitory, home to migrant workers, in the Tuas area of Singapore, April 8, 2020. Singapore has seen a surge of coronavirus cases among migrant workers, after months of successfully controlling the outbreak. (Ore Huiying/The New York Times)

Singapore has seen a surge of coronavirus cases among migrant workers, after months of successfully controlling the outbreak. As of Tuesday, coronavirus cases linked to migrant worker dormitories accounted for 88% of Singapore’s 14,446 cases, including more than 1,400 new cases in a single day.

Singapore has extensively traced the close contacts of each person infected with the coronavirus and released detailed information about clusters of cases. An analysis of the data shows how the virus has spread rapidly among migrant worker dormitories.

Many migrant workers live in packed dormitories on the outskirts of the city. These dormitories can house up to 20 people per room, making it almost impossible to follow social distancing guidelines. Migrant workers around the world have been among the most vulnerable groups affected by the pandemic.

The government has directed all laborers living in dormitories to stop working until Monday, imposing a stay-at-home order for 180,000 foreign workers in the construction sector. The government has also declared 25 dormitories as isolation areas, where workers are confined to their rooms.

Transient Workers Count Too, an advocacy group for migrant workers in Singapore, criticized the government’s plan to quarantine such a large population together. The group compared the lockdown with situations on cruise ships in which cases multiplied uncontrollably even when passengers were kept to their rooms.

The Singapore government requires a minimum of 48 square feet of living space for each worker.

S11, a dormitory with the largest cluster of the coronavirus in Singapore, houses more than 2,200 people who are infected. The dormitory has a capacity of more than 10,000.

Singapore Health Ministry officials suspect that Mustafa Center, a 400,000-square-foot mall, is the starting point for the infections at the dormitories. The shopping center is popular among migrant workers, local residents and tourists.

Some of the cases in dormitories have also been linked to construction sites where migrants with the virus worked. The biggest construction site cluster is Project Glory, a 51-story office tower in the downtown business area. It is linked to at least six dormitories.

More than 20% of the 5.7 million people who live in Singapore are foreign workers, a vast majority of whom are low-wage laborers with work permits. Many of these migrants come from Bangladesh and India, and they work in construction, shipping, manufacturing and domestic service sectors. The breakdown of nationalities among the confirmed cases shows that workers from these countries have been disproportionately affected.

Migrant workers in Singapore have long struggled with a lack of medical care. A charity that provides subsidized health care for workers suggested that this problem was especially acute during the coronavirus outbreak and may have contributed to the explosion of cases among migrant workers.

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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