COVID-19: How bad is the foreign worker dorm situation really?

Source: Ministry of Health, Accessed 10th May 2020

There recently has been a lot of chatter and comments on the handling of the spread of COVID-19 within the foreign worker dormitories. The response extends from the “government has done the best it can” to the “government has completely failed”. As usual, the actual outcome sits somewhere in the middle.

Situation so far…

Source: Ministry of Health, Accessed on 10th May 2020
Ministry of Health, Accessed on 10th May 2020

So just to start lets take a look at the numbers so far, these I pulled quickly from the Ministry of Health(MOH) COVID-19 portal. Over the last few months the government has conducted over 175,000 tests. These aren’t unique tests, as people are usually tested multiple times before they get released from isolation. The government has tested all equally, both the wealthy and the poor, from Singaporeans to foreign workers. There has been no differentiation of services, and as far as I’ve read no one has complained that foreigners are treated worse off.

Over the last few months, if we look at the first graph from MOH, the number of cases in the dorms have taken off, as the number of cases among the community has dropped. This can be largely linked to the circuit breaker (CB) measures that were implemented. Why do I say this? The CB measures forced people home and for the foreign workers into the dormitories. The close circumstances of the dormitories definitely played a key role in the spread of the virus among the foreign workers.

Are the dorms clean…

There have been numerous reports or news articles covering the cleanliness of the dorms. However, it appears, that majority of the articles, pictures and other documentation came after the circuit breaker came into effect. Now there is no excuse for a drop in cleanliness of the dormitories but one can expect that the usual cleaning schedules would no longer be sufficient with all the occupants now staying in the dorms 24/7, a situation I would argue those dorms were never designed to handle. Additionally, most dorms outsource all services such as cleaning and pest control – businesses that would have stopped or reduced operating during the CB period.

Additionally, While Foreign Employees Dormitories Act (FEDA) does require dorms to have isolation facilities for such issues such as epidemics. While most of the larger purpose built dorms do have them, I don’t think anybody could have planned for the extent of the lockdown or isolation that this pandemic created.

The short answer is that when the circuit breakers kicked in, the dorms were indeed dirty and unclean. This is because the dorm operators were never prepared, like almost everybody else, for this pandemic. Government stepped in quickly soon after to start increased cleaning and maintenance of these properties. The argument has been that the government should have known that the situation in dorms were going to deteriorate, and perhaps they should have acted sooner, but I would give them the benefit of the doubt and say that at that moment in time there were other pressing concerns with imported cases.

Can this have been avoided….

The short answer is no.

We need these men in Singapore to build our infrastructure that we rely on, our train lines, tunnels, and homes. The number of them could potentially be lower if we are willing to live with waiting longer for infrastructure to be ready. But we would always need this transient workforce just as they need the money that they earn here for their families back home. It is a fact that almost every developed country in the world relies on a transient or migrant workforce to handle some tasks that their own citizens won’t or are unwilling to do for the wages paid. That being said, Japan is an example where you can have native force to do most of this work, you just have to accept the higher costs and longer project times that come with it.

Dorms by their nature are never going to be pandemic proof. If you have 2, 4, 6, 8 or 10 or more in a room, the nature of a dorm will mean that every body ends up sharing toilets, showers, kitchens, eating areas and communal areas. The people in the dorms, will end up going to the same shops, taking the same public transport and probably having intermingling circles of friends. Dorms will always be ripe for a pandemic, epidemic or viral transmission – there are simply too many vectors for transmission. I believe this is one of the reasons that universities globally kicked students out of student housing as quickly as they could.

One solution that has been presented was to have foreign workers disbursed through the housing estates and be more integrated with the community. However, this still doesn’t address the proximity and closeness question, since there will still be 6-8 fellows in each housing unit and they would still interact with their other workers on job sites and social gathering. The vectors of transmission remain, perhaps the number would not have spiked like it had over the last few weeks of intense testing but the numbers would still be there in the long-run. Also considering that most cases have been mild and asymptomatic, the risks or danger seems extremely low if we were to say crowding has led to increased infection.

Are the test indicative…

These is the shortest section because personally I need to see more data. I do believe that the reason why the dorms have so many cases is because they are being tested, one and all. There appears to be a selection bias.

Is this my final conclusion..

Definitely not. Personally I don’t think there is enough evidence to draw conclusions on whether the job has been done well or done badly, but thankfully, I do believe there will be plenty of time after to do a post-mortem of the situation in the years to come. When that time comes, I will address the situation from the point of view of a natural disaster response.

In the meantime, we need to be good neighbours, colleagues, friends, and family to the people we love. Keep them healthy and well-fed folks. If you have any comments or have found any factual mistakes, do feel free to let me know. I’m always happy to change my opinion when the facts change.