When the pandemic struck the world, Singapore garnered praise by international media as one of the best examples of how to handle the new contagion. The World Health Organization pointed out that Singapore’s aggressive contact tracing allowed the city-state to quickly identify and isolate any new cases. It quickly shut down clusters of cases and kept most of its economy and its schools open. Through the beginning of April, Singapore had recorded fewer than 600 cases.
By the end of April, however, Singapore ended up with the highest number of cases in South East Asia (before being overtaken by Indonesia). This was because CoviD-19 clusters were detected at multiple dormitories for foreign workers, which soon contributed to an overwhelming proportion of new cases in the country.
Singapore: A rich city-state built by migrant workers
Singapore is a highly developed country, ranked 9th in the Human Development Index and has the seventh highest GDP per capita in the world. It is a major financial and shipping hub, consistently ranked the most expensive city to live in since 2013, and according to a report by Forbes, has the tenth-highest number of billionaires of any city in the world – it’s appropriate to say that Singapore has no problem with finances.
Its healthcare department is just as good. In fact, the World Health Organization ranks Singapore’s Healthcare as 6th overall worldwide in its World Health Report.
So what went wrong?
Singapore was built by the hands of its migrant workers, yet these same workers may have been overlooked. A surprising second wave of coronavirus infections in Singapore swept through migrant dormitories, whose conditions reflect the disparities in treatment between Singaporean citizens and the migrant population. The cramped conditions of migrant dormitories illustrate that for migrant workers, social distancing is an unavailable luxury.
According to Minister of Manpower Josephine Teo, there are 1.4 million migrant workers in Singapore mostly employed in construction, manual labor and housekeeping. About 200,000 of these workers live in 43 dormitories.
Mohan Dutta, a professor at Massey University in New Zealand who has done research on these migrant workers says that the conditions in the dorms put them at significant risk of catching a disease like CoviD-19, with 12 to 20 bunk beds per room – it’s no surprise these workers will get infected.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed the issue by deploying a Forward Assurance and Support Team in the dorms, which provide the migrant workers with food and water, wi-fi to keep in touch with their families, entertainment, and other medical facilities. The migrant workers in these areas have been instructed to stop working, and they are completely reliant on government aid, since they are not allowed to leave the dormitories for groceries or other necessities.
Ultimately, Singapore worked to ameliorate a crisis of its own making. The migrant dormitories became a petri dish for the CoviD-19 virus because it was not initially provided the social space and resources necessary. As of 27 June 2020, there are a total of 43,246 confirmed cases, with 36,825 discharged and 26 deaths in Singapore.
Public health means health for all
Conspicuously free from any reported CoviD-19 fatalities, Vietnam is an example of what meticulous tracing, solidarity among citizens, and a public health campaign held on a massive scale can do to protect a population. As of June 27, 2020, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus resource center, Vietnam has had 355 reported cases of CoviD-19 within its borders, and no deaths.
As we have learned from Singapore, simply isolating migrant workers without preemptively giving them the financial and health care resources necessary to overcome the virus can boomerang to the detriment of the local populace. By contrast, even with the far more limited financial and health resources in Vietnam, a focused effort to address and identify migrant worker needs is a powerful tool to prevent unnecessary rises in CoviD-19 cases.
Public Health means health for all. No matter how rich a portion of the population is, if most of the big guns tackling any social problems like a pandemic are only accessible to the few, the rest of the abandoned will not just suffer but that suffering will eventually reach the few portions that were initially protected.
This is a lesson for all – societal problems are problems all people face, may it be disease or injustice. We might not feel it now because we are currently high in the privilege pyramid or social class, but eventually, if these so-called societal problems are not solved in its roots, it will slowly eat away at the pyramid until it reaches and eventually overtakes everyone. As with the CoviD-19 pandemic, this is striking evidence that there is a need to provide help to our minorities and marginalized. Religion might call us to be helpful, but Science has evidence that if we fail to do so, we may also suffer.