Featured News Opinion Covid-19 nightmare: The whole world is full of dormitories, including one massive...

Covid-19 nightmare: The whole world is full of dormitories, including one massive one at our neighbourhood doorstep

Sense and Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah




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I was wondering how or even whether to add to the understandable outcry over the surging number of new Covid-19 cases the last few days and the state of the dormitories housing our foreign workers when someone WhatsApp’ed me a BBC News article: “Coronavirus: Should the world worry about Singapore’s virus surge?” by Anna Jones, the Deputy News Editor. The very balanced and incisive piece offered me a productive way out of simply indulging in low hanging fruit rant: Why didn’t the government do this and that? Why are we so Third World? Many activists have been saying this for a long time. Ad infinitum.

The BBC feature sees Singapore as a useful microcosm of how Covid-19 should be contained and the challenges of a calibrated approach. More important, it says the crowded dorms reflects what is going to be a wider beyond-Singapore crisis in the weeks or months ahead as the world is forced to come to grips with the virus pandemic.

Singapore had been doing quite well until the latest surge, caused mainly by the strong spike of dormitory-related cases. As of Saturday (April 11), out of Singapore’s 2,108 COVID-19 cases, more than 500 cases are linked to dorms. Two workers’ dorms have been gazetted as “isolation areas”, with almost 20,000 foreign workers being quarantined.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo has urged Singaporeans to let her team focus on the “enormity of the task at hand” – containing the transmission of Covid-19 among some 200,000 workers spread across 43 dorms. There is no question that standards at foreign worker dorms should be raised, she said, following reports of crowded conditions at one such dormitory.

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Two more signs that the dorms/foreign workers issue is finally being taken more seriously at the highest end of government, after all the past calls for action and the potential blight on our image as a “First World” society: (1) Old hand Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean is stepping in to advise the multi-ministry task force on its handling of the dorms (2) PM Lee Hsien Loong has gone on TV to pledge to family members of foreign workers: “We appreciate the work and contributions of your sons, fathers, husbands in Singapore. We will do our best to take care of their health, livelihood and welfare here, and to let them go home, safe and sound, to you.”

So we are waking up to our responsibility as a civilised people. Good and about time.

The dorms problem, according to the BBC article, portends what may be the real challenge facing the world as the Covid-19 spreads.

However large the numbers, Singapore should have the ability to deal with the fallout. It is well-equipped and has the resources and the will to see it through. We will learn and develop systems to counter future scenarios of such scale. You might say the workers are fortunate to be in Singapore at a time like this, as the world awaits a second and possibly more serious waves of infections.

What Singaporeans see as a dorms issue has always been a part of normal life in less developed countries, ominously in this region. BBC quoted Prof Teo Yik-Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, as saying: “All you have to do is look at many countries in South Asia, South East Asia, parts of Africa – there are many communities where the living conditions are very similar to dorms…Perhaps a high income country like Singapore can do better to protect the health and improve the welfare of people that are so crucial to our society.”

Are other countries in the region prepared to ring-fence large communities to contain virus spread? Even if they do, are people ready to play their part?

Not quite – yet, if ever.

Our doorstep neighbour Indonesia is struggling with its attempts to cope with the pandemic. It is running into all sorts of problems – red tape, confusing messages, lack of transparency, tensions between Jakarta and provincial administrations, impractical and unenforceable rules, outright resistance, impending post-Ramadan mass exodus from the nation’s capital, among others.

Right here in Singapore, more than 2,900 stern warnings were issued to members of the public on Friday (April 10) alone for non-compliance with the elevated safe distancing measures, said the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR). This brings the total of warnings given out since April 7, when the “circuit breaker” period started, to 3,100 and fines to 40.

One incident included a group of delivery riders, who hurled vulgarities at our (self-distancing) ambassadors when approached. This is truly unacceptable,” Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli wrote in a Facebook post late on Friday night.

Can’t agree more. Do these people want a Code Red thrown at their face and to give BCC a juicy but sad fallen Singapore Covid-19 story to tell the world?


Come on, Singapore tycoons, do your part to fight the virus

Like other concerned Singaporeans, I find keeping an eye on the latest Covid-19 news quite exhausting. Luckily, I have a circle of friends and contacts who feed me with all sorts of ideas and interesting nuggets of info, like the one above which inspired this week’s column.

I was quite taken aback when it was also pointed out to me that no Singapore tycoon has pledged any substantial sum of money to help the fight coronavirus cause. Really? What a shame.

What about elsewhere? Yes, the list is long. The donors and supporters include Jack Ma, Bill Gates, George Soros, Li Ka-Shing, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson, Michael Bloomberg, Anil Agarwal and Sheldon Adelson.

Come on, Mr Rich Singaporean, do your part.


Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of The Independent.SG, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.


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