What Malaysia can learn from Singapore’s Covid-19 spike

The Punggol S-11 dormitory, one of 43 dormitories housing Singapore’s 200,000 foreign workers. (Reuters pic)

PETALING JAYA: The recent spike in Covid-19 cases in Singapore involving a majority of foreign workers should serve as a “wake-up call” on how governments should be more inclusive in the battle against a pandemic, said Rachel Chhoa-Howard, a Singapore researcher at Amnesty International.

Chhoa-Howard said the current situation in Singapore was a stark reminder that societies were only as strong as their weakest link.

She said several groups had for years sounded the alarm about the appalling living and working conditions of migrant workers in Singapore.

“Now faced with an exponential increase in cases, it is imperative that workers have access to the same level of healthcare afforded to Singaporeans, and that their treatment is significantly improved following the Covid-19 outbreak,” she told FMT.

Chhoa-Howard also said the Singaporean government – which had been identified as a global standard bearer by the World Health Organization in curbing the outbreak – should not rely on factory or business operators to ensure the protection of their workers.

According to The Straits Times (ST), the city state’s Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said measures to contain Covid-19 were taken at dormitories since early January, “by asking operators to raise the standard of hygiene, and sharing information with workers on how to protect themselves against the virus”.

But Chhoa-Howard said the government should have taken a much more proactive role at the onset of the outbreak in dormitories.

ST recently reported that foreign workers living in dormitories drove the spike in numbers.

Bloomberg, meanwhile, reported that over 200,000 foreign workers lived in 43 dormitories in Singapore. “Most are housed in crowded and unhygienic quarters, typically with 10 to 12 people sharing a room, making social distancing harder to enforce,” it reported.

Sumitha Shaanthinni Kishna, the director of an NGO called Our Journey, said migrants in Malaysia lived in similar conditions.

She said while the country had bylaws and housing laws pertaining to living conditions, enforcement was poor.

“So the Singapore situation is a wake-up call that we need to ensure our migrant workers live in habitable and hygienic conditions with proper sanitation,” she said.

Sumitha said ensuring migrants lived in better conditions would also help prevent the spread of other communicable diseases such as tuberculosis.

“You can’t cram so many into a room or house and not expect diseases to spread,” she said.

She said while Putrajaya was on the “right track” in terms of how it approached the migrant community in the battle against Covid-19, employers had a role to play in getting their foreign employees tested, as they would know the whereabouts of their workers.

The government should work with the employers to get foreign workers to come forward, she said, but there should be no penalty or detention or fines on the employers.

“This is not the time to throw the book on employers or the workers for non-compliance to immigration laws,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian Medical Association said the government had been inclusive as seen in how it prioritised screening in Menara City One and the Selayang wholesale market, which have a high population of foreigners.

“Foreigners are an important group as they make up more than 600 of the Covid-19 cases reported in Malaysia,” its president Dr N Ganabaskaran said.

He said testing this group, should be a priority especially since their fear of the authorities would make them reluctant to come forward, while monitoring and contact tracing efforts could also be a challenge.

“NGOs should also continue their work with foreign migrants and assist the authorities,” Ganabaskaran said.


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