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Medical workers perform a nose swab on a migrant worker at a dormitory in Singapore in May. Photo: Reuters

Singapore coronavirus cases to ‘taper down significantly’ as migrant workers’ testing ends

  • The only migrant workers still needing to be tested are the 9,700 or so in quarantine who had been in close contact with other sick workers
  • Infections among the rest of Singapore’s populace have fallen to just a handful – though experts warned residents to keep their guard up
Singapore’s daily coronavirus case count is set to dip significantly in the coming weeks, authorities say, turning a corner as the testing of some 300,000 migrant workers living in cramped dormitories – once the epicentre of the city state’s outbreak – is completed.

From a peak of 1,426 new cases in one 24-hour period on April 20, Singapore now records between 200 and 400 new infections each day, on average. Occasional spikes, such as the 908 cases reported on Wednesday, have been caused by a greater proportion of workers being infected in some dormitories than others, according to the government.

As of Friday, the only migrant workers still needing to be tested for Covid-19 were the 9,700 or so who had been in close contact with other sick workers, the health ministry said. These workers are currently in quarantine facilities and will be tested before being allowed to return to work at the end of their 14-day isolation periods.

Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force set up to coordinate Singapore’s virus response, said case numbers were likely to vary over the coming days and “perhaps over the next two weeks” as the 9,700 workers come out of isolation. “Thereafter we do expect the number of cases to taper down significantly,” he said.

The living conditions of Singapore’s army of low-wage migrant workers have been a subject of national debate amid the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: EPA

The living conditions of low-wage migrant workers, who now make up more than 90 per cent of Singapore’s 54,555 infections, has become a matter of national debate since the virus began tearing through their dormitories in April, with reports describing kitchens infested with cockroaches and bathrooms with overflowing urinals.

A clean-up programme was quickly instigated and the military called upon to help with food distribution as all dormitories were put on lockdown from April 21. This confined workers to their rooms and put a stop to all but essential construction work in the city state.

Now, more than three months later, some workers are still isolated within their dormitories, raising concerns about their mental health amid a handful of reported suicide attempts. One man slit his own throat, according to local media reports, while others have been pictured standing on ledges threatening to jump off, citing uncertainties over their health, job security and prolonged confinement.

Kenneth Mak, the health ministry’s director of medical services, said the coronavirus task force was concerned about migrant workers’ mental health and understood that a “prolonged period of isolation will obviously have a potential adverse effect on any individual”.


Migrant workers in Singapore fear job loss after coronavirus quarantine ends

Migrant workers in Singapore fear job loss after coronavirus quarantine ends

He said that, together with the manpower ministry and private stakeholders, they were working to support workers’ welfare through measures such as a counselling hotline.

No spike in migrant worker suicides has been recorded compared to previous years, the manpower ministry told local media outlet CNA.

What are the hurdles Singapore faces in its Covid-19 fight?

Authorities said they were working closely with employers to expedite a return to work, with the manpower ministry saying in a separate statement that some 265,000 foreign workers had been given the green light to back as of Tuesday. Their movements will remain restricted until the government is certain they are coronavirus-free, however.

Activist Cai Yinzhou, co-founder of the Covid-19 Migrant Support Coalition, said nobody would have thought the isolation and stoppage of work was going to last such a long time. It had already been three to four months “without a light at the end of the tunnel”, said Cai. Workers’ anxieties could be soothed if they could know individually when they could go back to work or leave their dorms, Cai said. “It’s really about giving clarity and communicating with the workers at various stages, that would reassure them,” said Cai.


Infections among the rest of Singapore’s populace outside migrant workers’ dorms have fallen from a high of more than 50 a day in April, when an eight-week “circuit breaker” partial lockdown was imposed – closing shops, barring people from eating in at restaurants and preventing households from receiving visitors – to just a handful of cases now. In another promising sign, the number of unlinked cases has also fallen to an average of one per day.

Infections among the rest of Singapore’s populace outside migrant workers’ dorms have fallen to just a handful a day. Photo: AFP
Even so, fears of another wave of infection remain high given the experiences of other cities such as Hong Kong and Melbourne, with infectious diseases experts urging residents to keep their guards up and warning that a new outbreak could hit when Singapore further opens its borders beyond the “ travel bubbles” that have been, or are in the process of being, established with Malaysia and mainland China.

“There are waves of infections that are waiting to come. If we drop [our restrictions], we will become Hong Kong,” said Leong Hoe Nam, a Singapore-based doctor specialising in infectious diseases, in reference to the recent uptick in cases in the Chinese city that has prompted the government to impose some of its strictest rules yet, such as barring public gatherings of more than two people and making the wearing of face masks mandatory at all times outside the home.

Singapore’s expatriates hit by coronavirus pay cuts, lay-offs

Singapore, by contrast, has been progressively resuming economic activities. After reopening retail outlets, cinemas, and restaurants in June – albeit with strict safe-distancing measures such as a cap of five people per table – officials are now allowing a number of religious organisations, including mosques, Hindu temples, churches and Buddhist temples, to have gatherings of up to 100 people, up from 50 previously.


Despite fears that the election on July 10 could result in new clusters of infection, Leong said Singapore had “successfully dodged” that bullet. He cautioned, however, that residents should continue to wear face masks, abide by social-distancing rules and maintain good personal hygiene to build “walls and barricades” to prevent further waves of infection.

“The tighter we are with [our measures], the better it is, and the more impenetrable we are,” Leong said.

“The virus is most likely to be harmless for the vast majority of people. But a spark is all you need to cause an explosion.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Virus case count predicted to fall