The Dive: Covid-19 in Singapore: Have we failed our migrant workers?

By April 24, 2020Current

TL;DR –  All hands on deck to support our migrant workers in this unprecedented crisis

The Dive is our new weekend feature where we bring you in-depth news, interesting insights and different perspectives on the latest trends or issues that matter.

Just not too long ago, Singapore was lauded by international media as a model to emulate for its ability to control the Covid-19 situation with the nation’s calm, measured approach, aggressive testing and meticulous contact tracing. Yet, in the past week, with rising number of infections among our migrant workers, we went from “gold standard” in our crisis management to a “cautionary tale”. Have we truly failed?

We have yet to succeed in our fight but we have not failed.

While critics have jumped in attacking us for being complacent and ‘slipping up’, Singapore has never claimed to be a ‘model’ in this unprecedented battle. In an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, PM Lee hesitated at talk of victory and instead spoke of the long struggle ahead, “We have not yet succeeded.” And he was right. As with any pandemic, the infection numbers will peak before dropping. Let’s all do our part to flatten the curve, and stay home where possible.

At this point, we still know little about the virus, learning new things about it every so often. With the Covid-19 situation evolving so rapidly, it is normal for uncertainties and doubts to creep up. Could a total lockdown way earlier have prevented the current situation? Lives or livelihoods? Has the Government, for the first time, ‘lost control’? I beg to differ. From the very beginning, we saw open risk communication, meticulous planning, and a Government moving two steps ahead where they could. As the world learns more, policies need to be adapted accordingly, every response requires different approaches and large-scale mobilisation of resources.

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Singapore has progressed to the bustling city it is today at a breakneck speed. Whenever something ‘falls short’ of top-notch standards, we see critics jumping in with much fervor. Even the majority of Singaporeans seem to have taken our capabilities to widely mobilise resources during the Covid-19 crisis for granted. Our generation was one born into prosperity and we expect more from our leaders to be able to ‘fix’ everything with the snap of a finger. Even now.

A Government that can work magic? Yes, please.

Raid the supermarkets, but make sure stocks are replenished overnight.

My business is sinking, give me money, and give me NOW.

Bring down the community spread, but don’t restrict my movements.

Control the infections at the dormitories, but keep the migrant workers away from my lovely neighbourhoods.

All hands on deck to support our migrant workers

In the past weeks, we have seen spikes in the number of infections in our migrant workers. Intensive work is underway to test and rehouse the workers, and also take care of their health and well-being. For context, there are about 300,000 foreign workers in Singapore. Do you know this is more than the population of Bedok? Moving them out of their current dormitories itself is a daunting task, yet it had to be done. And the operation is being carried out with meticulous efficiency.

The temporary accommodation set up practically overnight, islandwide? The food caterers who were activated almost immediately? The thousands of bedding items that just arrived? Or the SAF medical personnel deployed at Singapore Expo community isolation facility?

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All hands on deck to fight the spread and take care of our migrant workers, and not even the most minute detail can be overlooked. From healthcare, mental wellbeing, livelihoods to working with their employers to make sure they get paid.

As PM Lee said, “To our migrant workers, let me emphasise again. We will care for you, just like we care for Singaporeans.” It’s apparent that this is very much appreciated with many migrant workers showing their gratitude, even calling upon support from fellow migrant brothers.

The ongoing operations to provide alternative accommodation for our migrant workers is extremely complex. Time is of essence, from converting our Sports Hub, Singapore EXPO halls, to chartered Floatels. Add the uncertainties and understandably, frustrations, of these migrant workers to the equation and one can only imagine the logistics and resources needed for this huge project.

The resting area inside a hall converted into temporary accommodation to house foreign workers without symptoms Photo: Sports Hub

The Community Isolation Facility Singapore EXPO and Max Atria Photo: Ministry of Health

Singapore Armed Forces medical personnel deployed to help run the community isolation facility at Singapore EXPO Photo: Ministry of Defence


An unprecedented crisis, what’s being carried out can only be based on an educated trial and error. Can we afford missteps? No, but is it something the Singapore Government, or any other, can have 100% control of? I doubt it.

If any country can do it, it would be Singapore.

A migrant worker taking to social media to express his appreciation for the Singapore Government


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As the world races to develop a vaccine, let’s rein in the judgement and work together as one people. Together, we can get through this storm.





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