How Singapore’s Privilege Set it Back in Its Fight Against Covid-19

Coronavirus

How Singapore’s Privilege Set it Back in Its Fight Against Covid-19

Illustration: Mitesh Parmar

For everyone who believes that the projected date of May 4 will be when the countrywide lockdown is lifted and life in India goes back to normal, the case of Singapore is a troubling reminder that the coronavirus is an unpredictable and highly contagious disease, and even countries that have received praise internationally for their handling of the pandemic can quickly see the situation go from manageable to rapidly spiralling out of control. In Singapore, after over 3,000 new coronavirus cases were detected over the last three days, their lockdown (referred to as a “circuit breaker” in Singapore) has been extended to June 1.

The Singaporean “circuit breaker” has now been in place for three weeks. It’s a partial lockdown, where only essential businesses are allowed to operate. Two months ago, in February, Singapore was hailed for the manner in which it had managed to contain the coronavirus outbreak. At that time, Singapore’s coronavirus response plan was based on the city-state’s previous experience with the SARS outbreak of 2003. Contact tracing – hunting down people who had come into contact with an infected person – formed the backbone of Singapore’s strategy.

However, once the coronavirus first began appearing in Singapore’s migrant worker community – the foreign nationals mainly employed in the business of construction who live in dormitories at their employers’ expense – contact tracing was not sufficient to contain the spread. Now, with over 10,000 active cases, Singapore is one of the worst-hit countries in Southeast Asia. It shows how the cramped living conditions the foreign workers had to stay in made them highly susceptible to contracting the virus, and since most of the workforce were young men, it spread quickly with very few symptoms manifesting.

“The group proved a major blind spot in the coronavirus pandemic, exposing the starkly different experiences of rich expatriates and poorer ones in a city-state where 40 percent of residents are foreign born,” The New York Times pointed out in an article.

Today, with their “circuit breaker” lockdown extended by another month, Singapore appears to have been hit by the inequality in its society, which has migrant workers living in squalid conditions compared to the glitzy skyscrapers most commonly associated with Singapore. Trapped away from home and deprioritised by their employers and the authorities, the coronavirus spread among the migrant workers now poses a threat to Singapore’s public health as a whole. For its similarities with India, this is a cautionary tale.

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