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COVID confinement stirs fears for Singapore migrants' mental health

Reports of self harm surface as workers go months without social interactions

A migrant worker sits on his bed in temporary living quarters for essential personnel in Singapore in May.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- As Singapore completes the testing of all migrant workers for COVID-19 on Friday -- a job it began months ago as the laborers' densely packed dormitories became coronavirus hotbeds -- it finds itself grappling with mental health issues breaking out in a community that has endured a prolonged period of constraints.

With cases of self-harm and apparent suicide attempts being reported, the government says it is "concerned" and "monitoring carefully" the situation.

Some 300,000 foreign workers, typically from developing Asian nations like India and Bangladesh, reside in the dormitories and work at construction sites and shipyards. The government decided to test all of them in May, after the virus was tearing through their living spaces.

Singapore's total COVID-19 cases on Thursday reached 54,555, with 94% of the patients being migrant workers making homes in the dorms.

While daily new cases are in the triple digits, deaths have been few as most dorm residents are in their 20s and 30s.

The coronavirus is most threatening to elderly people and those with respiratory and other ailments.

With the last migrant about to be tested and the city-state expecting new daily cases to significantly taper off, local news organizations are now focusing on the workers' mental health. Earlier this month, a man was pictured lying bloodied on a staircase in a dorm compound after an apparent self-harm incident.

According to a Straits Times report on Thursday, at least five workers have been detained under the Mental Health Act after self-harm incidents. And since May, there have been at least two news reports of workers dying of unnatural causes in the dormitories.

"We are aware of incidents of self-harm or attempted self-harm," said Kenneth Mak, director of medical services at the Ministry of Health during a virtual briefing on Thursday evening. He called it "a cause of concern" for the government's coronavirus task force.

A prolonged period of isolation with limited opportunities for social interaction "will obviously have potential adverse effects on any individual," Mak said, adding that the government is "committed to making sure that the mental health needs of the migrant workers are looked into [and] supported, not just now but ... even after the outbreak comes under control within the dormitories."

While there's no clear evidence pointing to a single cause, workers have been confined to their cramped quarters for months now, and anxiety appears to be on the rise.

Transient Workers Count Too, or TWC2, a migrant support group, on Wednesday said on its website that "confinement and depression" are among the most serious issues now facing the workers, along with salary and job security. While migrant workers send money to their families back home, many are burdened by debts to the recruiters who brought them to Singapore.

Although some workers are already allowed to go out for work, they are still not allowed to leave for social reasons, TWC2 pointed out. "They go to work. They are returned from work. And then they are locked in for the night.

"The consequences on their mental well-being must be terrible. No real relief is in sight."

The government is offering some assistance, like opening hotlines for migrants and helping Muslim workers celebrate religious holidays.

On Thursday, the government also said it has been engaging with employers to expedite the process of getting workers back to their job sites.

A day later, Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the government's coronavirus task force, made a pledge of sorts. "We are confident," he said, that "the vast majority of workers who are cleared or recovered will be able to resume work by the end of this month."

According to the Samaritans of Singapore, a suicide prevention center, there were 400 reported suicides in the city-state last year, up from 397 in 2018. Singapore has a population of about 5.7 million.

Gasper Tan, chief executive at Samaritans of Singapore, stressed the need to ensure that workers have support -- and that they know how to support each other.

"It is advised for migrant workers to remain connected to others socially, either via text or call, as interactions with others do play an important role in how we cope with anxiety and life changes," he told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"Empowering migrant workers with skills on how to provide a listening ear, and identifying signs of distress, could potentially help to identify individuals who may require immediate support."

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