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Virus clusters push Singapore to test thousands of migrant workers

Cramped dormitories generate city-state's biggest wave of infections yet

Life in Singapore's migrant worker dormitories has become heavily restricted as authorities rush to stop a rise in infections. (Courtesy of Singapore's Ministry of Manpower)

SINGAPORE -- Coronavirus clusters in Singapore's migrant worker dormitories have turned into the biggest wave of infections the city-state has seen yet, testing its widely praised containment tactics.

As of Tuesday, Singapore's total cases reached 3,252, doubling from a week earlier. Most of the latest cases are residents from low-income countries such as Bangladesh, India and Myanmar who work in the construction and marine sectors.

The increase in infections among foreign workers "is likely to continue as we undertake more testing at the dormitories," Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said in an online news conference on Tuesday. The authorities have tested some 1,500 workers and plan to check another 5,000 within a few days, including individuals who are not showing symptoms.

The surge in cases has already surpassed previous waves involving travelers from China, Singaporeans returning from Europe and the U.S., and local infections.

Cases in the Bangladeshi community alone have topped 1,000, nearing the 1,173 among local citizens, according to an unofficial website that tracks virus data in a few Asian countries. Singapore has become a rare country with a disproportionate number of foreign COVID-19 patients.

The migrant workers' dormitories are typically crowded, creating an ideal environment for the virus to spread. The government says there are two main types of dorms: 43 purpose-built facilities, which house a total of about 200,000 workers, and 1,200 converted factories or warehouses that accommodate around 95,000.

More than 10 of the first type have had clusters, of which eight have been locked down, as of Tuesday. Virus cases have also been found at 37 of the second type.

The biggest cluster, in the S11 Dormitory @ Punggol, involved 718 cases.

To arrest the spread and prevent the creation of new clusters, the government has stepped up testing and precautionary measures at the complexes.

Since last week, the authorities have moved about 7,000 workers in essential services -- such as energy and waste management -- out of dormitories to alternative accommodations such as armed forces camps, floating hotels and sports facilities. The government will also set up medical "touchpoints" at all 43 purpose-built dormitories, while requiring operators of the factory-converted dorms to ensure safe distancing.

Life in some dormitories is now tightly restricted. A 35-year-old Bangladeshi construction worker, whose dorm has a cluster, told the Nikkei Asian Review that he is quarantined in his room. Staff members knock on the door and leave meals outside for workers to collect.

"We are worried because on the level we stay, on the same level in a different room, they have some positive cases," he said. "We're still worried but we can't decide anything. So we just keep our door locked and stay at home."

The worker said he and his roommates pass the time reading books and talking to family members on the phone.

As a small but wealthy nation, Singapore has long relied on foreign labor, especially for blue-collar jobs. "We have a responsibility to these workers," Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said at Tuesday's conference. "We will do everything we can do to take care of them."

This pledge comes amid a tight clampdown across the city-state, which entered a monthlong period of heightened restraint last week. On Monday, the government revoked the work visas of 24 foreign nationals who were caught "eating, drinking and gathering in groups" near a dormitory. The penalty was "to send a clear signal of the seriousness of the offense," the manpower ministry explained.

The Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics, which supports foreign workers, said in a statement that the punishment was "harsh and disproportionate," noting that Singaporean citizens who have flouted safe distancing rules have only been issued 300 Singapore dollar ($210) fines or written advisories.

"Given the chaos in workers' lives at the moment, as well as the measures that prevent them from leaving their dormitories, it is unclear that these punishments will be communicated widely enough to act as deterrents either," the organization said.

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