Singapore’s daily COVID-19 cases fall to six-month low with 18 new infections


SINGAPORE: The number of daily COVID-19 cases in Singapore fell to a six-month low on Thursday (Sep 17), with 18 new COVID-19 infections as of noon.

This is the lowest number of cases since Mar 16, when 17 new infections were reported. 

All the new cases reported on Thursday were asymptomatic and were detected from screening and surveillance, said the Ministry of Health (MOH). 

The sole community case, who was unlinked, is a work pass holder. The 48-year-old Indian national was detected during the rostered routine testing of workers in the construction, marine and process sectors who are living outside the dormitories.

MOH said epidemiological investigations of the case are in progress. All identified close contacts have also been isolated and placed in quarantine. Serological tests for the man’s household contacts will also be conducted. 

UPDATED MAP: All the places that COVID-19 community cases visited while they were infectious

READ: Three F&B outlets ordered to close for flouting COVID-19 safety rules, including restaurant that served beer in teapots

The health ministry said the number of new cases in the community has decreased, from an average of two cases per day in the week before, to an average of one per day in the past week. 

The number of unlinked cases in the community has remained stable at fewer than one case per day in the past two weeks. 

The two imported cases reported on Thursday comprise a work pass holder currently employed in Singapore who arrived from France on Sep 4, and a dependant’s pass holder who arrived from India on Sep 5.

Both of them were placed on stay-home notices upon arrival in Singapore and were tested while serving their isolation period at dedicated facilities.

Among the 15 cases residing in dormitories, 10 were identified earlier as contacts of previous cases, and had already been quarantined to prevent further transmission. MOH said the remaining five cases were detected through surveillance testing.

Serological test results for three cases have come back positive so far, which indicate “likely past infection”, said MOH.

Singapore has a total of 57,532 COVID-19 cases, the majority of whom have recovered.

READ: COVID-19: New GovTech software for smart thermal scanner licensed to 4 companies for commercialisation and scaling

Of the new cases reported on Thursday, 89 per cent are imported or linked to known cases or clusters while the rest are pending contact tracing.

Further details can be found in MOH’s daily situation report

Sim Lim Square was added to the list of public places visited by COVID-19 community cases during their infectious period.

The shopping centre joins several malls that were added to the list this week, including People’s Park Centre, Plaza Singapura and VivoCity

84 MORE PATIENTS DISCHARGED 

MOH said 84 more COVID-19 cases have been discharged from hospitals or community isolation facilities, bringing Singapore’s total recoveries to 57,039.

There are 43 patients still in hospital, most of whom are stable or improving. Another 423 are isolated and cared for at community facilities.

To date, 27 people have died from complications due to COVID-19.

READ: WHO chief criticises ‘false choice’ between public health and economy in COVID-19 fight

On Wednesday, a 59-year-old Singaporean who was listed as a COVID-19 case was removed from the tally of cases. Known as Case 57107, the man tested negative twice following an initial positive result, MOH said.

He had been classified as an imported case on Sep 5 after returning from Australia and testing positive for COVID-19.

Investigations by laboratory experts and an expert panel found that his first test result was a false-positive one, MOH said. 

“All necessary public health actions had been taken earlier and neither the case nor his contacts had been exposed to risk of infection due to the initial classification,” said the ministry.

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To help Singapore’s youth at risk, these outreach workers must hit the streets, and fit in


SINGAPORE: When one works with youths on the streets, as Teng Ziying does, the idea of what makes a safe counselling space can be quite unlike what others have in mind.

She has youths who tell her on the MRT that they engage in self-harm. “Or at a McDonald’s, they’d tell me they’re sexually active, and they’re worried that they’re pregnant,” shares the 27-year-old.

It does not matter to her where they open up, just as long as they do.

“The idea of a safe counselling space is a room which is covered, but with street outreach, you’re the safe person. You create that safety,” she says.

Simulated street outreach that Teng Ziying usually embarks on at any hour of the day.

Teng Ziying, in a simulated street outreach. (Photo: Grace Yeoh)

With youths on the streets, however, trust can be difficult to obtain.

That was why, during her job interview with Boys’ Town three years ago, her boss was afraid that she would stick out like a sore thumb and be hard pushed to befriend youths.

Her slight Western accent reflects her privileged upbringing. Her degree in applied theatre and education is a prestigious one she earned in London.

To help youths at risk, she would have to fit in with them — and so she has done together with her fellow youth workers.

Among the things they “learn from the streets” is the importance of “managing the way (they) look” in meeting the youth at their level.

“To make (the youth) feel safe, something we practise … is to make a lot of noise before we approach. So if the youth feel like they want to hide anything, they can,” she says. Things like contraband cigarettes, she notes.

She also maintains eye contact so those who see her approaching are not defensive or guarded.

These “befriending techniques” are crucial to her job in YouthReach, a Boys’ Town programme that has worked with more than 300 youths on the streets annually for the past 10 years, through engagement and specialised intervention.

Teng Ziying talking to two youths, Tan Junwei and Ericia Sune, in a counselling room at YouthReach.

Teng talking to two youths in a counselling room at YouthReach. Tan Junwei, 24, and Ericia Sune, 20, have been with YouthReach for about eight years. (Photo: Grace Yeoh)

It complements the charity’s residential services, says Boys’ Town assistant director Ong Teck Chye, 38, who has been running YouthReach for six years.

“Many times I joke that the youth in YouthReach are higher-risk than my residential youth, because they’re the smarter ones who didn’t get caught (by the system),” he adds.

Teng has several arts-based interventions for them, but Ong has reminded her before not to get her hopes up, even though they are great ideas. And she understands why.

“We work with street youths who have no obligation, no school telling them that they’d go to detention if they don’t come for a session, no parents (or) no police case. They’re youths who’ve fallen through the cracks,” says Teng.

FINDING COMMON GROUND

The precarious nature of working with youths on the streets means establishing a sense of trust quickly is paramount. This is where appearance comes into play.

For instance, Teng says her fellow youth worker, Aldrich Jai Kishen, can “look very scary if he’s not smiling” because he has “all these tattoos and his beard”. So he dresses in a “youth-friendly way”, and adopts certain behaviours.

To fit in with youths on the streets, YouthReach worker Aldrich Jai Kishen adjusts his appearance.

To fit in with youths on the streets, Jai adjusts his appearance. (Photo: Grace Yeoh)

“He smiles and laughs from afar to come across as immediately comical and approachable, to be antithetical to his appearance,” cites Teng.

Jai agrees that he becomes “an exaggerated version” of himself, although his naturally extrovert character often makes youths comfortable enough to broach any topic with him, such as music.

In addition, he does not disclose his age, choosing to tell youths only that he is in his “20s to 40s” so they do not harbour a preconceived idea of him.

For Teng, the tricky task is to “pick parts of (her) personality and upbringing to put into this worker role”.

Her theatre degree has taught her a “sense of openness”, though she is well aware that she is a Chinese woman nearing 30, whereas the youth she often meets are young Malay boys.

“I’m not going to pretend I’m a Malay girl who’s 18. So I’d come across as this auntie, and I’d say, ‘Can you please let this auntie be cool and relevant? Can you please tell me what this term means? Can you tell me how to swear?’” she says.

This strategy has apparently worked: She now stores a growing list of Malay swear words in her phone.

The list first began when she got a youth to teach her what he was swearing. Once she got the hang of the pronunciation, she started using the swear words so liberally that the youth were “shell-shocked” and stopped swearing.

One of them even exclaimed, “Who teach (sic) you this word? Who? I’ll go and beat that guy.”

Playing this role lets youths know that she is not an authority figure, like a police officer or teacher. But she finds a way to make it clear that she is ultimately a youth worker, without compromising the trust and safety she wants to build.

“Sometimes I’d purposely pronounce (these swear words) in a very obviously non-Malay way, which they’d find hilarious,” she says.

Other youth lingo she has picked up include “pondok”, referring to pavilions where youths often hang out, and “sapnu puas”, which reads as “send nudes” when you invert your phone.

NOTHING WITHOUT GENUINENESS

The camouflaging and code-switching must, however, be rooted in authenticity and “interest in every part of their lives”, whether or not relevant to the help YouthReach can render.

“Youths on the streets are very smart and intuitive. I don’t fake anything,” says Teng, adding that youths can generally tell when someone is putting on a front.

“Similarly, when (actors) are on stage … and telling someone else’s story in character, you have to believe it. It’s very clear when you see one person acting, yet there are two characters on stage. You have to internalise it.”

If Teng wants to learn about someone’s family background, she would not jump straight into talking about their parents. She would focus on an object like the person’s e-scooter to delve into further conversation.

“Maybe they use it for GrabFood, and because they’re underage, they had to borrow somebody else’s ID to do it,” she says.

“That may lead to how they’re unable to focus in school because they do deliveries at night, since there’s a surcharge and they can earn more. Then I’d ask why they need so much money.”

There is a “desire to meet them where they’re at” on her part. Empathy is also key, says Jai, and it can start with “remembering that we’ve all been rebellious at one point”.

Aldrich Jai Kishen helping Teng Ziying and Ericia Sune, a youth with YouthReach, to take a picture.

Jai assisting Teng and Ericia Sune, a youth who is with YouthReach, in taking a picture. (Photo: Grace Yeoh)

An old boy of Boys’ Town’s residential services, he remembers that no one asked him why he was angry when he was younger, so he now tries to find out the sources of youthful anger.

“We’re painting them as delinquents, but most of them are victims of circumstances. They’re not ‘at-risk’ youths,” he says.

“I see Harry Potter in real life daily — like kids trapped in broom closets — staying in really small flats, having no personal space. Yet they want to make it (in life).”

The youth workers’ goal is to create the space for youths to express themselves openly, although this also creates grey areas in their work.

For instance, they cannot exactly tell a 15-year-old to stop smoking or ask youths why they are not in school if they are hanging around in uniform. Adopting such a stance risks damaging trust before its seeds are sown.

“Then we’ve lost,” says Teng. “We’ve cut that contact.

“The youth can continue to smoke and not say anything, but it’s about just sitting there and engaging them. This shows them that we’re more than youth workers … They don’t have to hide stuff from us.”

Importantly, the youth workers also maintain their street credibility by keeping youths’ stories confidential. This involves blurring youths’ faces in YouthReach photos, or obscuring any sign that they are from a gang lest the gang should find out.

It does not make for a very publicity-friendly job. “Some stories of change aren’t stuff we can publish because it would ruin our street cred. To us, the work is the priority,” says Teng.

USING ART TO CREATE A SAFE SPACE

Beyond talking to youths on the streets, Teng puts her theatre background to use by involving “accessible expressive arts” in rapport building with youths, helping them express what they can’t and changing their perceptions of art.

Armed with sheets of paper and markers, she and Jai take to distributing these materials in youth spaces to those who are curious about what they are doing.

The two youth workers make sure to demonstrate that there is no “wrong” move in art so the youth are not intimidated. They have also figured out a topic of universal interest to connect with youths: Heartbreak.

Teng recalls a boy who used cigarettes to burn holes in his paper, to represent the holes a girl left in his heart.

Another boy drew a heart, burned one side of it with his lighter and drew a line down the middle before skating over the heart on his skateboard, like performance art.

In one activity Jai did with Teng last year, when they brought a speaker along with art materials, they asked youths to pick a song that reminded them of love and draw freely.

When Jai noticed a gang symbol that a boy drew, the youth said he had drawn it to remember a friend who lost his life because of his gang.

Sometimes Teng and Jai get youths to come into the YouthReach centre in Tampines to talk further, with or without accessible expressive art methods.

“By doing work on the streets, we’re constantly asking youths to be vulnerable. So how do we maintain the safety?” points out Teng.

Jai remembers a heavily tattooed 20-year-old who got emotional after playing with sand and toys, namely a Barbie doll and Hulk action figure.

“The Barbie was out of the box, and The Hulk was covered in sand. I asked him what that meant, and he said his girlfriend broke up with him. The Hulk was covered in sand because he felt ashamed,” recounts Jai.

“He said he was an asshole throughout the relationship, until she gave up. She was the only one who trusted him … and now he had no one. He felt as if the whole world was collapsing.”

With this revelation, Jai was able to pinpoint the boy’s self-worth issues to work on.

When art is used this way, he and Teng believe it empowers youths by helping them reclaim their voice or giving them the option to say no. This is exactly the freedom the youth workers present to youths by asking if they can sit in the same pondok, for example.

“It’s about respecting them enough to let them know that they should be able to communicate their needs. Many of them aren’t given the space to communicate truthfully about what they needed as a child and now as a teenager — in school, at home, in relationships,” says Teng.

“So this is essentially giving them an avenue to say no to us.”

HOW EFFECTIVE IS ART?

But it is a challenge sustaining these changes in youths’ lives — and getting people to see value in their work so they can continue to get funding.

Teng wants people to realise the importance of incremental shifts in behaviour and that a successful shift is not always a black-and-white situation. Take, for example, someone who used to commit gang-related offences but now reoffends only to get money for his mother’s medication.

But she concedes that there will be people who “need hard evidence” on what is being doing and “why they should give us money to sing on a stage or go on the streets to talk to these people”.

This is where a tangible culmination of the the art interventions in YouthReach can change misconceptions about these youths.

In 2018, for instance, Teng organised a project titled Museum of Unlovables, which showcased art installations by youths. Held at the YouthReach centre, one of these installations included a video with youths on the streets expressing their hopes and dreams.

She recollects a visitor telling her, “I always thought youths at risk want very different things. They just want to play, lepak, join gangs and do drugs. Through the video, I was very moved by the reality that they want the same things as everyone else. We forget that.”

After visiting an installation that functioned like a soundscape with audio recordings of youths verbalising some of the harshest things people said to them, another member of the public told Teng it reminded him of his relationship with his father.

“It made him think about how he might be accidentally passing on (habits) to his own children,” she recalls.

“He said, when you’re a child and you receive all that, you feel a certain way. But when you become a parent, you get lost. You start thinking, it’s for the sake of my child. But you forget the impact it had on you.”

The most effective way to get people to see the effect art can have, she says, is when they experience a shift in their perspective on these youths on the streets.

“No matter how many grants or reports I write or how many great photos I post, nothing can be as impactful as your own experience,” she adds.

REJECTION IS COMMON

Putting together a showcase or getting funding, however, is probably less difficult than retaining youths so they do not slip through the cracks again.

Even after good rapport is established, youth are not obliged to stay in touch with Teng or Jai. No matter how caring they are, YouthReach is only a thread in the tapestry of their lives.

“Sometimes when you work with certain youths, you think you’ve got to a certain place, but then an (external) uncontrollable event happens, and it unravels everything. Then they become uncontactable,” explains Teng.

Other times, she senses youths on the streets are not comfortable telling her things with their friends around, so she schedules an appointment with them for another day, but they do not show up.

The “pang seh rate” is “very high”. She estimates that “about 70% of (her) time is spent waiting at McDonald’s”, only to get stood up.

“Youths are very truthful (when they don’t want to meet you). They blue-tick your messages. Or they’d leave you on ‘seen’ when you reply to their Instagram stories,” she says.

To avoid burnout, she goes for clinical supervision with her clinical supervisor once a month, which is “like therapy but work-related”.

“It helps us unpack, for example, why a particular youth triggers you so much. Then you realise, oh, it’s because he reminds me of my brother. And then you unpack that,” she says.

Then, armed with newfound clarity, in addition to role-playing skills and art materials, Teng and Jai crawl through the streets again to listen and learn. If they are lucky, they get to help too.



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Nearly half of Suntec Singapore’s workforce to be retrenched as COVID-19 hits meetings and exhibitions industry


SINGAPORE: Nearly half of the workforce across the Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre will be retrenched, with the exhibition industry “severely impacted” by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The retrenchment exercise will affect 85 roles across the company, including sales, operations and support functions such as finance and HR, Suntec Singapore and the Building Construction And Timber Industries Employees’ Union (BATU) said in a joint media release on Thursday (Aug 27).

The 85 roles comprise 60 locals and 25 non-local staff members. Suntec Singapore currently employs 149 locals and 29 non-locals, the media release added.

The effective date of notice for those affected was on Thursday, with affected employees serving their notice period from next Tuesday.

“With uncertainty on when the situation could improve and after considerable deliberation and review between Suntec Singapore and BATU, a one-off workforce rationalisation plan has now been
announced,” the media release said.

Suntec Singapore and BATU said the Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions (MICE) industry has been “severely impacted” by COVID-19 and events have been suspended since April.

From early February, Suntec Singapore began working with BATU on cost control measures, including the elimination of non-essential spending, hiring freezes, internal and external redeployment of staff, clearing of annual leave, shorter work weeks.

There have also been temporary salary reductions in the form of unpaid leave, with the management taking up to 40 per cent in pay cuts.

READ: Challenging job-hunting landscape as recruitment agencies see fewer vacancies and more applications

“This retrenchment exercise has been considered in close consultation with BATU, in compliance with the NTUC Fair Retrenchment Framework, tripartite advisories as well as the collective agreement with the union, to ensure a caring, transparent, fair and responsible process,” Suntec Singapore and BATU said.

“The well-being of all affected staff has been a priority throughout the process, with a focus on maintaining a strong Singaporean core.”

They added Suntec Singapore will maintain a core of 89 locals and four non-locals that possess “the best fit of experience, qualifications, knowledge and skills to bring the business forward post-COVID”.

“Due care has also been taken to ensure an ageless workforce, maintaining staff across the various age groups.”

READ: About 330 offered jobs with start-ups under SGUnited package between April and June

SUPPORT FOR AFFECTED WORKERS

CEO of Suntec Singapore Arun Madhok said: “This decision has not been taken lightly and does not in any way reflect the performance of any staff. 

“Every individual in our team has contributed to the success of our company for many years and I am truly sorry to have to ask many of our wonderful and talented people to look for alternative employment.”

Affected and eligible employees will receive a month’s salary for every year of service as severance payment, in accordance with a collective agreement signed with the union, Suntec Singapore and BATU said.

Eligible staff members will also be paid their pro-rated annual wage supplement for the year and will be allowed to encash their remaining annual leave entitlements.

Those affected by the retrenchment exercise will also be allowed to use their notice period “focus on and plan for their future”, said Suntec Singapore and BATU. 

READ: The Big Read: With COVID-19 annihilating jobs, many are feeling the pain – and it will get worse

Local staff members will also receive assistance from the NTUC Job Security Council (JSC) to be matched to job openings based on their skills and experience.

“NTUC’s e2i (Employment and Employability Institute), as the ecosystem manager for the NTUC JSC, has successfully identified at least two job opportunities for every affected local staff,” Suntec Singapore and BATU said.

“For example, affected workers in food production are being matched to similar roles in the food and beverage industry. Sales and events staff could be matched to similar roles where their skills are transferable.”

BATU and e2i will also arrange for affected staff members to attend virtual or physical job fairs and employability workshops, and offer further assistance with job applications and counselling where necessary.

Suntec Singapore will be giving a one-off training grant of S$25,000 to BATU that will “support union members’ efforts in upskilling or re-skilling for new jobs”, the media release said, adding that eligible union members would also be assisted in applying for the NTUC Care Fund (COVID-19) which provides additional one-off support of up to S$300.

“BATU and the Labour Movement stand ready to assist affected workers as best as we can, providing much needed support, be it in terms of employment assistance or emotional support for our workers during such distressing times,” executive secretary of BATU Zainal Sapari said.

READ: Millennium Hotels and Resorts lays off 159 employees in Singapore amid COVID-19 impact

READ: Pratt & Whitney lays off 20% of Singapore workforce due to COVID-19

Suntec Singapore and BATU added: “Suntec Singapore will continue to work with BATU, e2i, Workforce Singapore, SGUnited and other relevant authorities to upskill the remaining workforce through training, job re-design, adoption of technology solutions and enhanced business processes.”

COVID-19 has impacted various industries across Singapore, including the tourism and hospitality, as well as commercial aviation sectors. 

Millennium Hotels and Resorts said earlier in August it has laid off 159 employees, while aircraft engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney said it has laid off 20 per cent of its workforce in Singapore.

About 140 staff members from Singapore Press Holdings’ (SPH) media sales division and magazines were also “affected” by a retrenchment exercise, as part of a restructuring to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on advertising revenue.

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Pastor helps keep Singapore’s migrant workers fed during COVID-19 lockdown


SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Pastor Samuel Gift Stephen spends his days trying to ensure migrant workers in Singapore, confined to cramped dormitories due to an outbreak of coronavirus, all remain well fed.

Reverend Samuel Gift Stephen listens to the feedback from a migrant worker about the food that had been delivered to them during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Singapore April 22, 2020. Stephen, chairman of Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO), non-governmental organization, oversees the daily delivery of more than 17000 meals to migrant workers living in factory-converted dormitories, whose employers have not stepped up to provide food even as they are unable to leave their dormitories since Monday. REUTERS/Edgar Su

He runs one of a number of non-governmental organisations working with authorities and employers to deliver meals to dormitories where workers are either under government quarantine or ordered to stay home to curb transmission of the disease.

Singapore has seen a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases to over 10,000 infections this week, the vast majority from dormitories where workers mainly from Bangladesh and India live in bunk rooms each housing 12 to 20 men.

The government has said employers are required to provide sufficient food for workers during this lockdown period, but it is also working with NGOs like Stephen’s Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO) to make up any shortfalls.

“Employers are supposed to provide catered food to their employees. And the truth to the matter is that…some of them don’t have the muscle power, they don’t have the financial power because of this financial crunch,” Stephen, chairman of AGWO, said as he unloaded bags of plastic containers from the back of a van to dormitories on Wednesday.

The mainly South Asian workers receiving the meals, many wearing traditional saris wrapped around their waists, stood nearby queuing up to see health workers wearing masks, blue scrubs and plastic shields covering their faces.

Dormitories with large numbers of infections have been put under government-ordered quarantines in recent weeks, and on Tuesday the government said all foreign construction workers must stay home for two weeks.

Stephen said his organisation arranges for caterers to cook and deliver meals at least twice a day for certain dormitories – an initiative funded by charitable donations. The Ministry of Manpower has previously said that NGOs like AGWO are helping deliver 7,000 meals a day to workers.

Dormitory operators have welcomed the initiative, which they say is helping them over a difficult period.

“We have contacted all the employers to try to ensure that their meals and daily essentials have been taken care of. At the same time, we reached out to charity organisations…to help supplement whatever there is shortfall,” said Eugene Aw, director of RT Group, which manages several factory-converted migrant dormitories, including one visited by AGWO on Wednesday.

“Because the ramping-up period takes a bit of time for all these demands to be met on a daily basis.”

(This story corrects garment name in paragraph six)

Reporting by Joseph Campbell; Editing by John Geddie and Michael Perry



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The S11 dormitory: inside Singapore’s biggest coronavirus cluster



FILE PHOTO: Migrant workers look out from their balconies at Punggol S11 dormitory, during the coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) in Singapore April 6, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su

April 21, 2020

By Ruma Paul, Koustav Samanta and Aradhana Aravindan

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – For Habibur Rahman, the only glimpse of life outside the four walls of the cramped Singapore dormitory room he shares with 11 other migrant workers are security guards urging people to stay apart and cleaners scrubbing down communal toilets.

The 25-year-old Bangladeshi is one of thousands of workers, mainly from South Asia, who came to Singapore to provide a better life for their families. Now, however, they are under government-ordered quarantine, battling boredom, frustration and anxiety in a sprawling dormitory complex called S11 @Punggol, home to 1,977 of Singapore’s 8,014 COVID-19 cases.

“If one is infected, it would easily spread among others,” Rahman said. “Currently we are confined to our room. Everyone is scared. We are just praying to Allah… praying five times a day.”

S11 is one of many utilitarian housing blocks on the fringes of the modern city-state where more than 300,000 migrant labourers from Bangladesh, India and China live in rooms with bunks for 12 to 20 men, working jobs that pay as little as S$20 a day.

These dormitories, in areas tourists seldom visit, account for more than 75% of the country’s total infections after the city-state recorded its biggest jump in new cases on Monday. Nineteen dormitories have been quarantined so far, according to government notices, affecting tens of thousands of workers.

Rights groups have said the dormitories have highlighted a weak link in Singapore’s containment effort, which has otherwise won global plaudits. And critics say such mass quarantines could increase the risk of infection in the blocks.

Singapore authorities say that they have taken preventative measures in migrant housing since the start of the city-state’s outbreak in January but that the quarantine measures were necessary once the virus spread.

S11, the company that operates the dormitory, the Ministry of Manpower and Ministry of Health did not respond to requests for comment.

On Tuesday, a senior World Health Organization official said that despite facing “very difficult challenges” from a surge in infections, Singapore was in a good position to manage the outbreak.

Reuters spoke with 12 residents at the S11 complex, a row of low-rise steel buildings of different colours behind high metal fences. Some workers declined to be identified for fear it would worry their families or put their jobs at risk.

The workers said they leave their rooms only to use the bathroom, and meals are delivered. Their days are spent streaming movies on their phones, peering out of balconies draped with laundry, or chatting with concerned family members back home, they said.

Some S11 residents complained about the sanitation, the lack of precautions and monotony in the dormitories. Others praised the Singapore government’s response.

But all were afraid of catching the virus.

“PAYING THE PRICE”

For Nayem Ahmed, a 26-year old construction worker from Bangladesh, that fear was realised.

One of his roommates had been infected, so when he awoke on April 8 feeling feverish, he immediately alerted medical staff in the dormitory.

They tested him and while he awaited the results, he said, he was moved to an isolation facility outside the dormitory. Two days later, he was told he had been infected.

“I can’t express how I felt when I heard that. I thought I would not live anymore,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed said he was given paracetemol, and underwent blood tests and a chest x-ray in a hospital. After a few days, he was moved to a converted conference centre called Expo, which is being used to house patients with mild symptoms.

“I feel like I have got a new life,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed said he is thankful to the Singapore government for providing health care and food, and making sure quarantined workers are paid. But he said more should have been done to address the risks of outbreaks in dormitories.

“Dormitories are crowded and dirty. No wonder the dormitories have become a hotbed for coronavirus infection,” Ahmed said. “Now we are paying the price.”

Other workers also flagged hygiene issues in the dormitories shortly after quarantine measures were announced on April 5.

The Ministry of Manpower has said it faced “challenges” at the start of the quarantine related to hygiene and the supply of food in the dormitories, but that it had been working with operators to improve conditions.

LACK OF PRECAUTIONS

S11, which operates the Punggol facility and another near the city’s airport, advertises the “cheapest dormitories in Singapore.” The dormitory at Punggol can house up to 14,000 workers in four-storey buildings on about 5.8 hectares, roughly the same area as eight soccer pitches, according to local media reports.

There are 43 such purpose-built dormitories in Singapore, housing 200,000 workers, 1,200 converted factories housing 95,000 workers and various other smaller temporary quarters, according to the Ministry of Manpower.

Since the start of the outbreak, the Singapore government has said it has been advising dormitory operators to monitor workers for fever, encourage personal hygiene and limit mingling in common areas to reduce infection risk.

But Nizamul, 27, and other workers who declined to be identified, said that temperature checks were rare at S11 and that a fingerprint scanner was used for entry and exit into the complex just days before the government quarantine.

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease. Scientists say it spreads through droplets from the nose or mouth via coughing or sneezing, and by people coming in contact with contaminated surfaces before touching their nose, mouth or eyes.

Nizamul said before the quarantine he had shared a room with an Indian man who was put on sick leave due to a cold and fever, then tested positive for the coronavirus days later when his health deteriorated.

Nizamul said he was moved to a public housing complex and given his own room, and has not tested positive.

Miah Palash, 27, was one of the few S11 residents Reuters spoke with who said he did not know of any cases in his block.

Only allowed to leave his room to use a shared washroom, Palash said the biggest challenge was finding ways to pass the time and trying to ease the anxiety for his family back home.

“They’re just wishing for me. I’m the only son. They’re worried but… I call them everyday,” Palash said.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul and Koustav Samanta and Aradhana Aravindan; Writing by John Geddie; Editing by Gerry Doyle)





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