Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Singapore Was A Shining Star In COVID-19 Control — Until It Wasn't


Now to Singapore, which was once praised for how it handled the coronavirus pandemic. The World Health Organization pointed out that aggressive contact tracing allowed the city-state to quickly identify and isolate any new cases, and they kept the number of cases extremely low. All of that has changed now. Not only is Singapore under a strict lockdown - it now has the most coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports that the outbreak has been driven by thousands of infections in overcrowded dormitories for foreign workers.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Singapore's coronavirus outbreak is concentrated almost entirely among migrant laborers who for the last month have been locked down in cramped dormitories. For example, on Tuesday, Singapore reported nine new coronavirus cases in Singapore permanent residents and 519 among foreign workers.


GAN KIM YONG: We have started testing with the dormitories, where there were a high number of cases detected.

BEAUBIEN: The minister of health, Gan Kim Yong, says Singapore is testing thousands of migrant workers every day. Yet the virus is spreading so rapidly in the dormitories it's exceeding the city's testing capacity.


GAN: For dormitories where the assessed rate of infection is extremely high, our efforts are focused on isolating those who are symptomatic, even without a confirmed COVID-19 test. This allows us to quickly provide medical care to these patients.

BEAUBIEN: On a per capita basis, Singapore is the second-richest country in Asia and has a small population of just under 6 million. Its economy relies heavily on young men from Bangladesh, India and other countries who work doing construction and manufacturing jobs. More than 300,000 of these low-paid laborers live in designated dorms. The vast majority of Singapore's coronavirus cases, 85%, have come from these dormitories.


GAN: So far, the majority of the cases have had relatively mild diseases or no symptoms. And they do not require extensive medical intervention.

BEAUBIEN: Health Minister Gan credits the extensive screening with finding many workers who are positive but didn't appear sick.


GAN: About 30% require closer medical observation due to their underlying health conditions or because of old age.

BEAUBIEN: As of this week, only a handful - less than two dozen - were in hospital intensive care units. The city is setting up thousands of what it calls community care beds in convention centers and other public buildings. The hope is that most of these cases can be managed by medical staff in these temporary wards. So far, the city has 10,000 community care beds and plans to expand this to 20,000 by mid-June.

Mohan Dutta, who has worked closely with these migrant laborers over the years, says the coronavirus outbreaks in the dormitories was predictable. Most rooms house between 12 to 20 men. And he says they weren't designed to have workers staying in them 24/7 during a lockdown.

MOHAN DUTTA: So these are rooms that are set up to optimize the space. So they would have bunk beds, and then there is little room to move around. They have little room to store their things, which really contributes to the sense of the rooms being unhygienic.

BEAUBIEN: Dutta is a professor at Massey University in New Zealand. Before that, he worked at the National University of Singapore studying marginalized communities. And he's been surveying migrant workers about their concerns during this pandemic. In many of the compounds in Singapore, a hundred workers share a block of five toilets and five shower stalls. Because of the current lockdown, most of these workers aren't allowed to leave the dorms.

DUTTA: There is this sense of panic and fear, and part of that is related to this sense of not being able to move outside of the room and everyone pretty much being stuck in the room at such close proximity.

BEAUBIEN: Singapore's health ministry has moved aggressively to try to address the coronavirus outbreaks in these housing blocks. The government is trying to decongest the hardest-hit dorms. But even Dutta concedes that it's impossible to find an alternative accommodation for more than 300,000 workers in the short term. COVID-19 is forcing Singapore to confront how it treats this often-overlooked population. And Dutta hopes this outbreak will lead to major changes in how foreign workers are housed and treated down the road.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DECEPTIKON'S "WAY OF THE SAMURAI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.