KUALA LUMPUR – Weeks after two of his roommates were diagnosed with COVID-19, Mohamad Arif Hassan says he's still waiting to be tested for the coronavirus. Quarantined in his room in a sprawling foreign workers' dormitory that has emerged as Singapore's biggest viral cluster, Arif says he isn’t too worried because neither he nor his eight other roommates have any symptoms.
Still, the 28-year-old Bangladeshi construction worker couldn't be blamed if he were more than just a bit concerned.
Infections in Singapore, an affluent Southeast Asian city-state of fewer than 6 million people, have jumped more than a hundredfold in two months — from 226 in mid-March to more than 23,800, the most in Asia after China, India and Pakistan. Only 20 of the infections have resulted in deaths.
About 90% of Singapore's cases are linked to crowded foreign workers' dormitories that were a blind spot in the government's crisis management. Arif’s dorm complex, which has 14,000 beds, accounts for 11% of total infections, with over 2,500 cases.
This massive second wave of infections caught Singapore off guard and exposed the danger of overlooking marginalized groups during a health crisis. Despite warnings from human rights activists as early as February about the dorms’ crowded and often unsanitary living conditions, no action was taken until cases spread rampantly last month.
Singapore's costly oversight was also an important lesson to other countries in the region with large migrant populations. Neighboring Malaysia recently announced mandatory coronavirus testing for its more than 2 million foreign workers after dozens were diagnosed with COVID—19.
The slip-up highlighted Singapore’s treatment of its large population of low-wage foreign workers, who play an integral part in the economy but live on the fringes in conditions where social distancing is impossible. The misjudgment was also an embarrassment for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government ahead of a general election anticipated in the next few months that is expected to be the last for Lee, who has led Singapore since 2004 and is planning to retire soon.
Singapore’s nanny state government, which won global praise for its meticulous contact tracing and testing in the early stages of the crisis, quickly moved to contain the problem by treating the flare-up in the dorms as a separate outbreak from that in the local community, a policy that some say is discriminatory.