Researchers of disaster resilience commonly understand that the ability of institutions to respond to a crisis lies, to a great extent, in their past experiences in encountering similar crises. Once the crisis is overcome, adaptive institutions will supposedly have enough time to learn from it and take the necessary measures to step up its capacity in anticipation of the next crisis. However, there are situations in which, despite all lessons learned and all measures taken, the new crisis, similar in nature to the previous, spawns an unprecedented exigency, resulting in a prolonged disruption of society in spite of the great amount of preparedness and mitigation plans.“Despite a short period of panic buying, one month into the outbreak saw a relatively stable situation as the Singapore government mobilized resources to handle infection cases one by one.”
This is the case of Singapore, a small island country in Southeast Asia that has been severely hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. The crisis was not due to the country lacking strict measures nor adequate health infrastructures to handle an outbreak. It’s strong confidence on its planning led to leaders ignoring a small vulnerability lurking within society. When the novel coronavirus began to spread from Wuhan, China, back in December 2019, it instantly rendered Southeast Asia most vulnerable due to its proximity to the epicenter of the outbreak. During the early days of the pandemic, over a dozen direct flights brought hundreds of passengers every day from Wuhan to major cities in Southeast Asia. Singapore was one of the cities to first recognize the threat of infection when it discovered that two people from Wuhan had been infected with SARS-CoV2 when they were visiting the country. This discovery triggered an instant response from Singapore’s health authorities. Despite a short period of panic buying, one month into the outbreak saw a relatively stable situation as the Singapore government mobilized resources to handle infection cases one by one. At that point, people were optimistic that the country would remain safe. However, an unforeseen problem suddenly emerged indicated by an explosion of infection cases among migrant workers. Covid-19 had uncovered a vulnerability Singaporean officials had not considered.
Housing migrant workers
There is something peculiar about Singapore. Its economy stands out among its neighbors, as its GNI per capita ranks as one of the top in the world. Heavily concentrated on advanced manufacturing, finance, and services industry, Singapore is a city-state that has successfully transformed its economy and enjoyed steady growth for many years. But Singapore’s stable economic indicators and massive achievements in science and technology are bolstered by a large pool of migrant workers who work as cheap labor across various sectors. These migrant workers makeup a bulk of Singapore’s nonresident population. Malaysia has been the traditional source of workers. But for the past ten years more migrant workers are drawn from Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Burma, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. Also, there is a large number of migrant workers from the People’s Republic of China.
Today, there are 5.7 million people living in Singapore. Citizens and permanent residents account for 4.03 million. The rest are considered nonresident. Most low-paid migrant workers are categorized under Work Permit Holders, who makeup 41 percent of 1.68 million nonresidents. This group of foreigners are allowed to work generally in five sectors: construction, manufacturing, shipbuilding, processing (e.g., the manufacturing of petroleum and petrochemicals), and services. The starting salary is SGD18 an hour (US$13 an hour). A few of them manage to obtain higher-paid jobs, such as project managers and chief technicians, but the large majority remains at the bottom throughout their work contract.
When it comes to housing, Singapore is touted as a success of story. It is one of the countries with high rates of home ownership. However, the past decades have seen a steep rise in house prices due to land scarcity but also market factors. As a result, the country is listed among the most expensive cities in the world. For this reason, it is not financially possible for migrant workers to be accommodated in housing similar to that which average citizens and residents enjoy. Depending on their jobs and countries of origin, some migrant workers live at rented, public-housing HDB flats.1HDB stands for Housing and Development, a government agency specially assigned to plan and develop Singapore’s subsidized housing estates. But the majority is provided by their employers with accommodation at so-called Purpose-Built Dormitories. Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower requires every employer to build this type of facility for their foreign workers. The rent is extremely cheap compared to housing market prices, but it comes with a caveat. There are 43 dormitories located in eight areas across the island. Each dormitory area consists of a few apartment blocks of four to five floors. Room sizes vary. As mandated in government documents, “the developer is required to provide a minimum of 0.05 sq. m. per worker up to a maximum of 0.10 sq. m. per worker, if there are more than 500 workers and up to 5,000 workers housed in the dormitory.”2See Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Agency, “Amenity Provision Guidelines for Workers’ Dormitories.” In reality, all dormitories are packed and crowded, as each room is used for 10–12 people. From migrant worker housing, Singapore’s Covid-19 crisis broke out in January 2020.
Early responses“The growth of Covid-19 transmission was so unexpected that the government decided to lockdown the entire country.”
The first confirmed case of Covid-19 infection in Singapore was announced on January 23, although the government health agencies had begun reporting suspected cases two weeks earlier. The index case was a Chinese tourist from Wuhan. One week later, a total of 13 confirmed cases were reported. They were all Chinese nationals who were visiting Singapore. It was not until January 31 that the government reported a confirmed case involving a Singaporean. One week later, the number of accumulated cases had grown to 33, a significant hike that prompted the government to raise the nation’s Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level from Yellow to Orange. Despite massive contact tracing, testing, and quarantine measures, by the end of February, the health authorities had reason to believe that local transmission had occurred as new cases continued popping up. In early March, the government began to sense that the situation had turned worse than they had anticipated. This came into realization when a new infection cluster grew rapidly among migrant workers. Most of the early cases originated at the Mustafa shopping center, a favorite venue among migrant workers from South Asia. In no time infection cases exploded among migrant workers living in the dormitories. At the same time, the government discovered an increase of unlinked cases due to asymptomatic infections that were hard to detect. This posed the risk of a huge cluster of infections. The growth of Covid-19 transmission was so unexpected that the government decided to lockdown the entire country. It resulted in a “Circuit Breaker,” referring to the closure of workplaces, schools, and public facilities. Only a small number of essential sectors were allowed to continue operating. The circuit breaker lasted for eight weeks, and it aimed to suppress local transmission but specially to respond to the crisis unfolding in worker dormitories.
Although some foreign media characterized the rapid infection within migrant worker dorms as a government failure, the quick and coordinated responses of the Singapore government deserves appreciation. Within days after the circuit breaker started, all migrant workers in dorms were given paid leave. Some of the dorms with high infection rates were isolated. Workers in the quarantined dorms were provided with food, internet access, and medical assistance. In the meantime, testing was rapidly escalated among this population group. Every day 3,000 PCR tests were administered in all dorms. Not surprisingly, the number of cases skyrocketed. The peak was on April 20 when Singapore broke a record of 1,396 cases. It instantly made Singapore one of the countries with the highest rates in Asia after being touted as a Covid-19-safe. In the following two weeks, infection cases began to drop slowly. By early May, it became stable and new infection cases among Singapore citizens and residents had remained very low. By this point, the situation seemed to be under control, prompting the government to begin easing restrictions on June 2.
How can we explain what happened in Singapore? The country had a traumatic experience with SARS back in 2003. The SARS outbreak caused 33 deaths and forced Singapore to close its border for over two months, suffering a loss of approximately US$50 billion. Learning the lessons from SARS, Singapore improved its healthcare system and bio-surveillance to anticipate similar outbreaks. This resulted in the creation of the National Center for Infection Diseases (NCID), a special agency akin to the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition, funding was pumped into research projects on medical science, biotechnology, and virology. Thus, when Covid-19 started to break out from Wuhan, Singapore had everything prepared, from tight airport bio-surveillance, to enhanced testing capacity, and intensive care units in hospitals across the city. And it worked perfectly as indicated by the very low case-fatality rate. The fact that so few healthcare workers were infected and none of them died from coronavirus shows how diligently the country has prepared to respond to the pandemic. However, the creation of new institutions and the strengthening of surveillance technologies could not outweigh the prejudices inherent in the society, missing a key group.“Vulnerabilities are hidden when institutions fail to identify potential risks emanating from tightly coupled assemblages of people or systems.”
Despite disaster researchers and policymakers learning and adapting from the previous crisis, new circumstances always arise that were not planned for. In my analysis of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown disaster, I discuss certain “hidden vulnerabilities” similar to what Singapore experienced.3Sulfikar Amir, “Hidden Vulnerability: The Long Making of Nuclear Disaster in Fukushima Daiichi” (paper presentation, 2019 Annual Meeting of Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), Milan, October 24–27, 2019). The failure of Japanese nuclear authorities in recognizing a seemingly benign ill design of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station’s emergency system eventually caused a series of meltdowns with lingering impacts on the people and environment. Vulnerabilities are hidden when institutions fail to identify potential risks emanating from tightly coupled assemblages of people or systems. In some cases, it is attributed to a lack of expertise, in others it is due to an institutionalized ignorance especially in complex sociotechnical systems that are easily plagued by insensibility. Applying this framework of hidden vulnerabilities to Singapore, I found similarities in the fiasco of the migrant worker cluster in Singapore’s attempt to contain Covid-19. The condition of migrant workers in dormitories was a vulnerability that remained hidden, not because Singapore does not have the scientific and institutional capacity to recognize it, but because the focus was on other aspects of the looming pandemic. It was primarily prompted by institutional bias and the interests of Singapore’s government to protect its own citizens first and foremost. This is where hidden vulnerability becomes deeply entangled with inequality.
Reflecting on the reasons behind the unexpected increase in Covid-19 cases among the migrant population and Singapore’s inequality has prompted a heated debate among Singapore scholars and policy researchers. They have different takes on why Singapore failed to prevent this big cluster of transmission from happening. From an economic point of view, economist and nominated parliament member Walter Edgar Theseira notes that the crisis is rooted in Singapore’s addiction to cheap labor.4See IPS Online Forum on Migrant Workers: Policy Responses and Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic. Video is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8SBYZRt04g. It has been so dependent on the labor migrant workers provide without acknowledging their value as part of Singapore’s population. Sociologist Paulin Straughan adds a cultural perspective to broaden the spectrum of the problem.5Ibid. She argues that the housing conditions of migrant workers have also been partly caused by a collective reluctance among many Singaporeans to accept migrant workers as part of their society. Prejudice and even racism toward migrant workers are prevalent among Singaporean citizens mostly due to language difference and pervasive public attitudes.6See for example Catherine Gomes, “Xenophobia Online: Unmasking Singaporean Attitudes towards ‘Foreign Talent’ Migrants,” Asian Ethnicity 15, no.1) (2014): 21–40. Thus, a gap emerges between the ideas of Singapore as a cohesive society and migrant workers as transient bodies. The underlying issue is the striking presence of inequality between the local people of Singapore and migrant workers. Their presence is not only socially and culturally ignored by local Singaporeans, their labor is financially underappreciated, and they’re in a weak bargaining position. While inequality does exist among Singaporeans, inequality between Singaporeans and foreign workers is far wider, and those who depend on their labor pay little attention to it. They are simply part of the global structure of labor markets that considers these workers disposable.
Banner photo credit: Da Zhao Pian/Flickr