How S'pore tamed a Covid-19 outbreak at workers' dorms, avoiding a 'major disaster'

A migrant worker tears after a nasal swab test at Ng Teng Fong General Hospital, on April 28, 2020. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - When Covid-19 rampaged through migrant workers' dormitories in 2020, at no point did the authorities consider letting it burn through - not even when there was widespread sentiment that the situation in those living quarters was Singapore's Achilles heel in the early months of the pandemic.

A new book on the city state's Covid-19 fight reveals that the idea of allowing infections to occur naturally to gain herd immunity among the population of workers "goes against the notion of us wanting to make sure we do our best for everyone", said Singapore's director of medical services Kenneth Mak in an interview for the book.

Released on Thursday (Jan 20), In This Together: Singapore's Covid-19 Story details, among other things, the Government's effort to bring the dorm outbreak under control and prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed.

Stemming transmissions and protecting workers was the mission of an inter-agency Joint Task Force (JTF) assembled by Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean at the request of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and comprising the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), health and manpower ministries, and the Home Team from the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Cases among workers living in dormitories had surged, alarmingly, from 31 in April 2020 to over 15,000 in May, before more than doubling to 33,000 in June.

For much of the year, they made up 19 in 20 cases, and by the end of last year, over 175,000 out of 323,000 dormitory residents had caught the virus.

In the book, PM Lee describes the dormitory situation as having "every prospect of becoming a major disaster".

"We were worried about the dorms. We knew that they were vulnerable, and we took precautions even from January (2020) onwards, but the precautions proved insufficient," he said.

That month, with news of an outbreak in Wuhan, China, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) had told dorm operators to be on the alert, and to prepare isolation and quarantine facilities.

Still, from March 30, clusters began to form at the larger purpose-built dorms (PBDs) - something advocacy groups had been warning about, given the crowded and unsanitary living conditions.

PBDs are large, communal facilities housing thousands of workers, with between 12 and 16 to a room packed with double-decker beds.

Ensuring that the situation would be well taken care of was a "critical" decision. PM Lee approached Mr Teo on April 4 to oversee the effort.

On April 5, two dorms were locked down and gazetted as isolation areas - a major operation that involved making sure the workers' health and basic needs would be met. Failing to do so could have led to a major public order problem, said Mr Teo.

A temporary facility for recovering or early Covid-19 patients with mild symptoms. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

The chain of command would see the JTF headed by Brigadier-General Seet Uei Lim, Chief Guards Officer in the SAF, reporting up to Permanent Secretary for Manpower Aubeck Kam, then Manpower Minister Josephine Teo and finally the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19.

Over the next three days, the situation unravelled rapidly, with at least nine dorms experiencing clusters. The JTF deployed officers to all 43 PBDs to set up medical facilities, bring in supplies and food, and ensure that there was Internet access and entertainment for the workers.

Doctors and nurses were also deployed from hospitals and polyclinics to each dorm.

By the end of the first week of the circuit breaker, which had begun on April 7, all the dorms had been locked down, with workers who tested positive moved to community facilities, and strict testing and isolation rules imposed.

With the help of JTF officers, teething issues around food, living conditions and workers' salaries were resolved.

It took over four months before all the dorms were pronounced cleared of the virus and that nine in 10 workers in the construction, maritime and process sectors could return to their jobs.

SPH Brightcove Video
In this Dec 2020 interview, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reflects on the 2020 outbreak at migrant worker dormitories, in which about 54,500 workers were infected by Covid-19.

The JTF was stood down on Aug 22 and its operations handed over to a new MOM division called the Assurance, Care and Engagement Group.

PM Lee said Mr Teo's plan had worked very well, considering how the Government had to "just bludgeon its way to implement the big moves and deal with the situation at hand" at the initial stages of the dorm outbreak.

"What we could have done was to prepare everything sooner so that when we did need to lock down, we could have moved with greater expedition and all the pieces would be in place. We were prepared but not enough," said the Prime Minister. "We will henceforth have to manage the dorms in a different way from the way they have been handled."

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