Coronavirus outbreak: Cleaner

Coronavirus: 'It's a dirty job, but if we don't do it, who will?'

Senior operations manager Jun Tay of Conrad Maintenance Services disinfecting a place visited by a confirmed coronavirus patient. The protective gear she has to don is warm and uncomfortable to wear.
Senior operations manager Jun Tay of Conrad Maintenance Services disinfecting a place visited by a confirmed coronavirus patient. The protective gear she has to don is warm and uncomfortable to wear. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

While most Singaporeans avoid the places visited by those infected with the coronavirus, 62-year-old Jun Tay charges right in - a cloth in one hand and a spray bottle with disinfectant in the other.

The possibility that the virus may still be lurking on the premises does not scare the cleaner. She has been working overtime the past few weeks with her team, furiously wiping, misting and disinfecting places that have been "tainted" by the virus.

"Well, cleaning is a dirty job. But if we don't do it, who will?" said Madam Tay, a senior operations manager at Conrad Maintenance Services. She has been in the cleaning industry for close to 30 years.

Madam Tay, who leads a team of seven, is among an army of cleaners who are quietly doing what is often the dirtiest and most exposed work in Singapore's fight against Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Since the start of the outbreak in Singapore, demand for cleaning services has spiked as venue and home owners take precautionary measures to ensure their premises are virus-free.

In the last few weeks, demand for its cleaning and disinfecting services has at least tripled, said Conrad's managing director Raymond Ng, 47.

The team has also worked on places where individuals infected with the virus have been to, including a hotel in Geylang and a church.

Earlier this month, for instance, Madam Tay and her team - a mix of men and women from China and India in their late 20s and early 30s - stepped into one such place.

Days earlier, it was announced that a coronavirus patient had visited the compound. When the cleaning team was there, the place was deserted. At the building's entrance were signs saying the place was out of bounds and the lifts were not to be used.

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Madam Jun Tay and her team of cleaners have been working overtime to disinfect venues associated with cases of Covid-19.

Wearing a white coverall suit, with her face hidden behind a gas mask and a large visor shield, Madam Tay joked: "We look like we are going to outer space, right? But we must protect ourselves so we can also protect other people."

Such protective gear is warm and uncomfortable, and in 10 minutes, sweat was trickling down their foreheads. But the group soldiered on for nearly 10 hours over two nights.

As a precaution, they spray a veil of disinfectant mist as they enter any affected room and start work by fogging every nook and cranny.

They then thoroughly wipe down every exposed surface - walls, floor, tables, chairs, door handles. For "peace of mind", they do one last round of misting, said Madam Tay.

After spraying one another with the same industrial disinfectant used to clean the rooms, they dispose of their gear and suits in the appropriate biohazard waste bins.

"At the end of the day, you're so tired, but you also feel satisfied... People can resume their normal lives, people can go on working or living there safely," she said.

She and her team have been working seven days a week these few weeks, sometimes starting at 6am and ending at 11pm.

The company has just 12 people who handle disinfection services, and because of a manpower shortage, it is usually all hands on deck, she said.

"I can't back out now just because of this outbreak. I'm a Singaporean, and must do my part."

Her workers are paid about $2,000 a month, and get an extra sum of up to $150 for each job, depending on how urgent it is, and whether it involves a confirmed coronavirus case. "We want to give them the extra money because we want to show appreciation and recognise that they are taking a risk," she added.

Madam Tay, who receives about $5,000 a month in her managerial role, does not receive additional pay for clocking the extra hours.

Few Singaporeans are interested in working in the cleaning industry, but Madam Tay hopes that through the work they do - especially during this outbreak - people will learn to respect the job.

"Many people look down on cleaners or are scared because it's a dirty job," she said.

"But we are helping to prevent the spread of the virus in Singapore."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: 'It's a dirty job, but if we don't do it, who will?'. Subscribe