Lessons from high-density dorms spark new approach

More living space, greater discipline part of strengthening resilience against pandemic risks

For months, foreign worker dormitories have been Singapore's biggest Covid-19 challenge. At one point, new cases in dorms were hovering at close to 1,000 a day, and virtually all dormitories were put under effective lockdown.

A massive, multi-ministry effort kicked off in April to contain the spread in dorms, with a detailed system to test, isolate and hospitalise workers, and protect those who have recovered.

The work has paid off: On Friday, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong said Singapore is about two weeks away from clearing all dormitories of cases.

Last week, the Ministry of Manpower said about 247,000 of the 323,000 workers staying in dorms have either recovered or been tested to be free of the virus.

There are 43 purpose-built dorms and 1,200 factory-converted dorms here. Roughly 94 per cent of Singapore's 49,098 confirmed coronavirus cases are dorm residents.

"Essentially, by Aug 7, we expect to clear all dormitories and the vast majority of migrant workers," said Mr Wong, co-chair of the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19.

"And thereafter, we will be working very closely with all the companies who are engaging these workers to allow them to... resume work as soon as possible."

As important as clearing the dorms of virus cases are the lessons learnt in preventing new waves of infection that are reshaping the landscape of foreign worker accommodation here.

Chief is the need to ensure strict safe distancing - especially in high-density environments like dormitories - to slow the spread of the virus within communal settings.

This entails safety measures that start at the dorms, but encompass a worker's full workday, including dedicated worksite transport and minimising workplace socialising.

Dormitory Association of Singapore president Johnathan Cheah noted that barriers and dedicated paths to common areas and exits are now the norm to limit the mixing of residents at dorms.

Shared facilities such as stoves in communal kitchens are now assigned for use by workers from the same room.

At minimarts and canteens, the new default is contactless pickup, with workers ordering online or over text messages to limit mingling.

Pickup and drop-off times for those heading to worksites have also been staggered, with additional areas designated, to prevent crowding.

Another key lesson has been the need to spread workers out, so that safe distancing can be properly practised, say observers.

This began with healthy workers, particularly those in essential services, being moved in April to army camps, floating facilities and unused multi-storey carparks to cut the transmission chain.

Last month, the inter-agency task force announced plans to create additional space as interim housing for 60,000 workers for the next two to three years, while permanent dorms are being built, and to test improved living standards that "take on board lessons learnt from the current Covid pandemic".

These standards include 6 sq m of living space to each resident, not including shared facilities, compared with the current 4.5 sq m, including shared facilities. The new facilities will also have 15 sick bay beds for every 1,000 bed spaces, up from one for every 1,000 bed spaces.

Announcing these new specifications, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said the aim is to strengthen the system's resilience against pandemic risks, which means both reducing the risk of widespread transmission and mounting an effective response when there is an outbreak.

Dormitory operators will also have to instil greater discipline in terms of hygiene, intermixing and ensuring the tight isolation of infected workers.

On Friday, Mr Wong said the plan is to progressively reconfigure foreign worker housing, and to eventually house up to 60,000 workers at new permanent dormitories to be built over the next two years. Another 40,000 spaces in new purpose-built dormitories will be built in the medium term, he said in June.

The authorities are racing to put up the new interim accommodation, which will largely take two forms: temporary structures called Quick Build Dorms (QBDs) built from scratch, and unused state properties such as former schools that will be retrofitted. As work began in April, some of these interim dormitories will be ready within weeks.

Some of the QBDs that JTC Corporation is in charge of, such as the one at Kranji Way, could be completed by next month. The site, consisting of prefabricated one-storey sheds and shared facilities, will take just three to four months to complete.

MPs have begun telling residents about state sites that are being turned into temporary dorms.

Tampines MP Baey Yam Keng told residents that the former Tampines Junior College site - one of 36 sites being converted - will begin receiving foreign workers from next month, and is likely to house about 500. The workers' needs will be provided for within the compound, and dedicated transport will take them to their worksites, he said earlier this month.

While some observers say the lessons gleaned will stand Singapore in good stead in the fight to come, others ask if the Government has drawn the right conclusions.

National University Hospital infectious diseases expert Dale Fisher notes that Singapore's ability to focus on containing deaths from Covid-19 while clearing a quarter million workers in dorms - recording 27 deaths despite having more than 48,000 cases - is "absolutely staggering" when compared with the experience of many countries.

This was due in part to a novel strategy of making safe those most susceptible to succumbing to the virus, and assigning each dormitory a medical team "every day, seven days a week", Professor Fisher added.

Much remains unclear in the new dorm landscape, such as how costs - sure to go up - will be shared among different stakeholders.

Mr Cheah said the initial assessment by dorm operators is that building costs will more than double, as will operating costs to implement safety measures, such as more frequent cleaning cycles.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said Covid-19 has thrown up questions about how economic growth is attained and shared across society, and laid bare the vulnerabilities of some communities in Singapore.

Associate Professor Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences said the key lesson from the outbreak should be that there are significant limits to relying on private, profit-motivated entities to be responsible for public health and worker welfare, given "fundamental conflicts of interest between the profit motive and being socially responsible".

"The lesson drawn today is largely that the causes are inadequate standards, regulation, perhaps even unsafe behaviours on the part of dorm residents, and there is of course some truth to that interpretation," said the former Nominated MP.

"But it overlooks the fact that the physical design of dormitories, the limited living spaces available, the cost pressures, all contribute to patterns of behaviour that are inherently unsafe, and which require huge efforts on the part of individuals to overcome."

Correction note: The National Development Ministry has clarified that while the new purpose-built dormitories will eventually house 100,000 workers, the capacity of the 11 new dormitories that will be ready over the next two years is 60,000.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 26, 2020, with the headline Lessons from high-density dorms spark new approach. Subscribe