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Singapore plans to ease coronavirus restrictions on migrant workers – The Washington Post

In Singapore, praised by epidemiologists for its swift response to the coronavirus pandemic, and lately for its high vaccination rate — which, at 81 percent, is among the best in the world — migrant laborers have borne the brunt of measures to contain the virus.
For nearly 17 months, more than 300,000 low-income workers, mostly men from India, Bangladesh or China, have endured social distancing curbs stricter and longer than the wider population. Since April 2020 they have been largely confined to their dormitories, allowed to leave only for work, essential errands or to visit designated “recreation centers” once a week.
What once was seen as a necessary health policy to control the outbreak — which at its peak last year saw infections in the dormitories reach nearly 1,400 a day — now serves as salient reminder of the gap between migrant workers and other residents in the wealthy city-state, who’ve been leading relatively normal lives for months after the virus was almost stamped out.
Singapore starts to reopen for travel, as ‘zero covid’ clips wings of rival Hong Kong
From Sept. 13, Singapore plans to “gradually ease” restrictions on these migrant workers, starting with a month-long trial program that will allow up to 500 each week from dormitories that have had no new cases in the past 14 days to visit preselected places for six hours. The migrants involved in the trial will come from dorms that have “safe living measures” in place, and high vaccination rates, the Ministry of Manpower said in a statement on Thursday.
Rights groups say the latest government measures are “long overdue” and don’t go far enough in addressing what they describe as a “cruel” policy that highlights the need for better safeguards and conditions for migrant labor in the Southeast Asian country of 5.7 million.
Over the four-week trial period, the program will benefit up to 2,000 workers — a slim fraction of those still confined in dormitories, said Alex Au, vice president of rights group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). He said the plan to bus workers out “like schoolchildren” to a particular locality in Singapore for a few hours at a time denies workers the chance to meet up with friends and relatives living in other dormitories, whom they might not have seen since April 2020.
“Another way to see it is that it is the government’s stated policy to keep over 99 percent in confinement for at least another month,” Au said.
Foreign workers living in dormitories, where crowded living quarters provided ideal conditions for the virus to spread, account for roughly 80 percent of infections in Singapore since the outbreak began. But for months now, cases have been more evenly distributed in the community than last year. More than 90 percent of workers who live in dormitories are fully immunized — a higher percentage than the wider population.
Medical experts have argued that there are no longer public health grounds for such confinement of migrant workers. Singapore says that it took time to attain a high vaccination rate among foreign laborers and put in place measures to quickly detect and contain infections.
Before the lockdown, the workers were able to socialize with each other through places like shopping malls, where many gathered on their days off. Health groups say the prolonged restrictions, in contrast to the relatively loose guidelines that apply to the rest of Singapore, where residents are able to dine out at restaurants, visit friends and even attend concerts, have exacerbated migrant workers’ feelings of segregation and despair. The social isolation is causing mental health problems, with more migrant workers experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety.
“Often, as helplessness sets in, suicide risk increases, and that is a major cause for concern,” said Michael Cheah, the executive director of HealthServe, a nonprofit providing subsidized health care to migrant workers. HealthServe recently set up a 24-hour crisis helpline, and said it receives around 50 percent of calls outside office hours — a reflection of the long shifts migrant workers pull in construction and other labor-intensive sectors that many Singaporeans avoid.
Singapore’s Manpower Ministry, when asked to comment by The Washington Post, referred to a March speech by one of its ministers. Government “officers regularly check on the dormitories to work with the migrant workers,” Tan See Leng told lawmakers. “This assures them of our continued interest in preserving their well-being, and we continue to provide holistic physical, mental and social care for them.”
The government’s cautious approach to migrant workers comes as Singapore is hitting covid-19 case levels not seen since the early days of the outbreak, putting the city-state’s recent pledge to slowly open up and live with the virus to the test.
Previously, infection spikes were met with stringent restrictions like a ban on eating out and gym closures. This time around, officials are shifting the focus of their daily reporting to providing data on serious cases and hospital capacity instead of the rising number of cases — in line with plans to treat the virus as an endemic disease that can be managed with high vaccination rates.
“The dorms should be opened right away, failing which Singapore can be accused of continued human rights violations grounded on no rational basis,” said Au, who described the continued segregation of workers as “an issue of state-enforced cruelty.”
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