Bangladeshi national Sarker Dilip contracted COVID-19 while working in Singapore last year but considers himself one of the lucky ones.
- Singapore’s coronavirus daily infections are at their highest since the pandemic began
- The nation’s 300,000 migrant workers are not allowed to mingle with the general population
- A pilot scheme offering day trips to small groups of foreign workers has been criticised
The 32-year-old made a trip to Dhaka last February at the start of the pandemic before strict rules restricting the movements of Singapore’s 300,000 foreign workers came into force.
“I am lucky because I went home for 15 days to attend my brother’s marriage and was able to come back to Singapore last March,” he told the ABC.
“But many people have not been able to go home for a long time and are still in Singapore and not able to move around.”
Apart from not being allowed to fly home for visits during the pandemic, foreign workers are forbidden from mingling with the general population while employed in Singapore, as infections spike across the island.
They are limited to visiting their places of employment and dormitories, due to fears of them spreading coronavirus.
Despite the population’s 82 per cent double vaccination rate, Singapore’s ministry of health recorded 2,236 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, its highest number since the beginning of the pandemic, with 515 infections from migrant worker dormitories.
Having tried to open up earlier this month after becoming one of the world’s most vaccinated countries , Singapore has had to reimpose strict restrictions, even though severe illness and deaths — just 85 fatalities in a population of 5.7 million — remain relatively low.
But with 30 of the deaths reported this month, authorities this week cut the limit on public gatherings from five people to two, including for restaurant meals.
Mr Sarker, who works at a factory near Changi Airport and stays in a dormitory at Jurong on the island’s west, says the memory of his trip home last year is helping him through difficult times.
He caught COVID-19 in April 2020, a few weeks after his return from Dhaka, during a period when tightly packed dormitories drove the island’s infections in the early stages of the pandemic.
With mild to moderate symptoms, Mr Sarker did not need to be hospitalised after an extended period of treatment and isolation.
Having been in Singapore since 2008, the 32-year-old has a base salary of $S1,030 per month ($1,046) but can make up to $S1,700 with overtime.
He said he was usually on shift from 8:00am to 7:00pm, six days a week, but often chose to work Sundays to earn more.
Mr Sarker sends back the majority of his earnings to his wife, Trishna, who supports their three-year-old daughter Rodrihe at their home near Dhaka.
Having received two doses of the Moderna vaccine, he said the restrictions on his movements saddened him and his colleagues in Singapore.
“I’ve been fully vaccinated for more than four months so it’s very sad I can’t go out … I miss it.”
‘No health rationale for confinement’
A pilot scheme beginning earlier this month in which a small number of foreign workers are taken by bus on supervised outings has been branded as “policy inertia” by a Singaporean human rights activist.
Under the plan, about 80 workers in a group are given four-hour trips to the Little India district on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
With six outings a week, it means almost 2,000 foreign nationals will be granted some respite during the month-long trial.
“Instead of taking one step at a time, this is like taking one-10th of a step … at this rate, it would take 12 years to get all of Singapore’s foreign workers out for a day trip,” said Alex Au, vice-president of rights group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2)
He said the workers were being bused around “like schoolchildren”.
“More than 90 per cent of foreign workers have been fully vaxxed, so there’s no public health rationale for continuing their confinement.
“As much as Singaporean grandmothers and aunties, migrant workers should be allowed to go out and shop and enjoy the same freedoms as everyone else.
“The state unfairly sees migrant workers as a threat.”
Most of Singapore’s foreign workers come from India and Bangladesh, with smaller numbers from China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines.
Suicides on rise among migrant workers
Michael Cheah, the executive director of HealthServe, a non-profit group providing subsidised health care to migrant workers, said the workers felt a sense of hopelessness about the situation.
“Compared to 2019, we saw an increase in suicides amongst foreign workers in 2020 and we’re concerned about suicide risk in 2021 as hopelessness sets in.
“While in this year of the pandemic they can work again, they can’t go back home to see their loved ones, so we’re seeing a lot of family issues, with broken marriages and broken relationships.”
Mr Cheah added that some foreign workers had not returned to their countries for visits for more than three years, with their scheduled trips for 2020 and 2021 being cancelled.
“The workers may go home only once every two years, so some haven’t had a holiday since 2018,” he said.
“That’s why they just want to get out now in Singapore to meet old friends and have a cup of coffee and meal together.
‘Isolation perpetuates stress and helplessness’
Clinical psychologist Annabelle Chow told the ABC foreign workers often had “a smaller pool of resources and mental health support” than Singapore’s general population.
“Prolonged isolation in their dormitories and the limited avenues of social interaction might further perpetuate the stress and helplessness foreign workers experience,” Dr Annabelle said.
Some long-time overseas nationals in Singapore have expressed alarm at the plight of the island’s foreign workers, whose confinement seems set to continue for the foreseeable future.
“Why? Just why?” British author and radio host Neil Humphreys wrote on Twitter.
Manila-born Christine Amour-Levar, founder of non-profit organisation Woman on a Mission and HER Planet Earth, said a sense of “isolation” was causing “depression and anxiety”.
As for Mr Sarker, he said he remained grateful for the chance to earn a living in Singapore, with a wage much higher than he could command in Dhaka, and he had no plans to return home.
“I want to stay longer in Singapore … I can’t say yet for how many years,” he said.
“But it’s not easy and I still miss my family in Bangladesh.”
The ABC has contacted Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower for comment.
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