Migrant workers sit outside their rooms at Punggol S11 dormitory, during the coronavirus outbreak in Singapore. Photo: Reuters

No society can afford to let its guard down when fighting Covid-19. Singapore has learned that lesson in the hardest of ways, despite having the most favourable of conditions to fight and defeat the disease.

Authorities believed widespread testing, tight controls on who could come in and out of the city state and stringent tracking measures would allow life to continue little disturbed while preventing the spread of the virus. Their strategy initially worked and would have continued to had they not overlooked the conditions in which many migrant workers live.

Until last month, Singapore was being praised along with Hong Kong and Taiwan for its handling of the coronavirus. There is no model as no two places and societies are the same. The island nation has specific advantages in having a small population and area, a single border, a strong government and police force and a sturdy health care system. That enabled it to quickly detect and quarantine cases without having to impose the lockdowns and economically harmful restrictions imposed elsewhere.

But then came the second wave of infections; since March 17, the number has risen from 266 to beyond 11,000, more than anywhere else in Southeast Asia despite Singapore having a population of just 5.6 million. The vast majority of new cases are low-paid migrant workers from South Asia who live in cramped conditions in dormitories.

Anywhere from 12 to 20 live in each room and share bathrooms and kitchens, making the social distancing necessary to stop the spread of Covid-19 next to impossible. The city’s 43 dorms housing about 200,000 people were a blind spot in the government’s anti-coronavirus strategy, a time bomb waiting to go off and it has exploded with worrying consequences.

But the government was quick to respond, putting in place a package of measures it has termed a “circuit breaker” that includes the closing of schools and entertainment facilities, mandatory wearing of masks, bans on public gatherings and harsh penalties. Migrant workers have also been moved into other accommodation.

Although there has been a sharp spike in infections, the restrictions and rules appear to be working as community-transmitted cases among Singaporeans are declining. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in announcing an extension of measures until June 1, pledged that migrant workers would receive the same level of treatment as Singaporeans, countering accusations of racist policies.

Singapore’s ordeal shows that no society can relax when it is threatened by infectious diseases. When the crisis has passed, the nation also has to take a critical look at the way it treats its migrant workers. Mistakes have been made and they have to be corrected.

This article was originally published by South China Morning Post. Read the article here.