It is heartening to see many Singaporeans outraged when they see the plight of the foreign workers in Singapore. Poor unsanitary living conditions and tightly packed dormitories has created a health crisis in Singapore with more than 10,000 foreign workers infected with COVID-19.
Poor living conditions of these foreign workers are not new. In the past, employers packed them in shophouses in Geylang and Serangoon and once these poor living conditions are exposed, after public outrage, mega-dorms are built, and the problem is out of sight.
These well connected mega-dorm operators can focus on getting maximum profits by following the lax guidelines set by the Ministry of Manpower and getting the minimum done. On paper, some of these dorms boast recreational areas, cinemas, shops for some 21,000 residents. But in reality, sometimes, more than 20 workers are packed into a room, sharing a toilet. The air circulation is poor and because of the living density fueled the spread of viruses.
These poor living conditions were made known to the public only when people were looking into the reasons why there were so many foreign workers infected, and there was some outrage by the public as the numbers soared due to the slow actions taken by the dormitory operators as there were no clear instructions from the government despite some members of the public highlighting the critical situation.
When it is apparent that many of the foreign workers living in these densely packed dormitories with poor sanitation were infected, the government had no choice but to act to curb the spread.
The once “Gold Standard” of the COVID-19 response suddenly was struggling to contain the outbreak. The problem did not end there. With over 1,000,000 foreign workers, and more than 300,000 living in dormitories, it was impossible for Singapore to house them. There was a big scramble to create make shift facilities to house these workers, and the communication to them was so bad that many did not understand what was going on and felt that they were “abandoned”.
Testing was also insufficient and according to Mr. Au of TWC2, “They’re waiting for symptoms to show before they test. That seems to be reactive instead of proactive.”
In a specific case, 16 roommates of one infected worker were not immediately tested for the virus, but instead isolated in their rooms, not allowed to go out.
Then, there was also a problem with food. When the workers were quarantined and rehoused in other shelters, the dorm operators had problems sourcing for budget food for the workers. There were a lot of complains about poorly cooked food and low quality food offered to the workers, and it had even reached the news channels.
Many Singaporeans took action and decided to support these foreign workers and various companies too came out and decided to provide food. These knee jerk reactions are common as many realised the problem and wanted to do something.
So a lot of food was donated.
However, this usually does not solve the problem. Many of the donated food did not reach the hungry foreign workers. Like aid to disaster areas, many people focus on the doing, and did not consider the impact. As these areas are restricted to contain the virus, no one can simple walk in and provide food to the people inside. Non-official food source in any disaster areas are turned away as the operators of these shelters cannot be certain that the food is safe.
As Ramadan started, some of the food that arrived at the shelters were too late as the fasting has started, and sometimes the food arrived too early and when fasting was over, the food had already turned bad.
The distribution like with many community and ad hoc projects was poor, and with the lack of communication and engagement, there were duplication in efforts while some shelters did not get any food.
I would like to add that many of these shelters do feed their inhabitants. The inhabitants are not allowed to go out and get food, and they have to be fed, so food is already provided. There area always managers of these shelters, and working with them to provide food or donating to a food fund to provide better quality food or supplements should be the focus.
I would also say that there are a lot of commendable efforts which really did help and some shelters did have better quality food, but this is due to the experience of some of the NGOs like TWC2 and HOME where they understand what they were doing.
Many of the religious groups and companies who are using vendors to deliver food still end up wasting food.
It is good that Singaporeans care about these marginalised foreign workers, helping others is not as easy as just giving food when someone is hungry. Even when it comes to feeding the homeless and marginalised in Singapore, engaging them is key.
So, if you intend to help in this situation, please remember to engage. It is the first step into understanding the problem and looking into how to create a solution for that problem.
Please don’t have a solution and decide to find a problem to fix — having bought food and finding shelters to give to is always a bad idea — even if it may be a good photo opportunity.