COVID-19 safeguards in foreign worker dorms 'not sufficient', says Lawrence Wong: report

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National Development Minister and multi-ministry taskforce on COVID-19 co-chair Lawrence Wong addresses reporters at a virtual press conference oin May 2020. PHOTO: MCI
National Development Minister and multi-ministry taskforce on COVID-19 co-chair Lawrence Wong addresses reporters at a virtual press conference oin May 2020. PHOTO: MCI

SINGAPORE — National Development Minister Lawrence Wong conceded that the safeguards against COVID-19 in foreign worker dormitories were “not sufficient”, according to a CNBC report on Wednesday (6 May), in the frankest admission yet by a Singapore leader that the government dropped the ball on the issue.

In an interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia, the co-chair of the multi-ministry taskforce on the coronavirus was asked by anchor Sri Jegarajah why the government had failed to identify these dorms, which house some 400,000 men across Singapore, as a potential area of infection risk.

Wong responded by pointing out that the foreign worker clusters have occurred not just in the dormitories, but also in common work sites and gathering areas.

Jegarajah then pressed Wong, “But do you accept that conditions in those foreign worker dormitories were frankly appalling, frankly unhygienic, and this was an accident waiting to happen from a public health point of view? And if so, are those conditions going to change?”

Wong replied that the living environment in the dorms has been steadily improving over the years, stressing that the real issue was that they were designed for communal living.

Nevertheless, he said, “I think the lesson we've learnt from this experience is that with this pandemic, the unprecedented pandemic, the safeguards were not sufficient, and the design of the dormitories have to change. It cannot be designed in the same manner as it was before."

Almost 17,000 workers living in dorms infected

Wong’s comments came on the same day that the Ministry of Health (MOH) reported a preliminary 788 new COVID-19 cases in Singapore as of Wednesday noon, bringing the total to 20,198. The vast majority of the new cases are foreign workers living in dorms, said the ministry.

The government has come under fire in recent weeks for failing to take stricter measures earlier to curb the spread of the virus in dorms, a number of which had been reported by the media and non-government organisations to be in cramped and unhygienic conditions. A total of 16,998 migrant workers living in dorms have so far tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday.

Speaking in Parliament on Monday, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo was asked if the authorities would apologise for the large number of coronavirus cases in the dorms. Teo responded by saying that migrant workers were more concerned with issues such as their medical care, wages and remittance.

“These are the things that they have asked of us. I have not come across one single migrant worker himself that has demanded an apology,” Teo said.

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