Researchers from the Centre for Culture-Centred Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE) have uncovered Singapore’s large migrant community is experiencing clusters of COVID-19, due to cramped migrant worker dormitories.
Research released in a white paper shows, despite Singapore being lauded internationally for its COVID-19 response, policymakers have historically overlooked poor living conditions in dormitories that house thousands of migrant workers in close quarters, with between 12 and 20 men often sharing a single room.
Professor Mohan Dutta has been conducting a digital ethnography (participant observations and informal interviews) in Bengali and English, supported by in-depth interviews with low-wage migrant workers. His research has found, although the dormitories are now in lockdown, the workers are unable to maintain physical distancing because of the cramped living conditions, leading to COVID-19 outbreaks.
Professor Dutta, who has been interviewed by The Guardian and the South China Morning Post about the issue, says the workers expressed anxiety about the rapid pace with which the outbreak was unfolding in their dormitories. Singapore’s Ministry of Health reported 1111 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, making a total of 9125, with the migrant worker dormitories emerging as the epicentres of the outbreak. Some 1050 of the 1111 new cases reported on Tuesday were among work permit holders residing in dormitories.
“My earlier work conducted with Singapore’s low-wage migrant workers highlighted the poor living conditions and food insecurity they experienced. These conditions, alongside the lack of worker rights and the absence of spaces for workers to voice their demands, are breeding grounds for the pandemic,” he says.
Singapore has 200,000 workers who live in 43 dormitories across the country, the largest of which holds 24,000 men. The dormitories have been declared isolation units by officials, making them more crowded than usual as only essential workers may leave.
One participant in the study noted they were unable to keep a one-metre distance from one another as their room has 20 people living in it. Another worker said, “They are saying you need to do those things, washing hands and not go outside together. There’s no point when there are so many workers in a room.”
The CARE research team is currently conducting a follow-up quantitative study exploring everyday experiences of health and wellbeing among low-wage migrant workers. The initial findings of this study, conducted with 100 low-wage migrant workers, further crystallise the qualitative findings regarding overcrowding, poor toilet facilities and lack of water. The study also reveals overarching feelings of fear and depression among the workers.
CARE is a research centre that uses participatory and culture-centred methodologies to develop community-driven communication solutions, and has been responding to COVID-19 through its community advisory groups, community workshops, and community researchers.
“The communities we have been working in have been creatively developing a wide range of interventions, community-based resources for support, community-driven advocacy and activist solutions addressing the political and economic challenges foregrounded by COVID-19,” Professor Dutta says.
CARE is also working with 27 communities in rural West Bengal to develop self-organised networks of mutual care. The community advisory group networks have identified the most in-need households in the communities, and have developed culturally-centred food packages (rice, potatoes and daal, considered staple food in this part of India) to be delivered to the most at-need households. The centre is also responding to the distribution of fake news circulated over digital platforms, with community advisory groups working with community researchers to debunk disinformation.
In New Zealand, CARE has developed a network of community support in Highbury, Palmerston North, to address the needs of community members at the “margins of the margins”. It has identified the most in-need households in the communities and developed culturally-centred food packages to meet community needs. The advisory group meets digitally to develop strategies and solutions.
CARE also created the Manawatū Health Information Hub to provide information and raise key information gaps in the community. The information gaps uncovered so far include the availability of testing, financial support and pricing, and have shaped CARE white papers, contributing to its advocacy work. Currently, CARE is collaborating with the Health Hub Project New Zealand to develop a culture-centred, community-grounded framework for community testing.