Recovered from COVID-19, migrant workers live on a cruise ship and in an HDB flat
Former dormitory residents like Pugal may be resting easier, but they still grapple with uncertainty. Part 3 of a series on Singapore's migrant workers hit by the coronavirus.
SINGAPORE: Eight years ago when Subramaniam Pugalandi arrived in Singapore to help build homes, he could not have predicted that he’d be staying in a Housing Board flat as part of his recovery from the virus causing a global pandemic.
For the past week, he has been housed in a vacant one-room flat in Bedok, having recovered from COVID-19. He’s ecstatic, after fearing at one point whether “my life would continue”.
But he still hankers to get back to his dormitory. “The (flat’s) facilities are better than the dormitory, but no freedom here. It seems like zoo life because I cannot go outside for walking or jogging.
“If I am in the dorm, I can do what I like” while taking mandated precautions, said the 35-year-old safety supervisor from India, who last saw his dormitory mates in early April.
Pugal first gained the sympathy of CNA Insider’s viewers when he spoke emotionally of his fears of watching roommates fall ill “one by one”. Then he, too, caught the coronavirus.
He further captured hearts by letting viewers into his life in isolation first in the hospital ward, and then in the Singapore Expo community care facility.
WATCH: Part 1: Inside Singapore's foreign worker dormitories during COVID-19 (7:18)
Now, Pugal can only hope that the Bedok flat is the final leg in his lengthy COVID-19 journey.
On Apr 2, he was moved from his original residence at S11 Dormitory @ Punggol to an isolation area in Tuas for quarantine, where he developed symptoms of the virus.
After testing positive at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) on Apr 13, he was shifted to the Singapore Expo two days later. On Apr 30, he moved to Guillemard Camp, where he stayed till May 11.
Even though Pugal wasn’t explicitly informed of his test results, “when we were transferred to the HDB flat, we were told that anybody discharged (from the camp) was negative. No problem, the body everything okay.
“So, everybody happy,” he recounted to CNA Insider. “My wife (is) also very happy,”
WATCH: Part 2: When a migrant worker gets COVID-19 in Singapore (4:00)
For now, he’s sharing the flat with another Indian resident from S11 Dormitory. Every day, Pugal logs his temperature twice on the Building and Construction Authority website. His daily breakfast, lunch and dinner meals are delivered by “the security guys”.
He can't leave his floor, so his only pockets of freedom involve roaming the corridor for fresh air and exercise. That is, when he’s not practising yoga, which he only just picked up.
He sorely looks forward to getting a haircut at the barber’s once he can leave – and he doesn’t know when that will be – but even more, he misses his “freedom place” and his friends back at S11 Dormitory “so much”.
“I miss a lot of things. I go there, I can play games. I can do whatever things, no problem. Here, I don’t know the road outside. How do I go out?”
WATCH: Part 3: Living on a cruise ship and in a flat (5:58)
MONOTONOUS DAYS ON A CRUISE SHIP
Quarantined aboard a cruise ship, 29-year-old Tanjir Rahman’s future seems murky too, after a multi-stop journey of recovery from COVID-19.
On Apr 14, the Bangladeshi resident of S11 Dormitory took a swab test, then waited for his results at Cherryloft Resorts. Three days later, his test came back positive, so he was hospitalised.
He was transferred to the Singapore Expo on Apr 25, then to the Lim Chu Kang army camp on May 2. Finally, on May 12, he was moved to the SuperStar Gemini docked at the Marina Bay Cruise Centre.
Tanjir is presumably negative for COVID-19, since the cruise ships are used for recovered migrant workers, according to the Singapore Tourism Board. “I don’t know (if) I am okay or not, because no swab test (since Apr 14),” he told CNA Insider on May 19.
Tanjir admits he was scared, after knowing that many people in other pandemic-ravaged countries had “suddenly died”. He had been ready for “big problems” to come after four to five days of being in quarantine.
But it has been a month now, so his worries have abated – though not entirely.
He’s frustrated over being in limbo, and not being able to put his mind 100-per-cent at rest with test results. “We're agitated. If we were told a date to do our next swab test, or how long more we’ll be here, we’d probably feel better and more hopeful,” he said.
He, like Pugal, expressed thanks to all the healthcare workers and the Singapore government for taking care of them.
While waiting, Tanjir shares his cabin with another Bangladeshi. On a typical day, he exercises, sleeps, does his prayers, talks to his new friend, and gets his temperature taken thrice a day. Meals, collected from the restaurant, can only be eaten in the room.
The most thrilling part of his otherwise monotonous days involves getting sunlight and fresh air on the deck for around 40 minutes once every three to four days, around 10am or 7pm. The workers take turns in batches, for safe distancing reasons.
He misses his close friend back at his dorm. “He sometimes calls to ask what’s happening, is my body okay or not. Much, much miss him,” said Tanjir. The first thing he will do once he leaves the cruise ship is to “enjoy the many, many places” with his brothers.
EMPLOYER SEEKING UPDATES TOO
Pugal and Tanjir aren’t the only ones in limbo.
Besides the occasional Ministry of Manpower email detailing the workers being transferred to certain government facilities, Pugal and Tanjir’s employer, Jerevin Industrial, seems to be grappling with uncertainty too.
“Sometimes (my workers) can be transferred twice in two or three days, so I don’t know what’s the meaning of the transfers,” said its human resource manager, Tabitha Lim.
“Even with workers who have tested positive, we don’t have any updates.” She doesn’t know for sure if they’ve been deemed to have recovered. “The updates usually just come from the workers or the dormitories. So we don’t have any clear instructions.”
What has been said is that some recovered workers will be returned to their dormitories and housed in designated blocks; while workers who are well and in essential services will be housed in temporary facilities such as former schools, military camps and vacant HDB blocks.
READ: COVID-19: On-site care facilities at some dormitories, designated spaces for recovered workers
READ: COVID-19: Two former school sites to be converted into temporary dorms for migrant workers who are well
As for Jerevin Industrial’s workers who have recovered, the company has been encouraged to redeploy them temporarily to other companies providing essential services, as these firms are short on workers.
Tabitha and company managing director Jeremiah Tan are agreeable so long as the other company “returns (the workers) when the circuit breaker is over”. Indeed, construction projects will soon be allowed to gradually resume.
READ: COVID-19: Construction sites can resume work from Jun 2; priority given to projects that follow new safety measures
Said Tabitha: “My first worker who was tested positive was Pugal’s roommate. He told me that he only wished to come back and work for us at our site. I told him not to worry, we’d definitely take him back.
“We are still paying our workers as per normal, so it’s not much difference to the workers themselves.”
KEEPING SPIRITS UP
In these trying times, Tabitha chooses to see the upside: Technology.
“If it were the olden days, I think the workers would just be looking at the walls and ceilings now. Jeremiah has also encouraged them to attend free online courses,” she said.
They also send their workers care packages comprising snacks, drinks, soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste to help them stay positive.
“Their snacks can be a little bit difficult to find. The Bangladeshi ones are some kind of Mumbai mixed tidbit,” she explained. “But I managed to find the Indian snacks because there’s a minimart near my place. Some of them also asked for Coca-Cola.”
Sustenance aside, almost all their workers asked for a kettle – the hot water dispenser in the Expo is unable to cater to everyone’s needs. But the request had to be denied for good reason.
“Pugal was one of the understanding ones,” she said. “He told me, ‘Ma’am, this place is so small. If everybody brings a kettle, the whole place is going to black out.’”
Read the first two parts of the migrant worker journey during COVID-19: