COVID-19: Older foreign workers to get 'special attention', be moved to separate dorm: PM Lee

COVID-19: Older foreign workers to get 'special attention', be moved to separate dorm: PM Lee

A foreign worker stands along the corridor of Westlite Toh Guan dormitory
A foreign worker stands along the corridor of Westlite Toh Guan dormitory in Singapore on Apr 6, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

SINGAPORE: Older foreign workers will be given "special attention" and moved to a separate dormitory for monitoring, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Tuesday (Apr 21).

COVID-19 clusters in the dormitories have also remained "largely contained" and not spread to the wider community, he said, adding that authorities want to ensure they can detect and contain early any potential "leakage" from dorms. 

This comes as Singapore sees a spike in COVID-19 cases in recent days, the vast majority of whom are work permit holders residing in foreign worker dormitories.

READ: COVID-19 circuit breaker extended until Jun 1 as Singapore aims to bring down community numbers ‘decisively’: PM Lee 

Mr Lee said the Government will increase medical resources in dormitories and deploy more medical personnel to ensure workers with flu symptoms get "appropriate and timely" medical treatment.

"We will make sure that those who need more active treatment receive immediate attention, and can be sent promptly to the hospital to help them recover," he said.

"We will also pay special attention to the older workers, who are more vulnerable. We are pre-emptively moving them to a separate dorm, where they can be monitored more closely."

Mr Lee acknowledged that the large number of cases in dormitories is a "serious problem", although he noted that almost all the workers who tested positive have mild symptoms.

"This is not surprising as they are generally young, and thus much less likely to become seriously ill with COVID-19," he said, adding that healthcare personnel are taking good care of them.

"It is early days yet, but thankfully, so far none of the new cases of migrant workers have needed supplemental oxygen, or intensive care."

Beyond foreign workers living in dormitories, Mr Lee said authorities are closely monitoring workers who live in shophouses, private housing and HDB flats as well as those who work in essential services.

The latter includes those who clean HDB blocks and hawker centres or maintain key infrastructure like broadband networks.

"If these workers move in and out of dorms, they become potential channels for cross infection," Mr Lee said. 

"Hence we are housing these essential workers separately. We are also testing them to make sure that they are healthy, and to pick up any infections early."

READ: In full: PM Lee's address on extension of 'circuit breaker' measures

Mr Lee said clusters in the dormitories have remained largely contained and have not spread to the wider community.

"We will do our utmost to keep it this way," he stated.

"We also want to make sure that if any leakage occurs from the dorms to the wider community, we can detect and contain it early, and prevent new clusters from forming and bursting out of control."

Mr Lee stressed that the Government will care for foreign workers just as it cares for Singaporeans, and that it will look after their health, welfare and livelihood.

"We will work with your employers to make sure that you get paid, and you can send money home," he said. "And we will help you stay in touch with friends and family."

Authorities will also make arrangements for Muslim workers when Ramadan begins in a few days, he added.

"When Aidilfitri comes next month, we will celebrate with our Muslim friends, just as we celebrated the Indian New Year with our Indian friends last week," Mr Lee stated.

"This is our duty and responsibility to you, and your families."

CONTAINING SPREAD AMONG FOREIGN WORKERS 

At a media conference after Mr Lee's address, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said that the jump in cases - from about 1,500 two weeks ago to more than 9,000 today - is due to an “aggressive testing regime” in migrant worker dormitories. 

READ: Singapore's COVID-19 cases top 9,000 after 1,111 new cases reported

Medical teams are not just testing sick workers, he said, but also workers who have yet to show symptoms. 

The cases coming from dormitories “are not new cases of infections”, he stressed. 

When asked if it was because of cost that authorities did not move foreign workers out of the dormitories sooner, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo insisted it was not. 

She said that since the start of January, the Government has been reaching out to dormitory owners to raise their hygiene standards, producing educational materials for the workers, and subsequently implementing safe distancing measures such as closing common areas like TV rooms.

Workers are now not allowed to leave their premises. 

Isolating foreign workers during the earlier stages of the outbreak would have been insensitive to the workers’ needs, she said.

“This is a question of livelihood,” she said. “You have to do this in the context of a circuit breaker, where all work mostly have come to a stop.”

Workers would have had to stop cooking, interacting with one another, and going out on their rest days, she said. 

“It's not just a question of cost. It is also a question of what is necessary to break the transmission,” she added. 

To roll out the current dormitory measures would require “a whole host of other things to happen”, she said - non-essential work would have to be stopped, shopping areas closed and socialising prohibited. 

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Source: CNA/hz(ac)

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