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No, migrant workers are not trying to get COVID-19.

I’m a very lucky person because I don’t get a lot of misinformation sent to me via WhatsApp — thank you, family and friends! — but I’ve still heard about all sorts of misinformation going around, and have also seen some of the conspiracy theories and rumours parroted in Facebook comments here and there.

Sometimes it can be difficult to push back against these narratives, particularly if they’re coming from elders or if you feel like you might not have enough information yourself to rebut the points made. So one way that I thought I could make myself useful would be to respond (generally) to some of these rumours and theories, and you can forward this email on (or share it on social media).

It can be tiring to engage with problematic, or outright false, messages, but I hope we can empower ourselves to counter at least some of these narratives. I’ve already posted a little bit on Facebook about this before, but in today’s issue of this newsletter I’d like to address the horrible theory going around that Singapore’s COVID-19 numbers are still high because migrant workers want to, or are trying to, get infected with the coronavirus.

Seven weeks after the first purpose-built dormitories were declared isolation areas and locked down, Singapore is still reporting hundreds of confirmed COVID-19 cases each day, the vast majority of whom are migrant workers. Given that the incubation period of the coronavirus is thought to be up to 14 days, it’s clear that many of the workers testing positive now have been infected after their dorms were locked down.

This was always going to be the case, as long as men are still living in close quarters of up to 20 in a room. While Singaporeans can stay relatively safe within our family “bubbles”, then put on masks and practice safe distancing when encountering others outside, this isn’t feasible for workers who say their bunk beds aren’t even one metre apart, and who have to share communal toilets and bathrooms with all the others on their floor. As a worker told me in April while I was working on this piece:

“We all wash our [clothes] and dry them at the same place… I don’t know if [the room closest to mine] has the virus or what, I put [the clothes in the] same place, my friend also puts [his in the] same place, everybody’s [in the] same place.”

But these still-high numbers have also given rise to the theory, circulating on WhatsApp and social media, that migrant workers are deliberately getting infected with the coronavirus. When I asked friends if they’ve received such messages, one forwarded me an audio clip in Hokkien in which an uncle claimed that migrant workers will get money if they test positive, so they’d rather get COVID-19 than not.

This narrative is damaging because it places the blame for Singapore’s COVID-19 outbreak on the workers — men who are already trapped in a difficult situation and have limited means to respond to these unfair rumours about them. It supports the continued treatment of migrant workers as people who are not only “not like us”, but who will “take advantage of us”, and should therefore be treated as suspicious and untrustworthy.

The reasoning behind the theory goes like this:

  1. Right now, most migrant workers aren’t having to do the back-breaking labour that is usually required of them, and get to rest in their rooms, but…
  2. …the government has said that they should still be paid their salaries.
  3. Also, if they test positive, some might even get relocated to nice accommodation like hotels, so…
  4. …this situation is working out nicely for them: there’s no need to work, and they get to relax in nice lodgings, all while still receiving their wages.

As someone who has reported on the COVID-19 outbreak within the dormitories, and is in regular contact with migrant workers, NGOs, and other activists and volunteers, I can say with confidence that migrant workers are not trying to get infected with COVID-19.

Let me address each point in that line of reasoning stated above…

Migrant workers don’t have to work, and can relax in their rooms

Yes, the majority of migrant workers are off work at the moment, because their work sites have been shut down. But I wouldn’t describe their situation as relaxing or restful.

The men are now largely confined in their rooms with their roommates, even eating their meals in there. With a very small number of exceptions, there is no air-conditioning, and sometimes ventilation is poor. It can get unbearably hot.

The rooms have been cramped and hot for a long time, but workers pointed out to me that previously they’d only needed to put up with it for a short period of time. Before COVID-19 hit, these cramped rooms were only there for them to catch some sleep before heading out to work again — now they’re stuck in there all day long.

On top of that, workers have told myself and other activists/volunteers about the anxiety they feel about their situation. Every day they hear of hundreds of cases of migrant workers testing positive for COVID-19; meanwhile, they sit in crowded rooms with little information or communication. There’s confusion about who gets tested and who doesn’t, and workers have said that they aren’t necessarily informed about test results, nor why they are being moved from place to place.

Again, to quote the Bangladeshi worker who spoke to me in April:

“We understand [that the] Singapore government is trying their best, but it’s very difficult. Our life [now], every moment is panic, every moment is danger. Every moment someone is crying... Even myself, my wife [in Bangladesh] — and I have one small baby — every time I’m talking to them, they’re crying, thinking too much.”

It is highly unlikely that anyone would voluntarily want to prolong this sort of confinement.

They’re still getting paid their salaries.

According to the Ministry of Manpower, the men under lockdown in their dormitories should still be paid their salaries. This is important, because migrant workers need to pay off debts or remit money to dependents in their home countries. (This short film, $alary Day, directed and acted by Ramasamy Madhavan, gives us a glimpse of how wages are spent.)

But in this case, getting paid a salary while not having to go to work isn’t as sweet as it sounds. As migrant labour rights group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) points out, the ministry’s advisory to employers about salaries isn’t very clear, and in fact signals that employers are allowed to reduce already low salaries as part of cost-cutting measures. I’ve also heard confusion from workers and other volunteers. As the lockdown wears on, NGOs are receiving more calls for help with salary issues — precisely as TWC2 president Debbie Fordyce predicted.

Even if one does get paid, we have to keep in mind that many migrant workers have a low basic salary; an amount that they then supplement by working extra hours. But there are no overtime hours to clock this time, so even those who are getting paid are getting only a portion of what they would usually be receiving, which would then have an effect on how much can be sent home.

(And no, migrant workers are not getting money for testing positive.)

If they test positive, they get shifted to nice accommodation / Migrant workers are having quite an easy time now

It’s not clear how many of those who test positive actually get to stay in a hotel or an HDB flat. In any case, it seems unlikely that one would risk getting infected with a potentially deadly virus simply because they might get to stay in a hotel.

Even if the majority of workers are reported to only have mild symptoms, news reports suggest that even those lucky enough to only have a mild case might have to struggle with long-term effects. It simply makes no sense — if you can ever say that getting ill makes sense — to contract a dangerous virus about which not much is known simply to get some time off.

Perhaps, when people think about migrant workers still receiving salaries while not working, they are imagining something more akin to their own situation — I, too, quite enjoy the idea of still getting my regular income simply for doing nothing at home. But it’s not analogous: most of us earn more (likely much more), and “staying at home” means Netflix and Deliveroo and the space to do yoga and playing with pets and baking bread. It’s simply not comparable to what migrant workers are facing.

In a nutshell

Migrant workers are the majority of COVID-19 cases in Singapore, but they are not to blame for this situation. Workers are still getting infected with COVID-19 because they are stuck in environments that leave them at risk of getting infected, or infecting others. As infectious disease expert Paul Tambyah says, the situation with the dorms is very much like the situation with the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where passengers were not allowed to disembark, leading to more passengers getting the virus.

COVID-19 has shown that we as a society need to take a good hard look at the way we have segregated a huge part of our population — migrant workers are part of our population — and neglected them until it was too late. Instead of blaming the workers for their own plight, we need to reflect on why and how we failed in this area even as we did well in others.

If you’ve received such messages, or know people who have made such claims about migrant workers and COVID-19, please send this on to them. You can forward the email, share the link to this piece, or even copy-paste the text. Thank you for pushing back against this harmful rumour!