Migrant workers hit hard by pandemic

If there is one thing you can be sure of, is that every time a pandemic hits, it is the poorest among us that suffers the worst. COVID-19 is no exception. And it is clearly demonstrated in Singapore, where the poorest people are, as often is the case, the migrant workers.

Covid-19 Singapore: A ‘pandemic of inequality’ exposed

Once lauded for its containment of the virus, Singapore’s success crumbled when the virus reached its many foreign worker dormitories, something activists say should have been seen coming a mile off.

Now months on, Singapore is reporting single figure daily cases in the local community. People are going back to work, cinemas have reopened and laughter can be heard coming out of restaurants again.

But many of Singapore’s lowest earners remain indoors, facing uncertainty.

The dormitories are overcrowded, with too few facilities for the number of people living there. A ripe place for a virus to spread rapidly, and so it has done.

COVID-19 cases in Singapore

COVID-19 cases in Singapore (image source: BBC)

As the above image of COVID-19 cases in Singapore in general versus among people living in dorms shows, the difference is stark. A lot of the differences is that the people in the dorm are quarantined until they have been tested. Or as the BBC article explains

The authorities decided that the dormitories would have to be sealed off.

Around 10,000 healthy migrant workers in essential services were taken out to other accommodation – a skeleton staff to keep the country running.

But the majority were trapped in the dorms – some not even allowed to leave their rooms – while mass testing was carried out. Infected workers were gradually removed, isolated and treated.

It was a remarkably different experience to the lockdown the rest of the country was going through, with shopping allowed, daily exercise encouraged and every type of outlet offering delivery. These people were well and truly locked down, with only basic meals delivered to them.

“Once the lockdown was in place, we were not allowed to come out of the room. We were not allowed to go next door too,” Vaithyanathan Raja, from southern India, told the BBC.

This is an inhuman way to treat people, and it makes it a certainty that everyone in a dorm would get infected if anyone in it, is infected.

We have seen similar things happen in US jails and ICE detention centers. I would guess that it has also happened among the many migrant workers in India, who were severely affected by the sudden shutdown of India.

It seems like the pandemic are forcing some employers in Singapore to provide better places for foreign workers. Hopefully this will last. And hopefully, it will lessen the impact of the next pandemic.

The mother of all super spreader events

One of the things we learned early about COVID-19, was that a lot of the cases comes from so-called super spreader events. Events where a lot of people got infected, and then spread the virus after going home.

So far, the biggest super spreader event has probably been the Atalanta-Valencia Champions League match in February, which is thought to have pretty much been the reason for the rapid spreading in Italy. It could probably be considered a number of super spreader event. The actual football match at the stadium, where a lot of people got infected, but also the many gatherings of people watching the game, where many people undoubtedly got infected.

Back then, people at least had the excuse of not knowing any better. The virus was not yet well known in Italy, and few cases, if any, had been identified. This changed rapidly after the match, where Italy became one of the worst hit countries.

The same excuse cannot be made by anyone now, especially not in the US, which is one of the worst hit countries.

This is one of the things that makes this year’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally such a baffling event. Who in their right mind would think it would be a good idea to gather nearly half a million people during a pandemic? Many of these people not even doing the simplest measures, e.g. masks and social distancing, to avoid the spreading of the COVID-19 virus.

Sadly someone obviously thought it was a perfectly acceptable idea, and allowed the event to go ahead.

Now, a study, The Contagion Externality of a Superspreading Event: The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and COVID-19 (pdf), has evaluated the results of the rally, and have estimated that it has resulted in up to 219,000 infected people since the start of the rally, which is approximately 19% of all cases in the US during that period. Due to the diverse geographical origins of the participants of the rally, the spreading is not just in South Dakota where the rally took place, but in the surrounding states as well.

On top of looking at the spreading of the virus, the paper also estimates the financial costs to society. The paper estimates that the rally has cost more than $12B so far.

In other words, the human and financial costs of the rally is truly staggering, and is probably only going to grow, as time goes on.

Will this event be a lesson for other organizers and local authorities? One would think so, but sadly there is nothing in past behavior to indicate that this will be the case