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What was the difference between “community” and, for the moment lets call it, “other” cases of coronavirus in Singapore? 

Community transmission simply means the spread of the virus from person to person due to physical proximity.  In other words, whether you live in an HDB building (Housing & Development Board), nursing home, swanky condo or a migrant workers dorm, “community” transmission only means that you were exposed to the virus from someone physically close to you. Community transmissions may be contrasted with “imported” contagion – i.e., cases where the original infection began outside the country’s borders, but that too begins with proximity.  Overseas vectors of transmission obviously include Singaporeans returning as well as other travelers.  Yet, what we saw in earlier months on a daily basis and repeated ad infinitum was reference to community versus dormitory cases of coronavirus. 

What this means is that the word “community” morphed from a description of the cause of transmission (proximity) to marking the boundary between Singaporeans and Others – particularly foreign workers.  

A typical example of this boundary-marking is visible in an early Straits Times’ article (29/4/2020), “Figuring out what to Watch.”  The article’s typology produced a catalogue of distinction — first, residents and pass holders; second, work permit holders not living in dorms, and, third, migrant workers living in dorms — a catalogue that soon becomes a hierarchy.  The first two categories are termed “community” making the third, migrant workers in dormitories, effectively non-community, or, more simply Others.  The article also presented data on “unlinked” cases, namely, where the source of transmission is unclear: these figures excluded dormitory workers altogether, implying that we know where dormitory transmissions come from.  

The reasons behind this categorization are explained as follows: Dormitory workers are not part of the “community” as they are a spatially segregated population.  In addition, dormitory workers tend to interact more with each other than anyone else and “can almost be viewed as a separate outbreak.”  Taken together, these conditions require a different strategy.  

It must be remembered, once more, that the virus is stunningly non-discriminatory.  It affects everyone who comes into contact with a carrier, with men and older people more likely to be affected.  The virus doesn’t check citizenship or economic status.  Also, at least one migrant worker NGO warned the government early on that due to their abject living conditions, dormitory contagion was highly likely. But this advice appears to have been ignored until it became obvious that it was too late and the contagion was rapidly multiplying within the dormitories.  

Starting from here, a number of questions arise.  

Why were the numbers so large in the dormitories? 

It is because (a) the initial transmission of the virus was not noticed, (b) residents were not tested until it became obvious that there was rampant contagion in the dorms; (c) once infected, large numbers of men living in very close proximity in unhygienic settings and lacking protective gear passed it on to each other.  The result: a massive epidemic of cases.  

Where did the virus come from?  

It certainly didn’t come from their home countries of Bangladesh, India or China (where most migrant workers are from). These workers were infected locally.  More specifically, they got it from the “community” if by that term we mean citizens, residents, and non-work permit holders.  Migrant worker contamination began outside the dormitories, even if it found a welcome home within them due to poor living conditions.

Why was the initial transmission of the virus not noticed?  

Migrant workers are Singapore’s invisible population.  Segregated in dormitories on the edges of the island and working in largely closed compounds, they become visible to the general public only while traveling in their segregated vehicles and on public holidays.  Even though their labour has built the infrastructure of the global city, migrant workers are both here and not-here.  

When the contagion broke out, this structural invisibility continued.  While the government put into place appropriate public health procedures to stem the transmission of the virus, their focus was on the “community,” namely, those with voice, those who are legible to governance, the people who matter politically and economically.  Public health in this respect followed dominant social norms: the lack of initial attention to migrant workers was a function of their structural invisibility in Singapore more generally.  This invisible and largely voiceless population of migrant workers was ignored until it became impossible to ignore them.  

No government can be faulted for wanting to look after its own citizens first.  Such a condition is practically written into any social contract.  But when it comes to pandemics, that rule is clearly incomplete. The focus of public health initiatives must turn to the resident population, not only to citizens and well-to-do foreign visitors.  

The logic is simple.  If you don’t look after everyone, this highly non-discriminatory virus will continue to spread and the ensuing pandemic won’t end.  As simple as that.  

Migrant workers were not responsible for the crisis, but were disproportionately affected by it. They may have built the city, but they are not part of the “community.”  As soon as their labour has become incorporated into the material environment, migrant workers disappear.    

A basic lesson appears not to have been learned.  As long as the distinction between “community” and “dormitories” continues to be used, the latter are marked as different.  As long as this rhetorical distinction is in play, it creates a radical difference between “us” and “them.”  Distinction will soon become condemnation.  Let’s take a lesson from the coronavirus and start treating everyone the same.

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Itty Abraham is professor and Head of the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. Itty is a friend of IPCS


ASD Itty Abraham