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Time to allow foreign workers out of dorms? Health experts weigh in

Posted on 30/11/2020 by Paula Formantes

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Nearly three weeks have passed since a Covid-19 case was last reported in foreign worker dormitories, and some health experts now approve of easing the strict movement restrictions on them.

The residents have remained subject to more stringent movement curbs here, following the rapid and massive outbreak of the virus in dorms that began in end-March.

Apart from going to work or to run essential errands, workers are still largely restricted to their dorms but can visit specified recreation centers on their rest days.

However, several health experts The Straits Times spoke to said that the Covid-19 situation in dorms has abated, and the authorities can consider lifting such restrictions, although the experts differed on when this can be done.

Infectious diseases specialists said the authorities can now consider allowing the workers more freedom to move in the community, given that Singapore crossed the 14-day mark without infections in dorms last Wednesday. The last infection in dorms was reported on November 10th.

There are already many safeguards in place to prevent another outbreak in dormitories, such as routine screening of workers, mandatory mask-wearing, and social distancing rules.

While it would take 28 days, or two incubation cycles of the virus, to fully ensure that dormitories are free of Covid-19 in which, the timeline can be shortened because of the extensive measures in place.

Even if an infected person goes out into the community, the disease should not spread if everyone abides by the mask-wearing measure and social distancing rules. Which also makes sense for foreign workers to have some normality.

Workers should be allowed back into the community when Singapore moves on to its next phase of reopening, as that would mean the whole community is ready for rapid contact tracing and testing.

The authorities have said that Singapore will enter phase 3 of its reopening only when about 70 percent of the population participates in TraceTogether, a technology-enabled contact tracing programme.

With the widespread use of TraceTogether, it is much more possible to halt an outbreak quickly through aggressive contact tracing, testing, and quarantining.

Dr. Ling Li Min, an infectious diseases physician, urged caution, noting that there are "pockets of asymptomatic infections lurking around". This is evident in new cases that emerged after 15 days of no infections in the community. Three such cases have been reported since last Thursday, November 26th.

It would be expected that the authorities take a steady and gradual approach in relaxing the strict measures.

In response to queries from ST, the Manpower Ministry said it will further ease the restrictions on dorm residents if infection rates are "sustained at low levels".

It has also worked with community groups to arrange for organized excursions for residents.

Meanwhile, workers said they hope the rules can be relaxed soon.

Mr. Saddam Mohammad, 27, a Bangladeshi carpenter who stays in a purpose-built dormitory, said his life revolves around work as he reports to work almost every day and he returns to his dormitory straight after. He hopes to be able to venture out again "because I'm very bored in the dorm".

But employers ST spoke to said that not all their workers seem keen on heading out as most are focused on making up for their income loss with overtime work.

An owner of a construction company, who gave his name only as Mr. Salman, 49, said his foreign workers have been working overtime daily. "While our work has been delayed by six months, the deadlines set by our clients remain the same."

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Reference: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/time-to-allow-foreign-workers-out-of-dorms-health-experts-weigh-in