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As Singapore Ventures Back Out, Migrant Workers Are Kept In

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On most days, there are zero new coronavirus cases among migrant workers in Singapore, who bore the brunt of the city-state’s outbreak this year. But as the government prepares for its final phase of reopening this month, those workers won’t be part of it.

Low-wage migrant laborers, most of them from South Asia, are a crucial part of the Singaporean economy, especially in construction and shipyards. The outbreak among the workers, who make up 93 percent of Singapore’s 58,000 official cases, and the government’s handling of it have renewed longstanding questions about how the country treats foreign workers, and data released by the government this week showed that their infection rate was three times higher than previously reported.

On Monday, the Ministry of Health released the results of tests on the 323,000 migrant laborers who live in dormitories, showing that 98,000 of them had positive serology tests, which detect antibodies developed in response to a past infection. That is in addition to the more than 54,000 who had already tested positive on polymerase chain reaction or P.C.R. tests, which detect whether a person currently has the virus.

The number of previously undetected cases is all but certain to grow because officials are still waiting for antibody test results from about 65,000 workers.

With nearly half of them known to have been infected at some point, Singapore’s migrant workers have likely built up more immunity than other communities.

Early in the pandemic, Singapore appeared to have the virus under control, closing its borders, testing widely and conducting extensive contact tracing on infected patients. But an outbreak in the dormitories in April quickly doubled the total number of cases, and the government responded by imposing a two-month national lockdown. The continuing lockdown in the dormitories has been even stricter, with migrant workers barred from leaving their buildings and sometimes even their rooms except for work and essential errands.

“Basically they are treated as prisoners to be transported out for work and then transported back,” said Alex Au, vice president of Transient Workers Count Too, a nonprofit group in Singapore.

Advocacy groups say the dormitory outbreak should not have been a surprise, given how crowded the buildings are. The government set about testing the workers systematically, isolating those who tested positive and were symptomatic or said they felt sick. But advocacy groups say that according to workers they spoke with, those who tested positive but had no symptoms were told to stay in their dormitories, exposing multiple roommates and accelerating the virus’s spread.

Mr. Au said workers this year had at times been less worried about the risk of infection than the lockdown itself. Reports of self-harm have raised concern about the toll the lockdown has taken on workers’ mental health. Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics, or Home, a Singaporean nongovernmental organization, said it knew of workers who had been nowhere except their dormitories and work sites for up to nine months.

Firoz, a worker from Bangladesh, said workers were struggling to keep their spirits up because they were unable to leave the dormitories to buy the foods they like or meet with friends, even though cases are near zero now for the workers.

“Now it’s normal, but we cannot go out,” said Firoz, who declined to give his full name because his employer had not authorized him to speak to the news media. It’s “important to give the workers freedom,” he said.

The government’s desire to segregate the dormitory outbreak from the wider population was reflected in the way it reported cases: two separate tallies, one for migrant workers and one for what officials termed “the community.” Outside of the dormitories, there have been fewer than 4,000 cases.

Government officials point out that four out of five infected migrant workers had “very mild” symptoms or none at all, and that they accounted for only two of Singapore’s 29 coronavirus deaths.

But advocacy groups say that while health care workers and civil servants have tried hard to care for the workers, the prevalence of infections has come with a cost. Transient Workers Count Too said it had documented several cases of workers who had experienced long-term effects of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Home also said some workers had reported that they “continue to suffer from debilitating pain and fatigue months after testing positive, even if their initial symptoms were not severe.”

Cases have tapered off since a peak in August, and local transmissions are now almost nonexistent. In a national address on Monday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore would enter its final phase of reopening on Dec. 28, relaxing capacity limits in places like malls and churches, and raising the limit on social gatherings to eight people from five.

The workers remain mostly under lockdown, though since late October they have been allowed to apply for permission for three-hour visits to designated “recreation centers” for shopping, socializing and wiring money to their families back home. With the rest of Singapore moving on to Phase 3 of reopening, the Ministry of Health said, some workers will be allowed to “access the community” once a month starting early next year, provided they wear contact-tracing devices and follow social-distancing guidelines.

Mr. Au said that with so many workers having presumably built up some immunity to the virus after having already contracted and recovered from it, they could be considered safer than the rest of the population. He said he saw no reason to place greater restrictions on them.

“The new infection rate is no different from the general population, so why are they still being confined at a terrible cost to their mental health?” he asked.

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