As migrant mental health suffers in Singapore dorms, aid groups rally

As Singapore enters its 5th week of "circuit breaker" mode, the migrant workers quarantined in the city-state's dormitories are suffering under the psychological toll of isolation in squalid conditions and the ever-looming threat of contracting the virus

May 8, 2020
As migrant mental health suffers in Singapore dorms, aid groups rally
Islam Rockybul practicing yoga. Photo: Supplied

Islam Rockybul is no stranger to the sight and sounds of ambulances. 

As a safety coordinator for his group of foreign workers, it’s part of his job to call on emergency vehicles to help injured labourers. But he’s still not used to hearing sirens blaze through the night as ambulances race workers suspected to have Covid-19 to the hospitals.

So intense was the constant din that the 25-year-old Bangladeshi pleaded with dorm authorities for ambulances to turn off their sirens. 

“Nowadays, every day we will listen to the horn by the ambulances and we are freaking out. We are very scared,” said Rockybul, who usually goes by the nickname “Rocky”.

He’s among the thousands of foreign workers now under quarantine in Singapore. Rocky has spent the past month in his room at Kranji Lodge 1, a foreign worker dormitory designated by the government as an isolation area to prevent the virus from spreading.

Now, as Covid-19 has spread through tightly packed communities of labourers so far from their loved ones also struggling back home, rights advocates in Singapore are cautioning that state measures to fight the virus may be putting these foreign workers further at risk from a burgeoning mental health crisis.

Research published in 2017, long before the pandemic spread of the novel coronavirus, estimated nearly 22% of non-domestic migrant workers in Singapore were already experiencing psychological distress. That level grew beyond 60% among workers also experiencing additional hardships like injury claims and salary disputes.

The Globe spoke to several migrant workers who shared their fears: From contracting the virus, to being confined to squalid quarters and battling anxiety, with only their mobile phones for company. Complaints of substandard living conditions, including poorly prepared food, have underlined testimony from residents who say it “feels like we’re in a prison” and spurred a mass response from Singaporean civil society organisations.

Earlier this year, health workers cautioned that the crowded quarters afforded to these workers could put them at risk of contracting the virus. Just months later, the number of foreign workers diagnosed with the novel coronavirus has surged since the authorities began actively testing for the virus among those who live in the dorms. 

By May 6, recorded Covid-19 cases in Singapore had surged beyond 20,000, the vast majority of which were diagnosed among South Asian foreign workers housed in cramped dormitories on the remote edges of the city-state.

Today, tens of thousands are under compulsory quarantine in these dorms – they are allowed to leave only to use the bathroom or collect their meals.

Rocky has taken to practising yoga at night, after his roommates go to bed, to destress – he sometimes does so over video-calls with his wife in Bangladesh. Rocky also holds Zoom calls with over 100 workers he oversees, even their family members. It’s the least he can do to allay their fears, he said. 

“Many of them are stressed and want to go home. I feel very sad for them,” he said. “Everyone is worried.”

Attorney Dipa Swaminathan, founder of the social initiative ItsRainingRaincoats, knows how vulnerable these men can be.

The toilets inside the migrant worker dorms. Photo: Supplied

These men [migrant workers] often live on the edge of desperation … We have to be careful that they don’t get pushed off a cliff, figuratively speaking

Dipa Swaminathan, founder of ItsRainingRaincoats

Dipa launched her group, which advocates for and distributes goods to foreign workers, on social media about five years ago. That was shortly after she provided legal aid to a labourer who had been charged with attempted suicide, a crime in Singapore. 

“These men often live on the edge of desperation,” she said of the city-state’s migrant workers. “We have to be careful that they don’t get pushed off a cliff, figuratively speaking. Right now many of them live from hand-to-mouth, with no Plan B. They are very vulnerable and we need to be mindful of that.”

In recent months, Dipa has also undertaken the grim task of calling the wives of workers who died in Singapore from Covid-19 and privately arranging to send money to their families. Another had no money to send back for his father’s funeral in Bangladesh.

Non-governmental group HealthServe has attended to over 800 queries via its 24-hour mental health helpline. However, according to group representatives, many of these queries still centre on practical needs such as food, dorm hygiene and access to phone data, the lack of all of which can exacerbate the daily anxieties of a Covid-19 lockdown.

HealthServe volunteer Dr Chan – who is also a psychiatrist deployed to care for patients at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) – said the migrant workers may lack awareness of mental health issues and hence, may not consider them a major concern. Still, Dr Chan said that while they might not identify these issues as health-related, they still face the “enormous stress from feeling vulnerable without a network of support, and constantly fear that they will be the next one to either fall ill or to lose their jobs.”

Some workers cope by communicating more with their families or by engaging in religious practices, Dr Chan noted. Still, she says others are experiencing panic attacks and several have verbalised thoughts of self-harm.

Others on the frontlines, like Dr Prabavathi Balachandran, a member of the isolation team at Singapore General Hospital, observe that some workers arrive in the emergency department clueless of what is happening to them.

“Some of them don’t know why they’ve been unceremoniously herded into a bus and brought to a hospital. They seem confused and take a while to understand what being tested ‘positive’ [for Covid] means,” said Dr Balachandran.

Another NCID doctor, who wanted to remain anonymous, recounts how these men arrive at the hospital in distress and terror, thinking that that is where they would see their last days.

“I wish I could be in the room right next to him instead of being separated by a sliding door and at the counter 5 metres away,” she said. “I wish he could feel the warmth of human touch, a pat on the shoulder, instead of a foreign voice over the phone.”

Away from the uncertainty of the hospitals, some workers have found novel ways to pass the time, doing anything from learning English to making workout videos and dance challenges on Tik Tok.

Rubel Ahmed, 34-year-old Bangladeshi man living at the Changi Lodge 2, misses cycling around the nearby East Coast Park on his Sundays off, sharing satay with his friends and enjoying the sea breeze. The project admin assistant also misses his work team, who he hasn’t seen for a month.

These days, Rubel hunkers down to watch YouTube videos and practice using Microsoft Excel and Powerpoint on his laptop . He’s learnt how to protect his social media and bank accounts, thanks to a Zoom lesson organised by a cybersecurity professional friend and fellow Bangladeshi.

Another worker, Zakir Hossain Khokan, has been at the forefront of the battle. Despite contracting Covid-19 in April, he has kept busy at his hospital bed – swamped with calls and coordinating donations of hygiene essentials and reading materials in various languages. 

The 41-year-old founder of the One Bag, One Book and Migrant Writers of Singapore initiative relies on his 450-strong network of migrant readers living across different dorms to alert him to workers in need.

Zakir, who stayed at Cochrane Lodge 2, has also activated mental health teams who go room-to-room to monitor emotional health of workers and suggest activities for them. He’s advised other workers to find activities that nourish their soul, reflect, exercise or connect with long-lost family members and resolve misunderstandings.

Zakir Hossain Khokan from his hospital bed. Photo: Supplied
Rubel Ahmed learning from his laptop. Photo: Supplied

In a distant post-Covid future, going back to work is at the top of some workers’ minds. Most still see Singapore as a place to build their futures, but others are longing for home.

Rubel recounts his first impression of Singapore when he first arrived in 2012.

“It looked very neat and clean with well-decorated roads. Everything was very nice,” he said. But his heart sank when he noticed how workers were crammed at the back of lorries, which “reminded [him] of the cows back home.”

Once this crisis blows over, he plans to go home to Dhaka, where he can taste his mother’s homemade curry and go moon-gazing with his wife.

“I just want to fly back home to see my family,” he said. “Life is more important than money.”

Returning to any kind of normalcy, even the under-resourced kind experienced by many migrant workers, calls for a great deal of effort from both state and civil society.

To address the mounting anxiety, fear, and boredom, some non-governmental organisations are rolling out several initiatives to keep workers engaged and plugged into the social fabric of the city-state. These include WhatsApp chats and emergency hotlines manned by volunteers who field thousands of calls and messages from workers, donors and dorm operators daily.

Besides providing thousands of meals and other essential goods, a group called the Covid Migrant Support Coalition has also set up an online portal where workers learn photography, origami and meditation.

The coalition has also launched a befrienders programme called “WePals”, where trained volunteers look out for signs of distress. One worker had suggested watching Charlie Chaplin videos together with volunteers, while volunteers have sent over Rubik’s Cubes and carrom boards. 

Coalition member Cai Yinzhou, who is the founder of Citizen Adventures outreach group, said hundreds of volunteers are finding ways to adapt to the constantly changing picture of the outbreak.

Volunteers with ItsRainingRaincoats hand out 800 mugs donated to migrant workers by Ikea. Photo: Supplied

“This coalition is a movement by itself. People who’ve never met each other in person just hopped on this train and got to work,” said Yinzhou, who sleeps three hours each night. “We’re running on adrenaline right now.”

The group has a fundraising target of S$1 million (USD$709,000), a sum it hopes to invest in large quantities of essential goods for those living in the dorms.

Rights groups say this isn’t the first time safety conditions in the dorms have come under scrutiny, and Singaporean leaders have in the past been called upon to regulate health measures there. Advocates of the foreign labourers say living conditions have not much improved for those who migrate to the city for work.

But there are signs of hope, said John Gee, a long-time activist with non-governmental organisation Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). John said the crisis is highlighting a need for a radical overhaul of the existing mega-dormitory model.

“There is an emerging consensus that big changes are needed,” he said, calling for a series of reforms such as higher wages, elimination of recruitment middlemen and fees, a phase-out of truck-transport for workers and protection from arbitrary firing.

Whether Singapore is willing to pay more to accept these conditions remains to be seen. Still, the worker Zakir is hopeful for change.

“Singapore is a first-world country, so they have to treat workers first-world too, not push us to one corner of society,” he said. “I think Covid-19 teaches us to listen and respect each other more. It’s a time when we can take a step forward.”

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