(A longer version of this piece was originally published in Ceasefire )
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has stirred up debates that previous crises such as SARS or Ebola didn’t, probably because it reached Europe all the way to the Americas, with death tolls much higher than in China. It appears “The West needs to bleed” for audiences to be captivated, while they turn a blind eye to the crises of the non-Western world. Yet pandemics constitute a major public health crisis and a threat to populations worldwide. Existing tensions become more salient and racial stereotypes are reinforced. After reports that the Covid-19 virus likely originated from China, Asian communities became the target of discrimination and subject to waves of insults in countries across the globe, a phenomenon that very much mirrored reactions to the SARS epidemic. These waves of xenophobia can represent a public health threat in themselves and need to be analysed in their specific contexts. As countries go through the different phases of the pandemic at different times, the example of Singapore and its two waves of infection yields lessons for countries in their treatment of the most vulnerable in their societies.
The French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, once stated: “l’enfer c’est les autres” (Hell is Other people). This process is often referred to as ‘Othering’ in academia. The Other can be defined as ranging from less powerful groups to identified outgroups. This process of “Othering” does not merely occur during unprecedented circumstances, but is a common everyday practice which becomes more overtly present in unprecedented circumstances. In reality, the existing structures and systems of our society perpetuate and validate the process of Othering, through everyday acts of discrimination against the poor, the vulnerable and the less and underprivileged members of society.
Numerous examples of such dynamics can be found in history such as blaming Jews and tramps for the plague in the Middle Ages or, more recently, the US administration identifying the Zika virus as an “immigrant disease”. By identifying Others as the source of risk, the dominant group reduces the sense of helplessness they experience during such events. This ‘geography of blame’ or scapegoating offers an escape from the anxiety brought by disasters by building on existing cultural discriminations. This has already fueled all kinds of irrational behaviours such as using detergent to fight Covid-19 or calling the virus ‘Yellow’ in reference to Asian skin tone. Governments, on the other hand, have failed to focus on minorities to compensate for the structural segregation that prevents them from equally benefiting from Covid-19 alleviation efforts. Even in societies that have been praised for their response to the outbreak, such as Singapore, Hong Kong or Taiwan, the other side of the story is always much darker.
The Singapore case
Singapore was commended by the World Health Organization (WHO) for its widespread testing and extensive contact-tracing initiatives. Furthermore, Singapore also successfully quelled the anticipated second wave of the virus caused by the return of its residents and students from Europe and the US. Based on such hard-won early victories, one would have expected the small nation-state to have recovered swiftly from the pandemic. However, the story took an unexpected turn because of Singapore’s “cognitive blindspot” – the dormitories and management of its 300,000+ migrant workers – hailing from India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, China and other countries, and comprising approximately one third of the country’s total workforce. From reporting single-digit cases in February, the country suddenly saw a spike of about 1,000 cases per day in April, with almost all patients being migrant workers.
The outbreak has brought to the surface the glaring inequality and spatial marginalisation in Singapore. Succumbing to the prejudiced prevailing sentiments towards migrant workers, purpose-built dormitories to house the workforce were situated away from housing estates, in the outskirts of the city. More than 200,000 migrant workers live in these 43 dormitories, where often 10 to 20 men are packed into a single room, share toilet and shower facilities, eat in common areas, and sleep just mere feet away from each other, making it impossible to practice physical distancing. “The dormitories were like a time bomb waiting to explode,” Singapore diplomat Tommy Koh wrote in a widely circulated Facebook post. “The way Singapore treats its foreign workers is not First World but Third World.”
Brought to Singapore to carry out the hard labour that locals refuse to undertake, migrant workers are not only housed separately from the rest of the population, but also perceived and treated differently, leading to the Othering of an already marginalised population, leaving them open to racist attacks and stereotypes. In 2016, a member of parliament was forced to apologise after referring to crowds of migrant workers as “walking time bombs and public disorder incidents waiting to happen”. Earlier this year, a letter to the Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao urged Singaporeans not to blame the government for the spread of COVID-19 within dormitories, instead pointing the finger at the “poor personal hygiene” of the workers, who the writer characterised as coming from “backward countries”. The former minister for communications and information also had to apologise for a Facebook post that included the comment “[but] it takes a virus to empty the space” when commenting on the way migrant workers used to congregate within his constituency.
During the early stages of the outbreak, the Singapore government had proactively put out advisories, conducted temperature checks and contact-tracing measures across the island, urged Singaporeans to upgrade their cleanliness, and to seek medical attention if unwell. However, these measures were not quite as clearly and extensively communicated to migrant workers who were “aware of this, but they weren’t being asked to do anything differently.” As Debbie Fordyce, President of non-profit organization, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), highlighted, the long-standing segregation of migrant workers affected the COVID-19 response: “In keeping with the attitude that we’ve always felt has been directed to migrant workers… [they’re treated as] a whole different category, almost as if they’re a whole different species of animal, so they matter in a different way.”
The long-standing segregation of migrant workers, which resulted in the crowded conditions in the dormitories and migrant workers’ inability to maintain safe distancing, and the lack of adequate labour protections that left workers too afraid to report sick, led to a perfect storm for an outbreak. Viewed as the “hidden backbone” of Singaporean society, “their contribution permeates throughout society in a very necessary and essential way” and yet migrant workers are an invisible community in Singapore. As Mohan Dutta, a professor who studies the intersection of poverty and health at Massey University in New Zealand highlighted, “not only are they unseen, but their voices are also unheard. Inequalities (such as these) are the breeding grounds for pandemics. Countries absolutely have to learn [from Singapore] before it’s too late.”
Former diplomat Bilahari Kausikan admitted in a Facebook post, Singapore “did drop the ball” when it came to migrant workers and the coronavirus outbreak; the famously efficient country simply wasn’t prepared for this. This was echoed by Jeremy Lim, co-director of global health at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health – “The government was really focused on fighting COVID-19 on two battlefronts: community transmission and imported cases, but it overlooked the vulnerabilities of this third front that’s now glaringly obvious to everyone.” As the coronavirus continues its insidious spread, Singapore’s outbreak reveals the danger of overlooking any population, especially the lowest paid and most vulnerable people in society.
As Gavin Yamey, associate director for Policy at the Duke Global Health Institute rightly pointed out: “if we forget marginalized communities, if we forget the poor, the homeless, the incarcerated… we are going to continue to see outbreaks. This will continue to fuel our epidemic.” In the face of pandemics, it is important to acknowledge and cater to not only minorities but more specifically communities whose place in society have been historically constructed as “external” and are thus subject to discrimination from the general population and from the state.
A global phenomenon
Singapore is not alone in this. Many other countries display similar “Othering” dynamics. In Thailand, for example, migrant workers are ostracized from the general population through a lack of legal protection and further excluded from the raft of measures introduced by the Thai government to alleviate the impact of the pandemic, leading to a flood of migrant workers in neighbouring countries. Such sudden movements of populations have also been witnessed in India where lockdown measures have shattered the lives of the country’s poorest temporary internal migrants. In the UK, whilst the government was relatively quick to address the issue of refugees and homeless people to ensure a better monitoring of the pandemic, overcrowded prisons and jails, already invisible to the general public, were completely disregarded. Similarly, Native Americans have yet again been the unfortunate victims of the physical, social and political ‘Othering’ from the rest of the US, often coded as ‘Others’ in the Covid19 reports of most American states. Migrant populations in Gulf states displayed similar problems like in Singapore during the pandemic … The list goes on and on.
In pandemic times, even more so than usual, we should pay attention to this destructive pattern. And try mitigate it.