India's envoy to Singapore Jawed Ashraf Photograph:( WION )
India's envoy to Singapore Jawed Ashraf spoke extensively on how Indian mission is reaching out to infected Indian workers and stranded Indian nationals
India plans to get more than a million personal protective equipment kits from Singapore and has already 100,000 COVID-19 testing kits from the south-east Asian nations in a donation have been received. Speaking to our principal diplomatic correspondent Sidhant Sibal, India's envoy to Singapore Jawed Ashraf spoke extensively on how Indian mission is reaching out to infected Indian workers and stranded Indian nationals. Of the 11,000 cases of COVID-19 positive migrant foreign workers, 25% of them are Indians. It is interesting to know, Singapore's govt is providing all infected foreigner worker full salaries, three meals, full medical support and free wifi to connect them with their families.
Sidhant Sibal: What do you think about the Singaporean model to contain the spread of the virus?
Jawed Ashraf: The whole situation in Singapore has evolved in three different phases, one is that they were early to start the process of strategizing in containing the spread of the virus once it became evident that there is a new virus spreading in Wuhan, China because of very close economic and cultural and people to people links between China and Singapore. On a given day, there used to be 14,000 arrivals from China. They started very early and the first case was confirmed on January 23, initially itself when social distancing measures were taken, testing was quite rapid, they developed a sound system of contact tracing, very vigorous and quick and were able to contain the spread, until the beginning of March and essentially they were able to stop the ingress from China and were able to stop the spread. After that, sometimes in the middle of March when people were returning, Singaporeans were returning from abroad particularly from Europe, US as the pandemic started spreading throughout the world and then we saw a big spike in the incident and spread and it began to average around 50 a day and then starting at the beginning of April, there has been a steep increase in a number of cases among the foreign workers living in the dormitories. There are about 200,000 construction workers including from India who live in dormitories and another 90,000 who live in smaller dormitories throughout the country and there has been a big spread after that. From about 1,100 at the end of March, we have about 12,000 in the last 25 days. There were some important steps, worth recognizing, having experienced SARS, they have set up a sound system, of dealing with the spread of infectious diseases, in particular, the nature of pandemic, so the healthcare infrastructure is sound and it is very extensive and no capacity constraint, which is why despite the numbers, the mortality rate is extremely low. Till today, we have only 12 cases of death in the course of the past 3 months. The focus was on contact tracing and remember it is a relatively smaller place though it is quite dense, it has 5.6 million resident. These 2 important factors, and the restrictive measures quite incremental unlike in our case and many others, so they have only escalated it in response to the extent of spread of the infection. So they eventually went into lockdown, which is kind of a circuit breaker. A number of essential services were working,, but all places of work have been stopped and socializing has been prohibited. Restaurants have been opened, hawker centres are open, but no one can sit there and eat. In a sense, it is a lockdown but not as strict as in other places. but the important point is it is incremental in nature and it has now been extended. It was instituted for 4 weeks starting April 7 but now has been extended to June 1. The situation in Singapore is they have a very rapid spread in dormitories but the relatively stable situation in the rest of the city. They have been able to create a partition between the 2 but how they treating foreign workers is remarkable in the sense, while they have instituted isolation and social distancing measures in the dorms, the healthy ones are taken out after testing and they have set up an extensive new facility to help foreign workers who are healthy.
SS: Talking about the Indian worker, what is the mission doing for them..
JA: We have today, 11000 cases of foreign workers about 25% of them are Indians. So we have 2600 Indians who are infected. What Singapore govt has done that they are paid full salaries, given 3 meals and they are given full medical support, and they have also distributed masks and sanitizers to all the workers, not just those who are sick but to everyone. They cant leave the dorms, they are in isolation, they have been provided with free WIFI in all the dorms, and were wifi was weak they have strengthed it, so that they can speak to families, watch movies, they can download other content. So they have taken very strong welfare measures for all, foreign workers including Indians. PM Lee has said, that we will treat foreign workers, the way we treat Singaporeans. They have set up a very extensive facility for isolation and for recuperation. That is as far as the Singapore govt is doing. As far as the mission is concerned, let us divide it into 2 parts, what is happening with worker and what is happening with others over here. A large number of stranded Indians here, who were here on a short visit, whose jobs had ended and they wanted to go back. As far as workers are concerned, we are working with Singapore govt very closely, in fact, PM Lee had mentioned it to our PM when they had a conversation that we are collaborating very closely, High commission doing a good job. We are working with them very closely, we have gone and visited the dorms and I have recorded a video message in Tamil since most workers are Tamil speakers, we have also engaged with them on Tamil New Year on April 14th. So they have a helpline and we have given a reassurance that Singapore govt will be looking after the healthcare, interest, welfare, salaries but we are present if they need any help of any kind, and second we are working with communities as well. A large number of NGOs who are working with Dorms and we have helped the community at large, connect with them, many of them, for example, are raising resources to supplement efforts in providing soaps, personal hygiene products, sometimes also, providing food to supplement and especially for foreigner workers who are living in smaller establishments at the construction sites etc. Very few of them, they have been looked after, though the NGOs with mobilisation of the communities. If the challenge of food, the accommodation we will directly provide it. The mission is present in all aspects and I have been in touch with ministers over here. The second part of the Indians stranded here, we have about let us say, close to about 2900 people who have registered with us because we have opened the page on our website so that they can register with names and places in India asking passport number. There were those who were here on tourist visas, on business purposes, who got stranded when we had a lockdown and suspended flights. We have people here, visiting family members, means parents visiting children who work here, siblings, so these are social visitors, and many who have lost jobs, who were here on employment and they and families are stranded here. Many students here, but most continue to remain in the hostel, facilities, and a large number of students have registered because you know working way through education. So we are providing accommodation, we are providing dry rations, we have provided food delivery also at the places of residence and we have arranged with a number of Indian restaurants over here. So they go deliver food as and when people request us, so we have instituted a system in which meals are delivered regularly. There are those who are living in little India so that we have connected with restaurants and a couple of temples and mosques who are arranging meals for some of them, so they found it more convenient to walk across these places. So in different ways, food accommodation has been arranged for them. We have also, arranged for medicines and doctors. A lot of people who are stranded here are now short of medicines, chronic illness, diabetes, hypertension, heart conditions other aliments, so we have arranged for 2 ways, we have got who supplies from India but we have also arranged for our own embassy panelled doctors to provide consultations and write prescriptions to procure medicines over here. For students, we have appointed councillors, people who can counsel them, students living alone in isolation, especially those who are young, its a kind of sense of stress. We have got counsellors who can provide support to them and we have got an extreme situation where we had 5 people who died here, not linked to COVID, couple of people who were here for treatment from India for cancer. So they died over here and we arranged for last rites. We had to work with Singapore govt, for the burial of a Muslim lady and 3 who required last rites according to Hindu customs so all this. A number of diverse needs, we even had to look at counsellors, trained professionals.
SS: How both countries cooperating to tackle with the crisis?
JA: Both Singaporean and Indian PM Modi spoke, it was a very good conversation. Singapore temasek foundation has donated 70,000 COVID test kits for testing, 30,000 additional kits were given through bill gates and Melinda gates foundation and they have given us so far free of charge, 100,000 test kits. That is the first point, number 2, test kits we making in India, supplies of reagents and enzymes from here, some of the labs based here that make the enzymes. They have a massive biotech industry, and labs over here, they have been able to develop and scale up the production of reagents, enzymes for making test kits. They are prepared to supply test kits to India, as and when needed, both in commercial terms. They have done it for a number of other countries. Research and collaboration is very strong because of the proximity. Agency for Science, Technology and Research or A Star, has a large number of Indian scientist and some of the collaborations are getting more intensified particularly in terms of finding cheaper test kits, vaccines, so on and so forth. This is happening across the world, I mean, it is a global movement in which scientist from all parts of the world are collaborating in the race against time and develop cheaper test kits that is available throughout the world. We have also got a large number of commercial offers from here which are being evaluated by Indian companies as well. Science and tech collaboration between Indian and Singapore universities and research labs are always strong, that part will go on and we hope it will succeed somewhere in the world. We are also talking about maintaining supply chain during this period because even as the world is dealing with the pandemic, we have to remember that there are issues of food supplies, issues of medical supplies that world has to work towards maintaining. Another thing we are working with Singapore is that there procurement of food supplies from India which is quite significant continues without any hindrance, we are also talking about collaborating and making masks and other PPE kits. Singapore has come capacity over here and our mission is also part of this network which has been tasked by the government for the procurement of PPE kits because Singapore has a large number of global traders in everything, it is one of the global trading hubs and one of the financial centres, so are working with our ministry and ministry of health and HLL for procurement of more than a million PPE kits though a Singapore based company, and several other suppliers here who source it from different parts of the world and this PPE and we have connected them to govt and private sector in India so that things move parallelly between the govt and private sector. This is an important hub for everyone, for traders who deal with PPE kits. Singapore has placed a request for hydroxychloroquine to buy on commercial terms, we will evaluate it and it will be approved soon.
SS: How are Indian diplomats faring in the country?
JA: It is much easier for us here to be honest, you see till April 7th there was no lockdown over here, except for social distancing measures, there weren't any measures. If u see my tweets, I have met various ministers as late as April 2nd and 3rd, and we were not doing any major social events but we were doing our diplomatic activities. I was meeting senior officials. Since then we have also started instituting measures in our mission, in the sense that we are allowed to come to work, all these officers come to the mission daily, we are sitting in the mission, because of all the issues of looking after workers and stranded Indians of procurement keeps us busy, the supply chains between the 2 countries. Fortunately in Singapore, they have been successful, other than in the dorms, the spread was relatively stable and we are all observing social distancing fully and we are confident even in cases of the dorms, they have managed to prevent any leakage, so firewall the dorms to prevent any spread to the city, but within the dorms in last 4 days, we have seen the numbers peaking, new cases being constant, so if that is the case, we will start to see a decline in the daily new cases, so that will also come in the control and most of them, in any case, is very mild symptoms and they don't require hospitalization, because they have managed to keep capacity for treatment and intensive case units ahead of the curve, so they distinguishing between those that require hospitalization and those that require isolation and they have done it very well, so we are cautious and we take all precautionary measures, we all have our temperature screening. We have our minimised public contact to nothing but we in the mission continue to come and work over here. Singapore had no problem with the supply of food or any other essential items and our consular services continue to operate on very very skeletal biases, so if there is a death and requires certification, renewal of passport, to revalidate work permits over here. We have continued to work outside the embassy and we are fortunate enough we are in Singapore where the situation is not that difficult, supplies are normal and we can procure everything over here, food and anything we need on regular basis and shops is fully stocked. Hospitals are not overwhelmed over here, in case anyone requires to go for regular or any other cause, we are all over here, we are just here officials and essential India based support staff. Local staff, we have told them to stay at home, work from home, so we are functioning normally.
SS: Many stranded Indians are keen to come back, what will you say to them?
JA: There is lot of pressure from the stranded Indians to now get back, for all the measures we take over here to look after the welfare, naturally imagine people who are stranded here, came here for a week, 10 days and that has been extended for over a month. Those who have lost jobs and need to go back, we have cases like, a couple here and one 11 years old child from Pune who is here by himself, and cases where someone has come here and stuck here and lost a family member and they can't go home, if you were to leave home for a week or 10 days, you will leave a lot of things to lose and lot of things you will not care, and u suddenly find yourself stranded, so a lot of pressure, as there is in rest of the world and as there is within India for migrants to go back home, so we have to deal with that pressure and that requires one to be patience, requires counselling, we have to be on email, phone with them, we have set up helplines in the mission which are attended round the clock. Those that require special treatment get up the filter to a higher level. I personally answer a lot of mail my self because I feel it should be reassuring and connect with them. My deputy does it, so all of us are trying to give it a personal touch, but yes we dealing with a lot of stress, so that message here, it has been from rest of the world. The thing we explained to them is, look, massive lockdown in India and people not able to move from one house to the next, how do we organise movement in the country and each city may say I have 3000 people, if we look at across the world we might end up with hundreds and thousands of Indians wanting to come back and we also have a situation where people may ask migrant workers are stuck, we have not made arrangement for them to return, and we making arrangements for them. It is a very complex task and this is why we individually engage with people and try to explain to them and make them understand, patience is important in our collective fight beside making arrangement for so many people and testing them is a huge task. When you explain to them they understand what they dealing with and we deal with and risk that exists for so many people travelling in a large group, imagine an aircraft of 200 people and one of them is infected, so people who are safe might find themselves as infected on the way. But human psychology being what it is, it is always there. We doing quite well so far. And let us hope.... but no one really knows where we are on this curve and if 2nd and 3rd waves will come and frankly, it will take a long time for things to return normal because unless.. because when we reopen how do u allow international travel and what kind of protocol you introduce that enable people that those coming in and out for business and work are safe, who does the testing, you do testing after departure or before departure, temperature means nothing, asymptomatic cases are 80%, the issue will have to be worked out because it will be a long haul before we even before we see a semblance of normalcy.
SS: Back on sourcing from Singapore, the role played by the mission to get medical equipment sourced
JA: As I told you because it is a global trading hub, a lot of international trading firm are based in Singapore, many of them have Indian lineage and like for example olam international is an agro commodity company present in 70 countries and is based out of Singapore, it has been co-founded by Indians and not 5 generations ago, these are Indians who are graduates of IIMs and all. The government essentially looked at let us diversify to different sources and ultimately they procured from various places--it could be Korea, china and it could even be some other places, and one of the sense is always that Singapore based companies always do a lot of due diligence and since they have experience in international trading, they have good logistics and all arranged with them and as I said when we were looking at a quotation for test kits and things, we had so many companies here even for PPEs, so many companies came up with offers, because being a trading hub, they have networks of supply chains that work extremely well, so that is one of the reasons, govt asked us to look at arranging for procurement, a lot of these factories are in china but masks are made in many countries. It is a question of getting the right source because speed is essential and working of supply of china is also necessary.