Covid 19: Singapore and the ‘Two-Societies’ Model in South Asia.

Image : Migrants labours arriving to their hometown receive relief material from local charity. Courtesy : Flickr (Under CC0 Public domain)

Ian Inkster, SOAS, University of London.

Today, 5 nations generate 54% of registered world cases of COVID 19, a total of 4.7 million. The mortality rate (the proportion of known deaths to known cases) for these nations is 6.7% almost exactly the same as that for the world as a whole. The only nation from the global south amongst this group is Brazil, with 233,511 cases and a mortality rate also of 6.7%. This differs sharply from the mortality rates of the UK (4th in this list) at 14.4% or of the 6th nation on the list, Italy, at 14.1%. No other nation from the global south appears on the list of COVID 19 cases until Iran in 10th place and India in 11th.

Of course, the four major corona cases of South Asia may not be in any way complacent, as they have generally suffered the virus at a later date, and their numbers are increasing rapidly – in the last week, cases of the COVID-19 have increased by 45% in India,, 36% in Pakistan, 52% in Bangladesh, and 59% in the lesser case of Afghanistan. Going back to nearer the initial phase of COVID growth for South Asia, since 13 April total registered cases in the four major nations have increased by ten-fold, from 16,024 to 160,135 today (17 May). Note that this total is still considerably lower than that of Brazil alone.

But the South Asian mortality rate remains very low indeed, from a high of 3.2% for India, to a low of 1.5% for Bangladesh today, compared to the 13 April percentages of 3.6% for India and 4.8% for Bangladesh. Mortality rates have fallen because as the number of cases registered rose sharply, the number of deaths remained low. One leading reason for this is that the South Asian nations have suffered the virus for only a short time, and death from the virus seems to arise only after 10 days to two weeks of infection.

It seems clear that we might expect a rise in mortality rates in South Asia over the next two weeks simply with passing time. So, have government policies so far contributed to low mortality rates as well? Second, what might be expected over the next fortnight or so? A clue may lie with Singapore and the phenomenon of what might be termed ‘the two societies’.

Hitherto, for most of the world for most of the time, societies were divided into classes (even castes to an extent) by income, wealth, health and prestige as distributed amongst the individuals of any one society or nation. Today, in many places, nations are effectively divided into two societies, those who are members of the civilian or civil society, and those who are not. In the small nation of Singapore, society is divided between citizen members of the civil society and outsiders in a sub-civil society of migrant workers. Very broadly, those in the latter section of the ‘two-societies’ system were brought in from overseas as either production workers residing in dormitories or poor areas of cities or as domestic workers residing with or near to professional-class or other wealthy citizens. Singapore presently employs up to 1.4 million migrants within a total population of 5.8 million people, thus 25% of Singapore’s population is located within sub-civil society – of which more below. In low-level jobs with very low incomes, at least 200,000 live in only 43 dormitories, so this section of the two-societies is living and working in crowded situations, sharing toilets, sleeping areas, and eating facilities in dormitories, each of around 4,600 workers. Two societies are living side by side, a dormitory society about to be major victims of the virus just as a citizen society prepares for returning to work and greater freedom of movement. The lockdown of the sub-civil society threatens not only their health as the virus moves through their crowded communities but also of course their precarious incomes and thus their ability to fend for themselves. Most of the newly infected are coming from this, basically imprisoned part of Singapore society, and as domestic workers they act as doubly unwilling vectors for the whole island nation.

The enormous rise of virus infection in Singapore after an earlier period of seeming control, can be argued to be primarily a result of the existence of a two-society mode of social and political life. Government policies have addressed themselves well to the civil society component of the model but have failed to divorce this from the co-existent sub-civil society of migrant workers. This illustrates the general global importance of picking special sites and of developing policies for all especially vulnerable socio-economic groups, but particularly for the many internal migrants of South Asia, casual workers, many young and all but invisible who travel and work in the businesses and homes of the civil society. Not can this be laid only to the door of their employers, for this is a matter of the institutional and legislative power of civil societies to universally close out ‘others’.

It is true that the situation is most dramatic in Singapore, with migrants supplying some one-third of the workforce. But exaggerated problems show possible future disasters for larger nations. Thus, COVID-19 may well be spreading into Singapore from South Asia but this is because of the form that capitalism has taken and is continuing to evolve, backed by government policies that support this form, whilst neglecting the potential plight of those seen as sub-civil. This is dramatically so in the case of large work migration, but it is also close to the manner in which modern urbanism in large low-income nations acts upon its huge hinterlands.

According to the most recent ILO estimates, in 2017 there were 163.8 million migrant workers in the world. In terms of gender, men migrant workers represent 58.4 per cent (95.7 million) while women migrant workers represent 41.6 per cent (68.1 million). Asia and the Pacific hosts 20.4 per cent of these migrants. The Arab States have the highest proportion of migrant workers to all workers (40.8 per cent), and host 13.9 per cent of migrant workers worldwide, most of them from South-East and South Asia. It is clear enough that this is no local problem.

Of course, the two societies model in any reasonable point of view should simply not exist. However, in most parts of the world it does exist to some extent. The virus will expose this, its dangers, and the need to reconsider it for the good of everybody. Here we are defining a sub-civil society as not uncivil – these workers come from societies with their own standards of civility and, indeed, by their work in other nations, they hope to support such civilities by either repatriations of their foreign earnings to support families or by saving their incomes as start-up funds for small businesses they intend to establish in their home economies. Rather, the sub-civil stand outside most of the civil organisations, regulations and understandings of the citizens of the host nations they are temporarily working in. Some of course are seasonal, returning home when either prospects are better in seasonal occupations at home, or when they are no longer wanted in employment in the host country. These could be considered the most sub-civil of migrants, for others are in the host nations for some years and may see themselves as fairly embedded in the civil societies that they work in. Nevertheless, this is limited by migration and naturalisation regulations set within the host civil society.

In essence, what I am arguing is that the Singapore case suggests that the more the sub-civil mass of workers are seen as ‘others’, outside the benefits or responsibilities of civil government, of fleeting and transitional interest only, then the more they are likely to emerge as very unwilling prime movers of the corona virus. And as I am also arguing that South Asia is on the brink of a severe virus acceleration, this is not merely a warning but a salutary lesson to be learnt – policy should seek and reach out to difficult sites, lockdown should be of small identified contact groups, and help should be given directly to them. National lockdowns are hardly relevant and most likely to lock-in the virus and create chains of site-based infections amongst people with least voice and less rights.

As we move towards the real poverty of South Asia and the global south more generally, the character of any sub-civil society might be at the core of the final explanation of the growth and fluctuating incidence of covid 19, as well as that of the low but potentially fast rising mortality rate.

Professor Ian Inkster is a global historian and political economist who has taught and researched at universities in Britain, Australia, Taiwan and Japan. Author of 13 books on Asian and global dynamics with particular focus on industrial and technological development, and the editor of History of Technology since 2000.

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