Singapore’s coronavirus success story hits a snag

I report from Singapore on new cases of Covid-19 exploded among migrant workers who live in the country’s far-flung dormitories. Human rights watchers say these developments should be no surprise.

A near-empty Changi airport greeted us as we arrived in Singapore on March 22 as the country was being hailed for its ‘gold standard’ response in battling Coronavirus. Taken by me on my iPhone.

Hailed as a model for its early success in containing the spread of coronavirus, Singapore is now having to explain an alarming surge in infections—more than 75 percent of which are among low-paid migrant workers who live in shared dormitories. The sudden rise in cases not only shines a spotlight on the difficult lives of Singapore’s often invisible foreign laborers but also foreshadows how difficult it will be for any country to eradicate a virus that has brought the world to a standstill.

From its first reported case on Jan. 23, Singapore had until March 21 recorded only 390 infections with zero deaths, earning praise from the World Health Organization. Then, over the past week, the numbers soared.

On April 18, the Ministry of Health (MOH)’s website announced the highest number of new COVID-19 cases in a single day: There were 942 new recorded infections with 893 of these among migrant workers. Singapore now has the largest infected population in Southeast Asia with a total of 6,588 cases; 4,706, or about 71.4 percent of cases, are among the country’s foreign workers who work as cleaners, construction workers, and laborers.

Women show the way

It cannot be a coincidence that countries headed by women are doing comparatively better at battling the Covid-19 pandemic

Angela Merkel’s Germany witnessed a high infection but comparatively low death rate. Creative Commons/eugenbittner

Six days before Kerala recorded its first coronavirus case on January 30, health minister KK Shailaja made plans. She was following the news from Wuhan, China, where many students from the state were studying, and the minister knew there was no room for complacency.

The state’s international airports began screening, a control room was set up, and contact tracing and testing started. By early February, Kerala had shut down public events, movie halls, and schools. Children would get midday meals at home and community kitchens were set up in villages and municipal areas.

On March 24, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown, Kerala had 104 confirmed cases, roughly a fifth of the 564 in India. By April 15, only 3.38% or 387 cases of 11,439 cases in India were from Kerala. There have been three deaths so far.

To give sole credit to Shailaja for the state’s containment of the virus would be an exaggeration. Kerala’s health care system and its high ranking on human development indices such as literacy and nutritional status give it an edge.

Post lockdown spike in domestic violence

The lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic has led to a rise in rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, stalking & voyeurism, according to online data from the National Commission for Women. With husbands at home, many women unlikely to complain.

Pic courtesy: Breakthrough India

The woman calling on the phone from Ghaziabad was distraught. Her husband, she told counsellor of the Delhi-based NGO Shakti Shalini, used to beat her occasionally. Now since the lockdown came into effect on March 24, she said, he has been home and beats her, brutally, every single day.

The woman’s parents live only 10 km away and the woman wanted them to come and take her away. But under the lockdown the parents could not make the journey. Finally, Shakti Shalini was able to convince the local police station to at least pay the woman’s husband a visit and provide her with security.

The spike in domestic violence following the nationwide lockdown that began on March 24 has left many NGOs in a bind. They simply do not have the manpower or resources to deal with the surge in cases.

“Not only have the number of cases gone up, the severity and brutality of the violence has increased too,” said Tiwari. There are other cases, she said, where women are being subjected to severe physical and emotional abuse. “How do we reach out and rescue them?” she asked. “Our hands are tied.”

Women are bearing the brunt of the lockdown

Women are bearing a disproportionate cost of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic – but there may be a silver lining yet.

Creative Commons/mgrhode1

Gauri, a lawyer in Mumbai, is grappling with a new problem — how to squeeze 25 hours into a day that already doesn’t have enough hours.

With a nationwide lockdown, her maid who helps with the housework has been unable to come to work. Her parents, who live separately, face a similar situation. And it is now Gauri’s job to juggle the two houses as she cooks, cleans, does the laundry, procures groceries, and takes care of an energetic child whose school remains shut. And, since she’s working from home, she’s also reading legal briefs on the side.

“In the last few weeks it has become increasingly difficult to run the home,” says Mahesh Vyas, managing director and CEO, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. “And it is women who are taking the hit.”

Call her by her name

The December 16, 2012 gang-rape victim had a name. To honour her memory, we could start by reclaiming her identity.

Praying for the recovery of the rape victim who ignited a nationwide protest in 2012. Creative Commons

Indian law does not permit the naming of rape victims. Presumably, this is because the crime of rape is so terrible that, in society’s eyes, it stains not the rapist but his victim with shame; a shame so indelible that her honour and that of her family is irretrievably lost.

And, so, even though Badrinath Singh, the father of the 23-year-old gangraped so brutally that she died of her injuries, said he had no objection to her real name being used, media christened her the fearless one.

We made her the braveheart who accepted her martyrdom. A martyr is someone who embraces death, usually for a religious cause.

SC’s judgment on women in the navy points to ingrained sexism

A two-judge Supreme Court bench orders that women officers in the navy be treated at par with men. Those who’ve suffered gender discrimination should be financially compensated.

The Indian Navy’s all-women Tarini crew circumnavigating the world/Indian Women Blog

“The battle for gender equality is about confronting the battles of the mind. History is replete with examples where women have been denied their just entitlements under law and the right to fair and equal treatment in the workplace.” Justices Dhananjaya Chandrachud and Hemant Gupta, 17 March, 2020

The Supreme Court, yet again, took the wrecking ball to patriarchy with its judgment this past week that allowed women in the navy to hold permanent commissions and appointments at par with men.

The ruling shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, a two-judge bench headed by Justices D.Y. Chandrachud along with Hemant Gupta had just a month earlier brushed aside all the usual objections – it would distract women from their family responsibilities, rank and file would not obey women – to rule that excluding women from top jobs in the army is illegal.

Media celebrated the army judgment with banner headlines. By comparison, reaction to the navy judgment has been muted. Yet, the second one takes the earlier judgment a step further.

Bringing men into the conversation

In the run-up to International Women’s Day, I argue that if men and women are to work as equal partners, then we need new rules of engagement that understand the centrality of mutual respect and consent.

Twenty years ago, Abhijit Das, the founder of Men Engage Alliance, attended a meeting on domestic violence. From the sidelines of the kitchen where he was working, Das noticed about 100 men had accompanied the 3,500-odd women and were listening keenly, but had no opportunity to participate. Apart from encouraging women, or accompanying them to meetings, what could these men do?

And so began a conversation with the men. They could help with the housework, take care of the children, fetch water. These were small but significant tasks that upended the idea of what is women’s work and what is her place in society.

That was the beginning of a campaign, Chuppi Todo, Hinsa Roko (break the silence, stop the violence) where men resolved to: One, not commit violence; two, speak up when they see violence, and three, support women who have faced violence.

How Arvind Kejriwal failed Delhi’s women voters

Aam Aadmi Party’s work in schools and mohalla clinics, free bus rides for women and subsidies for electricity and water was a major draw. But if Kejriwal really wants to be a game-changer, he might want to end an old bias against including women in the cabinet.

Creative Commons/joegoauk70

Following his party’s triumph in the Delhi elections, the swearing in of Arvind Kejriwal’s new cabinet had the stale whiff of an old exclusion: No women in the team. Deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia’s explanation that there was “nothing wrong in repeating the same cabinet” doesn’t wash. Repeating a past omission is not going to fix it. This omission is particularly egregious when you consider the results of a poll-eve survey by Lokniti-The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, published in The Indian Express which found that women were 11 percentage points more likely to vote for Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) than men.

The fact that women have, in many recent elections, turned out in greater numbers than men to vote no longer surprises. What does is the stubbornness of the parties, old and new, to share political power. Across ideology and geography, parties pay lip service to women’s empowerment. But when it comes to sharing power, their words ring hollow. Exceptions to this now predictable dance are Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, which earmarked 33% and 41% seats respectively for women candidates in the 2019 election.

How 11 women officers made army history

Lt Col Seema Singh and Lt Col Sandhya Yadav tell me how 11 officers fought tirelessly from 2008 to make history for women in the army. Their behind-the-scenes account includes tales of chocolate, congeniality and chai.

A few good women: (from left) Lt Cols Sonia Sehgal, Maninder Virdi, Sandhya Yadav, Seema Singh, Anupama Munshi/Pic courtesy Maninder Singh

When 11 women Army officers first filed a petition in the Delhi High Court in December 2008 to challenge a policy that restricted them to short service commissions, Lt Col Seema Singh’s daughter Garima was just eight or nine years old. “She used to accompany me to court whenever I went,” Singh, now 47, said.

On the day the Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to keep women officers out from permanent positions (see accompanying story), Singh’s daughter was also present in court, now as a final year MBBS student. “My male colleagues were also present and brought Cadbury chocolates for us as presents,” she said over the phone. “There was never any animosity with our brother officers. We were only looking for gender parity with them.”

In fact, Singh’s husband was, like her, an ordinance officer. “There was conflict in the house because he would get so much more than I did,” she said. Her husband quit the army in 2017.

Excluding women from top army jobs is illegal: Supreme Court

In a landmark judgment, India’s Supreme Court has ruled that women army officers have a right to command posts.

Dismissing arguments made by the central government against giving women command appointments in the army on grounds of their ‘physiological limitations’ and domestic responsibilities, the Supreme Court ruled that the exclusion of women is illegal.

The landmark judgment is a victory for gender equality guaranteed by Article 14 of the Constitution. “Implicit in the guarantee of equality is that where the action of the State does not differentiate between two classes of persons, it does not differentiate them in an unreasonable or irrational manner,” noted the judgment by a two-judge bench of Justices Dhananjay Y Chandrachud and Ajay Rastogi.

The apex court was hearing an appeal filed by the central government against a 2010 Delhi High Court decision that held that short service commissioned women officers are entitled to permanent commissions at par with men.

Appealing against that decision, the central government told the Supreme Court about the possible unwillingness of male troops, drawn from predominantly rural backgrounds, to accept a woman in command of their units.