With his shaggy grey beard, rose-coloured robe and a prayer cap that extends his tall frame, shopkeeper Tariqul Islam is an imposing figure on the stall-lined street that serves up home comforts to Singapore’s Bangladeshi community.
He stands out even more now many of his customers have left the country or been told to avoid crowds after a coronavirus outbreak infected some Bangladeshi construction workers, thinning out the normally bustling thoroughfare.
Unease over the virus has gripped groups of migrant workers across Asia – who often live in crowded, cramped conditions – and their families thousands of miles away who want them to return home.
“A lot of people have gone back,” said Islam, 52, as a few customers wearing masks perused the fruit and vegetables spread outside his shop on Lembu Road in Singapore’s Little India neighbourhood. “When people think about life or family, they don’t care about money.”
The street, blocked off to traffic and patrolled by security staff on weekends, was significantly quieter than usual when Reuters visited on Sunday.
Singapore has reported 90 coronavirus cases, five involving Bangladeshis who worked at the same construction site. One is in a “very critical condition,” Bangladesh’s foreign minister said.
A Bangladeshi in the United Arab Emirates has also been infected, as have Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers in Singapore and Hong Kong.
In Singapore, construction workers from South Asia often live in 12-bed dormitories with shared bathrooms. Some of the high-profile virus clusters during the outbreak have involved people living close together, such as in prisons or aboard cruise ships.
The virus, SARS-CoV-2, has killed more than 2,600 in China, where it first surfaced late last year.
Kakon Miyah, a 24-year-old construction worker in Singapore, said a lot of his friends had returned to Bangladesh, where there have been no reported cases of the virus, and will only come back when the city-state appears clear.
“We’re staying for now, but maybe if the situation worsens then we will go back too,” he said, speaking in Bengali alongside a few colleagues.
Bangladesh’s high commission in Singapore said it has been trying to stop people from leaving by contacting them online and visiting dormitories to hand out masks, hand sanitiser and leaflets about the virus printed in their native language.
“We are becoming a bit proactive to stop them leaving the country… to assure them that this is not something we should be excessively or illogically fearful about,” High Commissioner Mustafizur Rahman told Reuters.
The country has no restrictions on travel to or from Singapore.
There are around 150,000 Bangladeshis in the city-state, according to the high commission’s website, making them one of its largest immigrant populations.-High Stakes
Bangladeshis can become heavily indebted when they set off to find work Singapore, with some forced to pay agency fees equivalent to many months of their basic wages in Singapore.
That raises the stakes for those considering leaving.
Majidul Haq, 25, a construction worker who came back to Singapore on Monday after a one-month break in Bangladesh, said that his parents didn’t want him to return but that he felt compelled because of his family’s financial needs.
“My income is crucial,” said Haq, whose father, a farmer, does not earn enough to support his six-member family, several of whom are still in school.
Other workers said Singapore’s high-quality healthcare facilities and preventative measures, such as taking employees’ temperatures twice daily and isolating suspected cases, gave them confidence to stay.
Rauf Naushard, who runs a travel agency just off Lembu Road that mainly serves Bangladeshi workers, said bookings have risen more than 50 per cent over the last 14 days, with some customers requesting flights to Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, with just a day’s notice.
“It never happened before. They had travel plans before. Nowadays… they just want to leave,” said Naushard, adding that many direct flights to Dhaka are full, so he must route trips through Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur.