COVID-19: Migrant worker-related searches in Singapore



Popular Youtuber Preetipls’ campaign for donations to migrant workers in Singapore

After I posted about US search trends in sinophobic terms after the COVID-19 outbreak, a friend told me it would be interesting to look at trends in Singapore. As the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affects migrant workers in Singapore, many have taken to social media platforms to encourage donations to migrant worker NGOs, raising awareness of migrant workers’ living conditions and quarantine environment. Those keeping up to date on COVID-19 statistics will also know that infection rates among migrant workers are significantly higher than those among locals, and perhaps be curious about migrant workers.

I therefore visualized migrant worker-related search trends in Singapore.

Data from Google trends

Weekly data was collected on the past year in searches, from the week in 21 April 2019 to the week in 12 April 2020 (1st to 52nd week on the x-axis in the graph). I visualized some data about search results on migrant worker issues and migrant worker NGOs in Singapore, with search terms binned into broad topics (categorization described below).

TopicSearch terms
Migrant“construction worker”; “migrant workers”, “migrant”
Dormitory“dormitories”; “dormitory”
Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC)“mwc”; “mwc singapore”; “migrant workers centre”
Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2)“twc2”; “transient”; “transient workers”

As shown from the data above, there has been increased interest in migrant workers in Singapore, their living conditions, and NGOs that promote their welfare. Has this interest translated into action to help migrant workers? There are currently various COVID-19 specific campaigns set up on Giving.sg to raise funds to provide food and other essentials to migrant workers in isolation facilities. I tried to compare differences in amount donated in COVID-19 related migrant worker welfare campaigns and other migrant worker welfare campaigns, but it’s difficult to say what the difference is at this time, considering that many of the COVID-19 campaigns have not ended (also, a quick note: Giving.sg does not show campaigns that have ended, so it’s difficult to collect data – perhaps a data request is in order).

Hope this was interesting to you! If you’re Singaporean and would like to show some Solidarity through donating your S$600 cash payout to the ongoing campaigns raising funds for migrant workers on Giving.sg, here’s a link to the campaigns.

Hate in the time of corona

There has been an increase in the number of hate crimes against those of East Asian descent since the pandemic hit Western countries (you can read about it here, here, here, here, and here). Living as part of the Singapore Chinese majority, I obviously have no personal encounters with COVID-19 related racism to add to the conversation (for clarity, since a friend pointed it out, what I mean is that people have not been racist towards ME). I’ll just say that I’m now looking at postponing graduate study because I’m afraid to live overseas in the near future, and I’m worried about the safety of my friends who are still studying abroad. I was in California just last summer, and Italy, France and Greece last December. It’s fortunate that I traveled so much last year, because I don’t know when I’ll be able to visit all these places again.

What I can contribute is what I’ll post today: a visualization of the frequency at which sinophobic search terms have been keyed into Google recently (very rough, hastily thrown together, but I just wanted to quickly share it). Graph data is taken from weekly Google Trends search data and limited to searches in the US. It goes back to one year ago (i.e. it spans the week of 21 April 2019 to the week starting on 12 April 2020); the x-axis represents Week 1, Week 2, …, Week 52. We see an explosion in the number of searches in the topics I looked at in the 40th week (the week of 19 January 2020).

Data from Google trends, visualized in R using the amazing and beautiful Wed Anderson palette library (Darjeeling1)

For each topic, I collect data on a number of related popular search terms. It should be noted that the data is incomplete, because there may be a variety of search terms I have not tried since they didn’t pop up on the list of relevant keywords Google Trends recommended. Actual numbers may be significantly higher. I have a table of the search terms on which I collected Google frequency data on below, and the topic they fall under.

TopicSearch terms
Chinese virus“chinese virus 2020”; “chinese virus us”; “chinese virus”; “china virus”
Dirty“dirty chinese”; “china dirty”
Eating bats“chinese people eat bats”; “why do chinese eat bats”; “do chinese people eat bats”; “why chinese eat bats”; “why do chinese eat bats” “do the chinese eat bats”; “did chinese eat bats”; “why do chinese people eat bats”; “why do the chinese eat bats”; “does chinese eat bats”; “do chinese eat bats and snakes”
Eating dogs“chinese eat dogs”; “why do chinese eat dogs”; “in china they eat dogs”; “do they eat dogs in china”; “do people in china eat dogs”
Pejoratives“chink virus”; “chink”; “yellow virus”

As you can observe from the graph above, why Chinese people eat bats is something people in the US are very curious about. I tried the search term “why do chinese eat bats” as well and the first five search results (outside of a Wikipedia page about bats as food) are below.

Article

Article

Article

Article

Article

Out of the five articles, three perpetuate that the consumption of wildlife is prevalent among Chinese people (including diasporas). I couldn’t find any sales data for bats as food in China, or in Chinatowns across the world, so I won’t try to claim that this prevalence is a myth, but it certainly is an allegation that requires more empirical validation.

Another observation I made is that while Statesman News Network disputed the attribution of blame to Chinese culture, this showed up in the search results snippet text, which I think is rather misleading about the content of the actual article.

Google search results

Other observations from the data: While COVID-19 did not originate in dogs, it appears that people living in the US are once again interested in the Chinese tradition of eating dogs! Donald Trump’s term for the virus has also caught on, with “Chinese virus” becoming a popular search term. People also increasingly think that the Chinese are dirty, and are retreating to the territory of racial slurs.

Of course, I know not everyone in the US is searching these terms. In fact, it is impossible to determine what people’s intentions are when they enter these search terms into Google, so I won’t even say that all of those who are making these searches are sinophobes. But what people search for tells us a lot about the current climate, while official COVID-19 related hate crime statistics have not been consolidated (and are likely to be underreported anyway). I’ll end on this gloomy note.