Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of Singapore. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Singapore: Singapore has experienced a ten-fold increase in new coronavirus cases over just two weeks. With a record daily high of 1,426 new cases reported on April 20, the island nation half the size of New Delhi and with twice as many people now has over 10,000 confirmed cases.
The turning point in Singapore’s efforts against COVID-19 appears to be the emergence of several transmission clusters in migrant worker communities. Many of these workers, mainly from India and Bangladesh, live out of dormitories and work in the construction and utility services sectors.
Officials detected these clusters only in the first week of April, and they have since gone on to increase Singapore’s tally of total COVID-19 cases to 10,141 as of April 22.
Local media reports cite officials who have attributed this sharp increase to the majority of cases being asymptomatic. A report in The Straits Times claimed asymptomatic persons with the coronavirus are more common than previously thought. Local data suggests around 70% of those people with the virus may show no symptoms and could inadvertently infect others, if they aren’t identified and isolated in time.
The newspaper quoted Leo Yee Sin, executive director of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, as saying “it is one of three reasons that make COVID-19 such a challenging disease to tackle.”
The Indian High Commissioner to Singapore, Jawed Ashraf, has been reaching out to the Indian migrant workers community to assure them of treatment and financial compensation.
Several Indian professionals and migrant labourers have also been asking the Indian embassy through social media to arrange for relief flights home. However, embassy officials have only said that the Indian government would take a call only after India’s own lockdown is eased (expected to happen on May 3).
In the outbreak’s early days, Singapore like other countries had also stuck to the WHO’s guidelines on masks, and announced that only those who showed symptoms, had been assisting patients or were healthcare workers should wear them.
However, authorities have since had to reconsider their position after the recent spurt in cases.
The government’s COVID-19 task force has now mandated all persons to wear a mask in public spaces, including children. Failing to do so will invite a fine of S$ 300 (Rs 16,152) for the first offence and higher fines or even prosecution for repeated offences. The government has also been distributing reusable masks for every household since April 5.
In addition, Singapore has also started conducting random tests in its primary health care centres to check for asymptomatic people who might otherwise be going undetected in the community.
The spike in cases is also likely to complicate decisions about the lockdown; Singapore has already extended its existing lockdown to June 1.
As part of a new plan that kicked in on April 7, all citizens have been asked to stay indoors until May 4, forcing many companies in the continent’s business capital to work from home. Essential services have been rejigged to work with staff reporting on staggered shifts and all schools have been asked to move their classes online.
Thus far, Singapore’s proactive measures to contain the virus’s spread have drawn praise from the WHO and from the international press. But given the new, more stringent measures, there is some doubt if this favourable view will persist.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has been providing weekly updates to the people since late January, when the first local case was reported.
According to these updates, 4,234 cases are currently in hospital, and 22 of them are in critical care. Some 4,999 people are asymptomatic but have tested positive for COVID-19, and have been isolated and are being cared for at community facilities. Thus far, 12 people have died of COVID-19 in Singapore and 896 people have been discharged, since January.
Praveen Jose is an independent journalist based out of Singapore.