SINGAPORE: Two Singaporeans have contracted COVID-19 after attending a mass religious event near Kuala Lumpur, Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli confirmed on Thursday (Mar 12).
Mr Masagos also announced that the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) will close all mosques for at least five days from Friday for cleaning, to prevent community spread through mosque activities.
This is the first time that all mosques in Singapore will be closed and comes after one of the confirmed cases was found to have visited four mosques in Singapore recently.
Brunei and Malaysia authorities have also confirmed that some of their nationals who attended the Feb 27 to Mar 1 event, which reportedly attracted 10,000 people, have contracted the disease.
Mr Masagos said 82 Singaporeans are confirmed to have attended the Jhor Qudamak Malaysia 2020 event at the Seri Petaling Mosque in Selangor, although this number could rise as more information comes in.
READ: 9 new COVID-19 cases in Singapore, including 2 who attended mass religious gathering in Malaysia
READ: MOH identifying 95 Singaporeans at mass religious event in Malaysia after COVID-19 cases confirmed - Masagos
The minister had earlier written in a Facebook post on Thursday that Ministry of Health (MOH) was working to identify the Singaporeans who attended the religious event in Malaysia.
Mr Masagos later told reporters that MOH is conducting detailed contact tracing on the 82, adding that they were not affiliated to a particular mosque or group and probably knew each other socially.
Those of the 82 found to be sick will be sent to the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID), Mr Masagos said. The rest will be “advised appropriately”.
TWO CONFIRMED CASES
One person in the group became sick “a few days” after returning to Singapore and sought medical attention on Monday, Mr Masagos said. It is not known when he returned to Singapore.
“In between arriving in Singapore and getting medical attention, he also performed duties of an officer of a mosque and in that process visited four mosques,” he said, without elaborating on the duties or his personal details.
Mr Masagos identified the four mosques as Jamae Chulia, Muttaqin, Hajjah Fatimah and Kassim.
Mr Masagos said NCID contacted the man on Wednesday for testing and he was confirmed positive on Thursday.
A second man from the group has also tested positive, Mr Masagos said, although he offered fewer details on this case. “We are still tracing his movements for the last few days,” he said. “We do not know whether he went to a mosque or otherwise.”
The four mosques visited by the confirmed case have been closed since 1pm on Thursday for thorough disinfection by professional cleaning agencies.
While Mr Masagos acknowledged there could have been people who had visited these mosques before they were cleaned, he said they would be "all right" if they had followed MUIS' earlier advice on COVID-19, including bringing their own prayer items.
"But I do not know whether they did or not," he added. "Therefore, between the time of cleaning and (the time the case visited), this could be infectious."
Whether sick or well, everyone should practise good hygiene, Mr Masagos said, including adopting measures like not sharing plates or using a serving spoon if they have to.
With such measures, there would be no need to panic or stop visiting mosques indefinitely, regardless of which mosque one attends, he added.
CLEANING IN PROGRESS
“MUIS has decided that while this person might have still been asymptomatic when he went to the four mosques, they need to be sanitised quickly,” Mr Masagos stated, adding that authorities have deemed it “important” to extend the closure to all 70 mosques in Singapore and clean all of them.
MUIS chief executive Esa Masood said this was necessary to prevent a “sizeable” COVID-19 cluster as the 82 are regular congregants at various mosques. He added that it is common practice for Muslims in Singapore to worship at different mosques.
The task of cleaning the other mosques could be done by volunteers, with Mr Esa acknowledging that the mosques would otherwise have to bear the "significant" cost of engaging professional cleaners.
"Our mosques are modest institutions," he said. "They are well-run and well organised, so we believe that they will have the means to sustain. But more important is if you don't do this set of measures, the overall cost to the community will be much larger."
CANCELLATION OF ALL ACTIVITIES
The closure of mosques means that the obligatory Friday prayers for Muslim men will be suspended, with Mufti Nazirudin Mohd Nasir explaining that the circumstances mean it is religiously allowed for them to conduct the usual daily prayers at home instead.
Mosques will also cancel all activities, lectures, religious classes and mosque-based kindergartens for two weeks, from Friday to Mar 27. Madrasahs will not be affected as the measures are targeted at mosques, which the 82 might have visited.
“This two-week period will allow more time for us to really break the cycle of transmission,” Mr Esa said. “We will continue to watch the situation and monitor the numbers from these cases that MOH is doing contact tracing.
“If the need arises to extend the period of closure, we will then adjust accordingly and we will monitor closely over the next few days.”
Mr Esa said MUIS will assess over the next few days whether mosques need to take additional measures before re-opening. It will be aided by a Malay-Muslim working group on COVID-19, comprising doctors and religious teachers, that officially convenes on Friday.
According to Mr Esa, whether the mosques re-open after five days will depend on the confirmed cases that come out of the 82 who attended the event in Malaysia and developments in other countries that also had citizens who attended the event.
“Should the numbers go up, or beyond the two (confirmed cases) there is a sizeable cluster, those are good justifications to then consider an extension,” he said.
As for individuals who still choose to hold smaller Friday prayer congregations in private spaces, Mr Masagos said authorities are able to take "legal action".
"If anyone were to know about this, please alert us and we will take the appropriate action because we do not want such irresponsible action to then cause the spread of this virus," he said.
Dr Nazirudin said MUIS will still issue Friday religious messages through social media as guidance, adding that it is also encouraging religious teachers who hold regular classes to shift their lessons online.
"We will support their efforts to record (these lessons) as much as we can, and house all this recordings online so that these classes can continue," he said.
Since the outbreak started, MUIS has also advised congregants who feel unwell to stay home instead of attending the Friday prayers at mosques.
Malaysia, however, has said there was no need to suspend the Friday prayers as the COVID-19 situation in the country is under control. Authorities have allowed it to proceed with measures like shortening of the sermon.
When asked to comment on this, Mr Masagos said: “Why must we follow people who may not be doing the right (thing)?
“We should follow what we need for Singapore and Singaporeans. We are not just protecting Muslims. We are protecting the nation and to make sure that our practice of preventing the spread of the virus is the standard that Singapore will be reputed for.”
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE MALAYSIA EVENT
The mass religious gathering in Malaysia is related to a practice called tabligh, where Muslims from around the world gather at a mosque, then visit the people who live near it to encourage them to come to the mosque, Mr Masagos said.
"Once in a while, they have big gatherings for sort of best-practice sharing, sharing stories to inspire each other," he said, explaining that this could be why it was a multi-day event.
"This is not an organised group nor an organisation with a structure. Their common interest is to invite people to the mosque. It's not a mosque that you're connected to; they move around."