One month of COVID-19: Concern, containment and collective effort

One month of COVID-19: Concern, containment and collective effort

People wearing mask at Orchard Road Singapore Feb 3 (48)
People were seen wearing masks at Orchard Road, Singapore on Feb 3. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

SINGAPORE: It has been a month quite unlike any other.

What began as faraway rumblings in the city of Wuhan has turned into a battle on Singapore's frontlines.

Beginning as an unknown, the disease took on many names before officially being  dubbed COVID-19.

To fight the battle, hand sanitiser and soap turned into the weapons of choice for Singaporeans. 

An acronym became a buzzword. And as the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level turned from Yellow to Orange, the queues snaked at supermarkets as some people rushed to prepare for a worst-case scenario. 

Thirty days, 86 cases, 47 people recovered, five in critical condition. 

The numbers change daily, but the effort to contain the threat remains constant as Singaporeans across sectors and industries work double-time. Singapore is “leaving no stone unturned” in the COVID-19 outbreak, said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), on Feb 18. 

"We are very impressed with the efforts they are making to find every case, follow up with contacts and stop transmission," he added. 

This Sunday (Feb 23) marks a month of grappling with COVID-19. Here’s what happened over the last 30 days: 

SINGAPORE’S FIRST CASES

Authorities saw this one coming - initially implementing temperature screening at Changi Airport for all travellers from Wuhan. Those found to have pneumonia and recent travel history to China were quickly isolated. 

A multi-ministry task force was also formed in preparation, as Singapore geared itself for the possibility of an imported case of the virus.

On the evening of Jan 23, Singapore’s first case was confirmed. 

READ: Singapore confirms first case of novel coronavirus

This was a 66-year-old Wuhan resident who flew with his family to Singapore from Guangzhou on a China Southern flight. He visited Singapore General Hospital (SGH) on Jan 22, and tested positive for the coronavirus the next evening. 

Authorities acted quickly to extend temperature screening to land and sea checkpoints, as Singapore prepared to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

And as the holiday began, Singapore confirmed its fourth case of the virus on Jan 26. 

In anticipation of the surge in people returning from China after the Chinese New Year holidays, the task force also announced a slew of additional measures - increased border checks and compulsory leave of absence for students, teachers, healthcare and eldercare workers returning from China.

READ: Increased border checks, leave of absence among new counter-measures

To address the need for containment areas, university hostels, government chalets as well as the Outward Bound camp in Pulau Ubin were repurposed as government quarantine facilities.

Travel restrictions were also implemented as the authorities announced they would stop entry or transit for new visitors who travelled to Hubei in the last 14 days, as well as holders of Chinese passports issued in Hubei.

FIRST FLIGHT FROM WUHAN RETURNS HOME 

Singaporeans at the epicentre of the outbreak were not forgotten, as 92 were flown home from Wuhan on a Scoot flight on Jan 30. “We will always look out for Singaporeans in distress overseas," Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan said in a Facebook post.

READ: 92 Singaporeans flown home from Wuhan; some remain in the city as they are symptomatic

With masks, thermometers and hand sanitisers already becoming hot commodities, the task force announced on the same day that each Singapore household will receive four surgical face masks

“We are doing this to assure Singaporeans that every family will have access to masks if someone in your family really needs it,” National Development Minister Lawrence Wong explained. 

Five million masks had been released to retailers in the previous nine days, revealed Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing, but the usage was much higher than expected.

READ: Retailer Deen Express asked to explain high prices for masks: MTI

With reports of profiteering surfacing, the Ministry of Trade and Industry took action, sending a letter of demand to retailer Deen Express and letters to e-commerce platforms Lazada, Carousell and Qoo10 to request information on potential profiteers using their platforms. 

FIRST CLUSTERS EMERGE, START OF THE GRAND HYATT HOTEL TRAIL

Singapore saw its first few locally transmitted cases of COVID-19 on Feb 4, bringing the total number of cases to 24. 

READ: What we know about the locally transmitted coronavirus cases in Singapore

Four Singapore residents with no recent travel history to China tested positive for the virus. One of them was a tour guide for a group of Chinese tourists, two worked at a shop the group had visited, while a fourth case of local transmission was the domestic helper of one of the cases. The travellers were from Guangxi, and at least two of them had been confirmed with COVID-19 at the time. 

Singapore also saw its first discharged patient on Feb 4. Case 7, a 35-year-old man from Wuhan “comprehensively tested negative” for the virus, said the Ministry of Health (MOH). He had tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan 27. 

On Feb 4, Malaysia also confirmed the country’s first citizen case of COVID-19, and it was revealed that the Malaysian national had been in Singapore from Jan 16 to Jan 23 for a business meeting at the Grand Hyatt hotel that involved Chinese nationals. 

READ: Malaysia confirms first citizen case of novel coronavirus; man was in Singapore for meeting attended by Chinese delegates

The next day, South Korea confirmed two more cases of COVID-19 – the two men had met the Malaysian national and attended the same conference

That evening, MOH said that the Jan 20 to 22 conference was attended by 109 participants from one company – later revealed to be Servomex. 

Of the 109 participants, 15 were Singapore residents and 94 were from overseas, including the three patients from South Korea and Malaysia. On Feb 6, a British male was confirmed as the UK’s third COVID-19 case, and it was revealed that he was also at the conference. 

The Briton is believed to have passed the virus on to at least 11 of his compatriots who were at a French ski resort that he visited after leaving Singapore.

Later in February, it emerged that Cases 30, 36 and 39 are linked to the same meeting. 

READ: From Singapore to UK through the Alps: How one man spread coronavirus

DORSCON ORANGE, 'KIASU' SINGAPOREANS

More cases of local transmission were confirmed over the next few days, and on Feb 7, three new COVID-19 cases were announced. This time, none of them were linked to existing cases or had been in China recently. 

A Victoria Junior College teacher was among the three new cases announced, and one of the cases went visiting during Chinese New Year after developing symptoms, said MOH. At the press conference, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said that authorities were expanding their case definition and doing "proactive case finding".

With this development, the task force also announced that the DORSCON level would be raised to Orange. This means the disease is deemed severe and spreads easily from person to person, but has not spread widely and is being contained. Moderate disruption is expected, due to measures such as quarantine and visitor restrictions at hospitals.

READ: What you need to know about additional precautionary measures under DORSCON Orange

“I understand that Singaporeans are anxious, concerned and there’s much that we do not yet know about the virus,” Mr Gan said, when making the announcement. 

“New information is emerging daily, we expect that this is likely to take time to resolve, maybe months, life cannot come to a standstill but we should take all the necessary precautions and carry on with life.”

Shortly after the DORSCON Orange announcement, there was a rush to supermarkets by some people to stock up on daily essentials, including rice, noodles and toilet paper. Photos and videos of shopping carts and cupboards overflowing with food made their rounds on social media, while supermarket shelves were quickly emptied. 

Empty shelves supermarket Singapore Feb 7, 2020
Near-empty shelves seen at NEX shopping mall's NTUC FairPrice on Feb 7, 2020. (Photo: Henry Yin)

Over the next two days, ministers and members of parliament spoke up to urge people to buy only what they need and avoid hoarding food and daily necessities at home. 

Speaking to media on Feb 8 in front of a tower of toilet paper in an NTUC FairPrice distribution centre, CEO of FairPrice Group Seah Kian Peng said the supermarket chain saw five times the usual demand for rice, four times the usual demand for noodles and more than two-and-a-half times the usual demand for toilet paper the day of the DORSCON Orange announcement.

The next day, FairPrice implemented purchase limits for paper products, vegetables, rice and instant noodles “to ensure more customers have access to high-demand items”.

READ: No need to rush for supplies, says Chan Chun Sing, amid reports of surge in demand

Since then, things have more or less got back to normal, with supermarket shelves replenished as needed, and people able to do their shopping without fighting their way through the crowds.

With the DORSCON level raised to Orange, schools suspended all inter-school and external activities until the end of the March school holidays, including the national school games, learning journeys and camps.

The National University of Singapore and Singapore Management University also announced that e-learning would be implemented for class sizes above 50. Staff and students were also required to take their temperature and declare it twice a day. 

Employers and event organisers have also been affected by DORSCON Orange, with many large-scale events like the HSBC Women's World Championship and multiple business summits cancelled shortly after the announcement was made. 

BIGGEST CLUSTER EMERGES

With extensive contact tracing by MOH and the Singapore Police Force, several new clusters were uncovered as the case numbers continued to rise. 

On Feb 12, two people linked to the Grace Assembly of God church were confirmed to have caught the virus. Another five were announced the next day, and six more the day after that, including a senior pastor of the church. 

At the time, director of medical services at MOH Kenneth Mak said there was “not enough information” to determine if there was a "super spreader" in the cluster. 

"At this time, we do not have enough information to identify a particular individual as being a super spreader or to suspect that this is indeed the case," he said.

But this was just the beginning of what would become Singapore’s largest locally transmitted cluster. There are now 22 confirmed cases linked to the church, which has two branches in Tanglin and Bukit Batok.

Explore our interactive: All the COVID-19 cases in Singapore and the clusters and links between them

Other clusters also emerged at The Life Church and Missions Singapore in Paya Lebar and a Seletar Aerospace Heights construction site. 

MOH announced on Feb 8 that Cases 8 and 9, a married couple from Wuhan, and Case 33 had links to The Life Church and Missions Singapore. 

Subsequently, Cases 31, 38 and 83 were also linked to the church, bringing the total number of cases in this cluster to six. 

Singapore virus cluster Feb 19

On Feb 8, a 39-year-old Bangladeshi worker who worked at a construction site in Seletar Aerospace Heights was also confirmed as a COVID-19 case. 

Four more workers who had worked at the expansion sites for the Bombardier Service Centre at 8 and 12 Seletar Aerospace Heights were later confirmed to be COVID-19 cases as well. 

Boustead Projects, the real estate company behind the worksite, confirmed on Feb 18 that the five Bangladeshi work pass holders are all workers under the company’s subcontractors. Construction was stopped immediately after the company was notified of the first case on Feb 9. 

READ: Coronavirus cases in Singapore: Trends, clusters and key numbers to watch

With the new cases emerging from the different clusters almost every day, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong noted on Feb 14 that the transmission mechanism of COVID-19 is closer to H1N1 or influenza than Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Like influenza, COVID-19 is infectious when symptoms are mild, the researchers found.

Because of this transmission mechanism, COVID-19, like influenza, can spread "quite quickly", said the minister.

"With our mild symptoms, we sometimes let our guard down – we continue going out even though we don’t really feel well, and that’s how the virus transmits," he said.

TOURISM AND TRANSPORT INDUSTRIES HIT

It has been just one month, but Singapore’s economy has not been spared. Calling the current outbreak “very intense”, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that it would have a significant impact on Singapore’s economy for the next couple of quarters.

While Singapore was declared SARS-free in less than four months, COVID-19 "may not be so fast", he said. "It will eventually pass, and we will be back to normal, but I cannot say for sure how long it will take.”

READ: COVID-19 to have 'significant' impact on economy: PM Lee Hsien Loong

According to the Singapore Tourism Board, the tourism sector will take a “significant hit”, with visitor arrivals estimated to fall by 25 per cent to 30 per cent this year, it said on Feb 11.

Singapore is losing an average of 18,000 to 20,000 international visitors per day and most of the lost visitor arrivals are Chinese due to travel restrictions on both sides, STB chief executive Keith Tan told members of the media.

“We believe that the situation this year will be at least as severe as the situation we faced in 2003 during SARS, probably worse,” said Mr Tan.

Among other sectors, the transport industry has also been hit by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Recognising this, the Government on Feb 13 unveiled a S$77 million Point-to-Point Support Package to help taxi and private-hire car drivers affected.

The Government will contribute S$45 million towards the package, with the remaining provided by taxi and private-hire car operators. The package has multiple components - with the largest portion a S$73 million Special Relief Fund that will help active full-time taxi and private-hire car drivers defray business costs, comprising S$41 million in government contributions and S$32 million from operators.

READ: S$77 million package to help taxi, private-hire drivers affected by COVID-19 outbreak

Recognising the impact that the COVID-19 outbreak has had on the economy, Singapore’s Budget for 2020 also included a S$4 billion package on a slew of new measures and enhancements to existing schemes to stabilise the economy amid near-term uncertainties caused by the virus.

This included a Stabilisation and Support Package designed to help workers to remain employed and aid companies with cash flow. Sectors that have taken a direct hit from the coronavirus outbreak, such as tourism, aviation, retail, and food services, will receive additional help, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said in his Budget statement.

READ: Budget 2020: 5 things to know about plans to help workers and businesses amid COVID-19 challenges

In addition, Mr Heng said he will set aside an additional S$800 million in the Budget – the bulk of which is set to go to the Ministry of Health as the Government tries to slow down the spread of the virus.

Reiterating a sentiment shared by a number of Singapore’s political office holders throughout the first 30 days, Mr Heng added: “I am confident that together, we will stay strong and get through these trying times.”

Source: CNA/hw

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