COVID-19: China couple claim trial to withholding information from officers, obstructing contact tracing
SINGAPORE: A couple accused of withholding information from health officers after one of them contracted COVID-19 contested the charges on Monday (Aug 17), in the first such trial in relation to the pandemic.
Wuhan native Hu Jun, 38, faces one charge of hindering a health officer by deliberately withholding information on his whereabouts and activities.
He had tested positive for the virus on Jan 31, the health ministry said in a previous statement.
Hu's wife, 36-year-old China national Shi Sha, faces four charges under the Infectious Diseases Act for withholding information, giving false information and failing to respond fully and truthfully to a health officer.
The first witness for the prosecution took the stand on Monday morning - epidemiologist Yang Yong, who conducted contact tracing on Hu.
He told the court through a Mandarin interpreter that he worked at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and was tasked with asking all positive COVID-19 patients on their whereabouts before they were infected.
Hu's COVID-19 positive results were first produced by SGH's laboratory, said Mr Yang, but it is not known where he contracted the disease.
Mr Yang spoke to Hu on Jan 29 via an intercom, exchanging contacts with him before continuing his communications with Hu via WeChat, with at least one phone call and several text messages.
As Hu had come from China, Mr Yang asked him where he went and who he was in contact with from the time he boarded the plane to the time he went to SGH.
"Did you tell him he had to give you a complete picture of where he want and the people he came into contact with?" asked Deputy Public Prosecutor Timotheus Koh.
"Yes, we would ask patients to try their best to recall and patients might not be able to recall all, but we will ask them to try," answered Mr Yang, adding that it "should be the case" for them to be "as exhaustive as possible".
He said he asked Hu if he had gone to the seafood market in Wuhan where the virus was theorised to have come from, or any hospital, and Hu said he had not.
Hu told Mr Yang that he had flown to Singapore on a Scoot flight on Jan 22, and that his wife Shi picked him up with her car to The Loft@Nathan.
According to Hu's account to Mr Yang, he stayed at home with his wife, parents and daughters during the day on Jan 22, before proceeding to a restaurant that evening for food with a friend.
READ: China couple accused of obstructing COVID-19 containment work 'not averse' to pleading guilty: Lawyer
The friend stayed in the Orchard Rendezvous Hotel and purportedly flew back to China a few days later.
Around 9pm that night, Hu said he walked back to another friend's home at The Loft@Nathan and stayed over.
The next day, he began experiencing intermittent fever and cough, and Shi gave him food and medicine.
Despite this, he went for a walk in the surrounding area from 6pm to 7pm on Jan 24, Mr Yang recounted.
Between Jan 24 and Jan 29, Hu said he stayed at a friend's empty home, as his friend was then in Wuhan, in order to isolate himself from his family because of his intermittent fever.
Later that day on Jan 29, Shi drove Hu to SGH's department of emergency medicine, and Shi had also isolated herself in a hotel, Hu claimed.
According to the charges, Hu had withheld information from health officers about his whereabouts other than what he told Mr Yang above.
On Jan 22, he allegedly travelled to Long Beach Seafood@Stevens in Stevens Road at 12.52pm, and went to Marina One Residences later that day at 3.37pm.
He is accused of travelling to the Chinese embassy in Tanglin Road at about 10am on Jan 24, and later to Ngee Ann City at about 11.15am that day.
Later that evening, he allegedly went to the Intercontinental Singapore Hotel. He is also accused of making a trip to the Studio M Hotel at 12.30pm on Jan 28.
DEFENCE RAISED OBJECTIONS BEFORE TRIAL BEGAN
The couple's new lawyer, Mr Dhanwant Singh, objected to a few points before the trial begin: First, he cited the Constitution, saying that one of the charges against his clients were for statements made before COVID-19 was included under the Infectious Diseases Act.
READ: China couple accused of obstructing COVID-19 containment work set for a trial, lawyer discharged
Secondly, he said the charges against his client did not contain the exact words they spoke in Mandarin, comprising only a summary of what they allegedly said.
The exact words in Mandarin should be produced, he said, as there is "a high possibility that they were misunderstood because ... there is a vast difference" between the Mandarin spoken in China and the Mandarin spoken in Singapore.
Mr Singh added that the charges that were drawn up differ from the complaint lodged before the magistrate.
Mr Koh acknowledged that the charges reflect actions committed between Jan 22 and Jan 29 this year, and that COVID-19, then known as the novel coronavirus, was included in the Act only on Jan 29.
However, he said the relevant offences that both the accused are charged with are for conveying or deliberately withholding information from health officers from Jan 30 onwards.
"Essentially what the health officers were looking for were contacts, locations, that the accused persons had travelled to before the disease was scheduled ... to prevent the now-scheduled disease from becoming a pandemic," he said.
"So they are not entitled, your honour, to withhold information as to the dates that were before the scheduling of this disease ... so in this regard, my learned friend misunderstands the provision of the Infectious Diseases Act."
Mr Koh added that the need to reflect words used in the vernacular is in the context of criminal intimidation or abusive language, as it "involves a weighing of words to determine whether someone has been subjectively intimidated or alarmed by them", and is not applicable here.
As for the defence's objections on how the charges differed from the initial complaint, Mr Koh said the charges had been amended since July, and the defence "has had a good month" to review them.
Mr Koh also said that if the defence were concerned about having meanings being lost in translation, the prosecutor bears the burden of proof and will be calling all the relevant witness to show that nothing was lost in translation.
The judge dismissed the defence's objections, saying there were no merits to them.
The trial continues in the afternoon, with the defence cross-examining Mr Yang. Other contact tracers are lined up to take the stand and the prosecution has a total of 13 witnesses for the trial.
If convicted of the offences, both husband and wife face penalties of up to six months' jail, a maximum S$10,000 fine or both, for each charge.