COVID-19: LETTER FROM SINGAPORE

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There was short term uncertainty when the DORSCON level was raised to orange to mitigate the spread of the virus in Singapore. Captain Sjoerd A Blomsma writes about the current situation living and working in the island state nation.

Singapore has managed to rank itself high among the countries to be avoided due to the outbreak of COVID-19 after the first cases, which appear to have been imported from Wuhan, were reported by the media at the end of January.

As a result, many cruise liners started to skip their port calls to the “Garden City”, the number of passengers arriving and transiting through Changi airport dropped and at that stage no one could imagine what might happen next. Simultaneously, rumours and fake news spread incredibly fast through social media channels and as many questions couldn’t yet be answered, circulating information soon transformed from assumptions into ungrounded conclusions.

Shortly after, the Singapore government launched a WhatsApp subscription service in four languages to give official daily updates and address the circulating fake news.

Having dealt with the SARS virus in 2003, the government appears to have been preparing for something like this and that does seem to be paying off. From the discovery of the first local cases, the police force has been engaged in contact tracing and several clusters of transmission identified and isolated to prevent further spread.

There’s a ban on airport transfers at Changi airport and visitor entry into Singapore and a restriction of overseas employment pass (EP) holders who can only return to Singapore on approval of the Ministry of Health (presently only given in exceptional cases).

Digital billboards are being used to tell us how to cope with issues as they unfold and more importantly, inform us all not to panic, which is probably as feared as COVID-19 itself.

singapore-billboard

Containing the Virus

When the DORSCON level was raised to orange to mitigate the spread of the virus there was panic purchase of staples and long life shelf food being swept clean from the supermarket shelves. It was hard to join the queue when all we wanted was a portion of meat or vegetables for dinner.

We could see more than 50% of commuters wearing surgical masks making it hard to differentiate who was sick, causing further tension amidst the initial outbreak. This led to an increase of mask prices from the usual $12 for a box of 50 to $3 a piece.

Due to a fast rising number of infections, Singapore’s neighbour Malaysia recently closed its border with Singapore. This caused quite a commotion as Singapore relies on quite a significant food supply from Malaysia.

Within hours of the news being published, not only the toilet paper, but eggs, fresh vegetables and flour were sold out before the supermarkets were able to implement restrictions on the number of items shoppers could buy.

The second struggle is that many Malaysians of whom most are living in Johor, commute daily from Malaysia into Singapore where they are employed as stevedores in the ports or work at manufacturing facilities in Singapore.

Malaysia has implemented some measures and exemptions to ensure a continuous food supply and the government has established a scheme for Singapore employers to partially compensate them for the costs of accommodating Malaysian labour temporarily in Singapore.

The border to the Indonesian islands is officially still open, however Singapore residents are strongly discouraged to travel, visitors are banned and the return of EP holders into Singapore is very restricted. Any resident who decides to travel abroad will, upon return have to serve two weeks self-isolation at home (for which severe penalties apply when breached) and loses the right to health care subsidies if they become infected.

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Keep Your Distance

During the last few days the official number of local infections in Singapore has risen quickly, including a significant increase in unlinked cases. Last week tighter measures have been put in place as bars, clubs and cinemas were closed and employers strongly encouraged to let their employees work from home or at least spilt their staff into teams when and where possible.

Subject to the implementation of several social distancing measures, restaurants and hawker food centres were allowed to remain open and earlier this week schools implemented trial sessions of one day per week home based learning (HBL).

Our hospitals are preparing for a rise in infection rates, but despite the online supermarkets being unable to handle demand, regular supermarkets remain open and appear to be fully re-stocked although fresh food prices have risen.

Most people understand the situation and are doing their part by staying away from crowded areas.

Despite all these measures, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed the nation this afternoon with regards to the situation around COVID-19 and has informed Singapore to make a ‘decisive move’ to close most workplaces and impose full home-based learning for schools for the next month.

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Open For Business

The Maritime Port Authority (MPA) of Singapore however remains open for cargo operations and marine services, including bunkering, ship supplies and shipyard repairs, in order to maintain commerce by sea and not disrupt global supply chains.

A number of ports around the world have prohibited vessel crew changes as precautionary measures, causing disruptions to maritime trade. The measures have been enforced despite the fact that, as indicated by the MPA, in any given month around 100,000 seafarers reach the end of their employment contracts and need to be repatriated.

Although the MPA had earlier suspended crew changes as a precautionary measure, the port has recently softened the ban. Circumstances such as the expiration of an employment contract with no possibility of extension; compassionate grounds e.g. the death of a family member; or if the crew is no longer medically fit to work on board a ship can be used to appeal to the MPA.

As for the Solis Singapore office, most of were already working from home and from next week we’ll all be telecommuting with each other from our homes which appears to have worked well over the last week. We’ve thus far all managed to remain in good health and, despite the present travel and social restrictions, we remain fully open for business.

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