Saturday 29 May 2021

Singapore planning for possible future where COVID-19 is endemic: Lawrence Wong

$800 million COVID-19 support package for Singapore firms and workers, including more wage subsidies, rental relief during Phase 2 (Heightened Alert)
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 29 May 2021

Singapore has started planning for the possibility that Covid-19 may become endemic here, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

This could mean Singaporeans will need to get booster jabs from time to time, he noted.

In the coming months, better treatments could also be developed for the disease, making it less of something to fear, he added at a virtual media conference.

But even then, the country may have to take basic precautions - for example, with regard to ventilation systems and buildings - to minimise the risk of infection.

"When will it happen? I really can't say," Mr Wong replied in response to a reporter's question on when the virus will be considered endemic here.

"But we are indeed planning for a plausible scenario down the road where scientists around the world... come to the conclusion that it is not going to be possible to eradicate this virus - it is never going to go away, and we then have to learn to live with it."

The minister was speaking at a media conference to announce extra help for individuals and businesses impacted by the tightened measures on social interaction. The $800 million package of support measures will be debated at the next Parliament sitting in July.

At the virtual event, Mr Wong was asked how Singaporeans might go about their daily lives in the coming years, given that it seems difficult to picture the current restrictions on mask wearing and social gatherings lasting for a long time.

"I can't even predict what is going to happen next month," he replied. "So, I don't know that it is so easy to tell you what is going to happen years down the road because the situation is really very uncertain."

$800 million COVID-19 support package to help firms, workers
It includes enhanced wage subsidies, rental relief, one-off payouts to eligible workers
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 29 May 2021

Announcing the measures yesterday, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said affected gyms, fitness studios, and performing arts and arts education centres will get 50 per cent of salary support for local employees under the JSS - the same as what food and beverage operators are currently receiving.

Sectors that do not have to suspend operations but are significantly affected by the measures will get 30 per cent of JSS subsidies.

This will help retailers, personal care service providers, museums, art galleries, historical sites, cinemas, indoor playgrounds and other family entertainment centres.

However, supermarkets, convenience stores and online retailers will not be eligible for the enhanced wage support.

Rental relief will be given to eligible small and medium-sized enterprises as well as non-profit organisations in qualifying commercial properties, Mr Wong said.

Eligible lower-and middle-income workers and self-employed workers whose income has been affected can also receive a one-off payout of up to $700 under a new temporary grant.

The Ministry of Finance (MOF) said yesterday that the enhanced JSS payouts, which are based on wages paid from April to next month, will be disbursed in September.

Employers who put local employees on mandatory no-pay leave or retrench them will not be eligible for JSS payouts for those employees, MOF said.

"I would encourage businesses to make full use of their enhanced JSS to retain and pay their workers during this period," said Mr Wong.

Instead, they will be funded through a reallocation of spending.

Tuesday 25 May 2021

More CPF members topped up savings in 2020 amid COVID-19 uncertainties

Almost 40% jump in CPF members who topped up savings in 2020 compared with 2019
By Calvin Yang, Correspondent, The Straits Times, 24 May 2021

More people sought to tap the benefits of the Central Provident Fund (CPF) last year to stretch their savings amid the pandemic's uncertainties.

The number of members who topped up their own or their loved ones' CPF retirement savings was nearly 40 per cent higher last year, compared with 2019.

At the same time, people who made voluntary housing refunds nearly tripled over the same period, according to the latest CPF Board figures.

Also slightly up is the proportion of members who died last year and had specified a recipient for their CPF savings.

It is no surprise that more people are channelling more cash into CPF accounts, observers told The Straits Times, since they are now realising the benefits of using the scheme to save.

Last year, some 141,130 CPF members made top-ups under the Retirement Sum Topping-Up Scheme, contributing a total of $2.97 billion.

In 2019, only 103,800 members grew their CPF funds under the scheme. Total top-ups in 2019 were also lower at $2.14 billion.

Meanwhile, about 14,980 members made voluntary housing refunds last year, putting in a total of $1.48 billion.

This involves members who had used CPF savings to pay for their property choosing to make a refund of the amount withdrawn.

In comparison, only 5,500 members did this in 2019, with a total of $513 million being refunded.

OCBC Bank's head of wealth advisory Kelvin Goh said CPF funds offer members more attractive risk-adjusted returns, compared with regular savings accounts and even some investments.

The higher take-up rate is likely boosted by the lower interest rate environment and market volatility brought about by the pandemic, said DBS Bank's head of financial planning literacy Lorna Tan, noting that the trend of CPF top-ups is expected to continue.

The Retirement Sum Topping-Up Scheme allows members to use cash or CPF savings to top up their own or their loved ones' accounts.

For recipients under 55, the Special Account can be topped up to the current Full Retirement Sum, which is $186,000 this year.

Those aged 55 and older can have their Retirement Accounts topped up to the current Enhanced Retirement Sum, which is $279,000 this year.

Mr Wilson Loy, Standard Chartered Bank Singapore's head of investment advisory and strategy, said another factor for the increase could be the tax reliefs granted for topping up CPF accounts.

CPF members can get tax reliefs of up to $7,000 per calendar year for top-ups made to their own accounts, and up to another $7,000 for top-ups made for their parents, parents-in-law, grandparents, grandparents-in-law, spouse and siblings.

Monday 24 May 2021

The virus of racism must not spread in Singapore

Linking race to the COVID-19 virus is against the social DNA of our multicultural society.
By Asad Latif, The Straits Times, 22 May 2021

A vicious attack on an Indian Singaporean woman, because she was not wearing her mask properly (she was brisk-walking), reveals the nefarious relationship between race, fear and violence that has been generated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The incident is the most egregious of several instances of unsavoury behaviour involving ethnicity and disease in the wake of a new strain of Covid-19, rampant in India, which threatens to stigmatise Indians, whatever their nationality.

Of course, race is not the only variable in this unseemly equation. Some employees at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, which is at the forefront of efforts to fight Covid-19, have faced discrimination from members of the public.

Not all of the hospital's employees are Indians.

Here, then, is the first variable: Fear. An infectious disease socialises the individual fear of death that exists anywhere, all the time. A contagion broadcasts the fear of untimely and unwarranted death.

It amplifies the fictive distinction between "soft death" and "hard death" which the American writer Susan Sontag demystifies in her 1989 book Aids And Its Metaphors. Soft death supposedly comes easily; hard death is hard to bear.

"The metaphorised illnesses that haunt the collective imagination are all hard deaths or envisaged as such," she writes.

Thus, the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (Aids), seen as leading to a hard death, became a "mythological menace".

Attack on nativist collectivity

Mythology nests in threatened territory. Territoriality is the second variable. Sontag suggests that a disease becomes a metaphor when sufficient members of a society view it as an external attack on their nativist collectivity.

The sexual promiscuity associated with the provenance of Aids in Africa was viewed as an attack on the moral and biological integrity of Western society, which imported the supposed curse because of its openness to the rest of the world.

Black Africa became the Aids-producing continent, while the white West became the geographical victim of a foreign disease. Aids was stigmatised in racialised terms.

Something very similar has occurred with Covid-19. Its origins led to it being called the Wuhan virus and even the Chinese virus, terms that signalled the identification of a disease with a place and even an ethnicity.

No wonder Chinese were insulted, harassed or attacked in several countries. They did not have to be from Wuhan or even the rest of China: All that they had to do was to look Chinese.

That was sufficient to rationalise their racist victimisation.

Now it is India's turn.

The Indian strain is seen as an Indian product, as if any country specialises in the creation and export of a virus.

Just as the suffering of the Chinese in Wuhan and other cities was ignored by racists in the West, who were interested only in apportioning ethnic blame, the epic struggles of Indians to fight the scourge today are ignored by those who see every Indian, or "Indian-looking" person, as a potential carrier to be shunned.

Singapore's social DNA

It is unacceptable that such sentiments should have any place in multiracial Singapore. The social DNA of this nation is multicultural.

Friday 21 May 2021

PM Lee Hsien Loong at the inaugural Global Forum on Economic Recovery 2021

Singapore cannot slacken in COVID-19 efforts, global cooperation is key: PM Lee
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 May 2021

Singapore cannot afford to slacken in its effort to keep Covid-19 in check as the virus will rear its head in new and unimaginable ways, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

While the country has kept its number of Covid-19 deaths low at 31 and is in a stable position, it is "far from out of the woods", with a fresh superspreading cluster leading to tightened restrictions and gathering rules again, he added.

"Each time you think you have got the Covid-19 situation under control, and you know how to respond to it, it pops up in a new direction," he said.

"It can be a mutant, it can be a new avenue which you did not spot, but you cannot afford to slacken, and you must always think beyond what you imagine is likely to happen."

PM Lee was speaking on Wednesday (May 19) at the US Chamber of Commerce's inaugural Global Forum on Economic Recovery, which brings together government and business leaders to discuss opportunities and barriers to global recovery.

In a virtual fireside chat with US Chamber executive vice-president Myron Brilliant, he said Singapore's prior experience with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003 helped it handle the coronavirus pandemic.

"That primed our system to gear up for a next new disease, and primed our population to understand what was at stake and what kind of collective responses we needed," he said.

There were 38 new Covid-19 cases reported in Singapore as at noon on Wednesday, 18 May, including 34 in the community, taking Singapore's total to 61,689.

The pandemic also reminded everyone of the importance of international cooperation, which has largely held up, added PM Lee.

"There was a scramble for PPE (personal protective equipment) at the beginning, there is a scramble for vaccine doses now, but internationally, supply chains have not broken down. You can still buy iPhones made in any number of countries, you can still buy cars, which require parts from many continents."

He noted that the world has not taken "giant strides towards autarky", meaning "total self-reliance". Nor can a small and open country such as Singapore afford to seal its borders off.

"Protectionism? Yes. Autarky? No. That is a qualified plus.

"Other bigger countries can (close their borders), to a very great extent. For Singapore, you need food, fuel, people moving in and out, even during Covid-19. You have to do it to the extent that you can, while keeping ourselves safe with all the precautions... Not without risk, but unavoidable."

PM Lee also said it would be a long way off before countries can open up completely again and have free travel. While countries talk about travel bubbles, this needs confidence on both sides, and Singapore wants to set up bubbles only with countries which are safer than itself, he added.

"That means it is not easy to make a match. But I hope that as societies get vaccinated, and as confidence returns and the disease gets brought under control, that will be possible."

The air travel bubble to allow for quarantine-free travel between Singapore and Hong Kong was deferred for a second time on Monday, after a spike in cases here.

PM Lee said that globally, it is not just India that is in a very difficult spot now, but also Latin America and even Africa, where many have not been vaccinated, though the number of reported cases are low.

"We are very anxious that what has happened to the rest of the world will not befall Africa too, which would have consequences not just on that continent."

Stressing the need for global cooperation to mitigate supply chain disruptions, he warned that it would be "very harmful" for every country to make everything onshore.

While there is greater desire to have more resilience, if that goes too far, the price will be very high, he said.

"You can have the final assembly of your devices in your own country, but to make all the components yourself is a stretch. And to get all the raw materials yourself, in most cases, it is going to be impossible.

"You cannot even make vaccines all by yourself. You do need not just the raw materials, but also the bottles, the bottle stoppers, all sorts of things which come from all around the world."

He said he was happy that the current US administration is re-engaging with the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and urged the US to work multilaterally with more partners to establish trust and rules that apply to everyone.

"The WTO has weaknesses, but we should work together to remedy and strengthen the WTO, not to marginalise and cast it aside.

"That is at the top level, but there will be many other areas of cooperation regionally."

Wednesday 19 May 2021

Emerging Stronger Taskforce proposes how Singapore can emerge stronger in a post-COVID-19 world

It seeks to break new ground in digital space, collaborate closely with businesses, people
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 18 May 2021

A post-Covid-19 Singapore is one that breaks new ground in the digital space to offer unlimited opportunities for its businesses and people, and collaborates closely with them to be sustainable and stronger together.

This is the vision put forward by the Emerging Stronger Taskforce (EST), a year after it was launched last May to chart Singapore's post-pandemic economy.

They are: Creating new virtual frontiers; seizing growth opportunities from sustainability; enabling global champions and growing an agile and strong Singapore core; institutionalising private-public partnerships through Alliances for Action (AfAs); and strengthening international partnerships, especially in South-east Asia.

Speaking at a media conference yesterday, National Development Minister Desmond Lee, who co-chairs the task force with PSA International group chief executive Tan Chong Meng, said the ongoing crisis reinforces the importance of working closely together. "The crisis (is) affecting countries that initially overcame infections but are now facing a new wave," he said, adding that the technology and capabilities which Singapore now has to overcome Covid-19 challenges would not have existed 10 years ago.

"And so that drive and initiative, that will to survive, to find opportunities - that remains absolutely relevant."

Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat, who chairs the Future Economy Council (FEC), said Covid-19 has created the "burning platform" for change.

The EST's recommendations were made in the collaborative spirit of the Singapore Together movement launched two years ago, where Singaporeans partner with the Government to shape their shared future, he said.

The 23-member task force was set up under the FEC to give recommendations on how Singapore could refresh its economic strategies.

The recommendations come amid shifts such as growing geopolitical tensions and accelerating digital transformation.

It acknowledged the need to do things differently from previous review committees on the economy, and "pivot towards action". This meant identifying areas of opportunity for Singapore to invest in, and test-bedding new, creative ideas.

Views were sought from about 2,000 individuals across 900 organisations.

The nine AfAs, which involve businesses, unions, government agencies and other experts, and cover areas ranging from supply chain digitalisation to sustainability, helped explore some of the ideas. They also quickly prototyped and executed minimum viable products or pilots which can be scaled up if successful. The task force has recommended that this approach be institutionalised under the FEC.

Mr Lee said: "The AfA approach is valuable in tackling challenges across not just the economic realm, but also in the social space... This collaborative approach also makes for more sustainable and more impactful actions and outcomes."

Mr Heng said the FEC will incorporate the EST recommendations into its current update of the Industry Transformation Maps, or ITM 2025.

It will scale up the AfAs as a more agile and nimble way to undertake industry transformation.

Sunday 16 May 2021

Fines for hawker centre diners who do not clear their tables from 1 September 2021

Mandatory for diners to return trays, clear own litter from 1 June 2021
Advisory period from 1 June to 31 August 2021, enforcement action to be taken from 1 September 2021
Singapore Food Agency will work with NEA to roll out enforcement progressively at coffeeshops and food courts in the fourth quarter of the year
By Adeline Tan, The Straits Times, 15 May 2021

It will be mandatory for diners to return their trays and clear their table litter from June 1, the National Environment Agency (NEA) said yesterday.

Table litter includes used tissues and wet wipes, straws, canned drinks, plastic bottles and food remnants.

In an effort to help diners adjust, no enforcement action will be taken until after Aug 31. During the three months, they will only be advised to follow the rule.

From Sept 1, enforcement action will be taken against those who do not comply with advice to clean up after themselves at hawker centres.

First-time offenders will be given a written warning. Second-time offenders will face a $300 composition fine, and subsequent offenders may face court fines, which can go up to $2,000 for the first conviction.

The Singapore Food Agency will also work with NEA to roll out enforcement progressively at coffee shops and foodcourts in the fourth quarter of this year.

NEA said the move, which comes amid a public health crisis, follows years of extensive educational efforts to change the behaviour and mindsets of diners at public places.

Its deputy chief executive of public health and director-general of public health Chew Ming Fai said: "We've been talking about these clean tables since 2013, and there's been a lot of education effort that has been put out over the years."

One example is the Clean Tables Campaign launched in February.

Mr Chew said: "Following that exercise, we've seen a small uptick in terms of tray return rates from 33 per cent to 35 per cent, but unfortunately I don't think that is significant enough."

NEA will be setting up more tray return infrastructure across the hawker centres.

Currently, there are about 900 tray return racks installed across 111 hawker centres.

During the advisory period, safe distancing ambassadors, SG Clean ambassadors, community volunteers and NEA officers deployed at hawker centres will continue to remind diners to clear their dirty trays, crockery and litter.

Visual cues such as posters and banners will also be progressively put up at hawker centres.

NEA said Covid-19 has underscored the need to maintain high public hygiene and cleanliness standards, and various members of the public and institutions have called for stronger measures to raise cleanliness standards, including the use of legislation.

Clearing dirty trays, crockery and table litter will protect not only other diners but also the cleaners, who are usually elderly folk.

Mr Chew said that while enforcement efforts will not be scaled back even after Covid-19, NEA will monitor the ground situation and make adjustments accordingly.

He said: "This is a long-term goal to raise public hygiene and cleanliness levels in Singapore. Even as we tackle the current Covid-19 crisis, we believe that this measure will be something that we need to put in place for the longer term."

Saturday 15 May 2021

Singapore tightens COVID-19 measures from 16 May to 13 June 2021

Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) in the Fight Against COVID-19
Singapore to cap social gatherings at two, ban dining out until June 13
Tighter restrictions on social activities meant to curb spike in COVID-19 cases
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 May 2021

Singapore will cap social gatherings at two people and ban dining out from May 16 until June 13 in an effort to stem a worrying increase of Covid-19 clusters and unlinked cases in the community.

The stricter restrictions on social activities stop just short of a second circuit breaker, and will also see working from home become the default again for employees.

Rules on events such as weddings, congregational worship services and live performances have been tightened, while capacity limits for malls, attractions, libraries and museums have been reduced, the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19 announced yesterday.

Singapore will review the new measures two weeks in, and may further tighten the rules if the situation worsens.

During last year's circuit breaker, all workplaces deemed to be providing non-essential services - including attractions, museums and most stores in malls - were shut, while schools implemented home-based learning.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday urged all Singaporeans to stay at home as far as possible and stick to safe distancing measures when going out for essential tasks. The stricter rules are necessary to stop more cases from popping up, he said.

"The new clusters and unlinked community cases in the past fortnight are very worrying," PM Lee said in a Facebook post. "We are testing more intensively, and doing our utmost to ring-fence the transmissions."

Singapore reported 52 new Covid-19 cases yesterday, 14 May, 24 of them locally transmitted. The number of unlinked cases in the community has increased to 16 cases in the past week, from nine cases in the week before.

The country currently has 11 active clusters, the largest of which originated in Changi Airport.

Infected airport staff had largely been working in a zone that received travellers from higher-risk regions, including South Asia.

Although all Changi Airport passenger terminal buildings and Jewel Changi Airport have been closed to the public since May 13, many people would have visited the airport in recent weeks, and some subsequently became infected, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who takes on the finance portfolio from today.

The concern is that hidden cases have leaked out into the community, he said, pointing out that unlinked cases have gone up.

"We have taken action to close the airport to the public, to ring-fence these cases," said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the task force.

But because the authorities do not know how far the transmission has gone in the community, "we do have to take further, more stringent restrictions", he said.

As part of the new rules, households will not be allowed to receive more than two distinct visitors a day, while individuals should continue to cap their social gatherings at two a day as well.

Eateries and hawker centres will offer only takeaway and delivery services to reduce the risk of transmission due to the higher risk posed by customers in close proximity, dining in for prolonged periods with their masks off, the Health Ministry said yesterday.

Employers have to ensure that staff who can work remotely do so.

To pick up Covid-19 cases more swiftly, rapid testing will now be carried out on everyone who sees a doctor with signs of an acute respiratory infection. This is on top of the slower but more accurate polymerase chain reaction tests that are already being done.

The testing regimen will be rolled out progressively, starting with about 200 Public Health Preparedness Clinics from today.

The authorities will also increase Jobs Support Scheme payouts for food and beverage companies, given the impact of the new rules on their business. In addition, it will waive one month's rental for hawker stall and coffee shop tenants of government agencies.

"We know that this is a very difficult period for everyone; this is clearly a setback in our fight against Covid-19," Mr Wong said, adding that the Government is committed to keeping Singaporeans safe and seeing the country through the crisis.

"Let's continue to stay united, support each other and do our very best, all of us; keep cases down and get through this bump together."

Sunday 9 May 2021

Standing Tall: The Goh Chok Tong Years Volume 2

ESM Goh Chok Tong launches second part of biography titled Standing Tall on 7 May 2021

4G leader will have to bring rest of team together: PM Lee Hsien Loong
He urges younger Cabinet colleagues to take reference from Goh Chok Tong and his team
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 May 2021

As the People's Action Party's fourth-generation (4G) ministers deliberate on their next leader, their eventual choice has to be someone who is able to bring the rest together, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

He urged his younger Cabinet colleagues to take reference from Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and his team.

"Whoever will be prime minister must first and foremost be someone who can bring the rest together," PM Lee said in a speech at the launch of Standing Tall, the second of a two-part biography of ESM Goh.

"Pull them together, make the most of the strengths of each minister, and make the whole greater than the sum of its parts."

He said this was the secret of ESM Goh's successful premiership.

Singapore's leadership succession was set back after Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced last month that he would step aside as leader of the 4G team, paving the way for a younger person to succeed PM Lee when he retires.

PM Lee said the latest Cabinet reshuffle - which saw seven ministries get new ministers - will give Singapore's 4G leaders a chance to work with one another in new capacities as a team.

This will strengthen their mutual understanding and teamwork and prepare them to take over from the current leadership, he added.

ESM Goh, who retired from politics last year, spoke at the launch about how his team enjoyed good camaraderie and had warm personal relations with one another.

"We might have had different points of view, but once a decision was made, all of us rallied behind it," he said. "We trusted each other. We worked as a team, with members looking out for one another. We had a shared sense of purpose. We were united."

ESM Goh also had words of advice for the 4G team - to continue working closely as a team to set the agenda for Singapore. "Show confidence and leadership as a group. Hone your political skills and prepare yourselves to take over the reins from the 3G."

He urged Singaporeans to give the 4G team time to make the important decision about their leader for the country's next lap.

Standing Tall was written by former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei - now a partner at content agency The Nutgraf - and published by World Scientific.

One topic that comes up several times in the book is the difficulty of getting good people to join politics, a challenge that ESM Goh and PM Lee addressed in their speeches.

People who think that political succession is an "internal PAP problem" cannot be more wrong, ESM Goh said, referring to the People's Action Party.

"It is a national issue. We need people of ability and integrity to serve the nation," he added. "Many have answered the call, and more must do so."

PM Lee said he and ESM Goh often discussed the matter at their regular lunches, and noted that his predecessor's main motivation in having his biography written was to inspire more people to take the leap into politics and serve Singapore.

The Prime Minister acknowledged that the opportunity costs for any individual entering politics are significant, ranging from the loss of privacy to having to give up a promising career.

"But regardless of how difficult the task, we must persevere, and for Singapore's sake, we must hope that we succeed," PM Lee said. "Singaporeans deserve the best people that can be found and developed to serve and to lead them, as one united national team."

This is the only way to maintain the quality of government that Singaporeans have become used to, and the confidence in Singapore that attracts investments and creates jobs, he said. It is also the only way to assure the country's success, to secure the future of generations down the road.

PM Lee thanked ESM Goh for handing over a better Singapore to his successors.

"Now your successors must strive to do the same," PM Lee added.

Wednesday 5 May 2021

COVID-19: Singapore cannot afford to close borders for long duration, says Lawrence Wong

By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 May 2021

As a small country that is not resource-rich, Singapore cannot afford to shut its borders for a long time, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday.

Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19, was explaining why Singapore did not close its borders to India earlier, given the raging outbreak there.

Singapore stopped entry to all long-term pass holders and short-term visitors with recent travel history to India within the past fortnight from April 24.

"We are small… We need migrant workers to build our homes," he said. Foreign workers are also needed for other essential services, including caring for the elderly.

"It's really very hard for us to close our borders permanently," he said. "Instead, we've always taken a risk-based approach in managing our borders from the start."

This involves controlling the number of arrivals. He said the overall number coming in has been going down, even before curbs on arrivals from India kicked in.

"We've already become very tight, to the point that the backlog of applications has been growing… Many projects have been suffering from delays, as all of us know."

He added: "Some of our housing projects may now be delayed by up to a year or more.

"So it does come at a considerable cost to Singaporeans."

Migrant workers who come in are isolated and "we've been progressively tightening that regime over the past few months". They are also tested more regularly.

In spite of all measures, Mr Wong said there will be leaks into the community from time to time.

This can happen even in a country like China with its very tight border measures, he added.

So there cannot be sole reliance on border measures, he said.

"We have to make use of other tools at our disposal," he said.

"If we do all of these well, then we can control the spread of the infection in our community."

As for visitors who tested negative, but later test positive when they want to leave the country, Mr Wong said there are two possibilities. One is they could have been infected in the community while in Singapore.

The other is that the cases involve an older infection and they are "intermittent shedders" of virus particles. If so, they are less likely to be infectious.

Return to Phase 2: Stricter rules on social gatherings to curb virus from 8 May through 30 May 2021
Measures kick in from May 8, but Minister Lawrence Wong urges all to scale back activities from now
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 May 2021

Singapore will impose stricter rules on social gatherings and require more people to work from home starting Saturday, 8 May, in what Education Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday described as a return to phase two of the country's reopening.

These tighter measures mean people will be allowed to gather in only groups of up to five, down from eight currently. In addition, they will be able to receive only five distinct guests at home each day.

And no more than 50 per cent of employees who are able to work from home should be in the office at any one time, down from 75 per cent at present.

Employers should also continue to stagger the start times of returning staff, and implement flexible working hours. Social gatherings at work should be avoided.

Large events - such as worship services, weddings, funerals and live performances - will see more restrictions in place, including pre-event testing and reduced sizes. Higher-risk settings such as indoor gyms and fitness studios will be closed, as people are often unmasked and in close proximity for extended periods in a small enclosed space.

The measures, aimed at stopping the spread of Covid-19 in the wider community, will kick in on May 8 and be in place until May 30.

Addressing reporters at a press conference yesterday, Mr Wong, who co-chairs the task force tackling the pandemic, said the measures harked back to phase two of Singapore's gradual reopening after the circuit breaker.

"We certainly hope not to have to invoke another circuit breaker," he said. "But we have proposed quite a stringent and very tight set of measures, so that we can respond robustly and pre-emptively to the latest outbreak of clusters and do our best to snuff them out early, and reduce the likelihood of having to impose more drastic measures down the road."

Monday 3 May 2021

Death is the only truth - watching India's funeral pyres burn

The grim business of organising mass cremations offers a glimpse of the deadly trail left by COVID-19
By Aman Sethi, Published The Straits Times, 3 May 2021

NEW DELHI (NYTIMES) - The first 36 corpses were placed in the designated concrete cremation pits and set ablaze by 10 in the morning. After that, all the extra bodies went to the muddy parking lot, for a mass ceremony later.

Last Wednesday, ambulances doubling up as hearses lined up along the narrow street outside the Ghazipur crematory, on the city's eastern border. There were no cremation pits in the parking lot, so hospital attendants in protective equipment carried out the dead and placed them near the scorch marks left behind by the previous day's pyres.

Mr Ram Karan Mishra, the presiding priest of the parking lot, walked among the corpses unmasked and unafraid. "If I fall sick and die, I will go to heaven," he said, before paraphrasing a popular reading of Hindu scripture: "Death is the only truth."

It is an aphorism that India's government would do well to remember. Two months ago, the ruling party claimed that the country had defeated Covid-19. Today, a deadly second wave of the coronavirus ravages India. Crippling shortages of oxygen and hospital beds have resulted in many deaths, including that of a former ambassador who died in his car while waiting for care for hours outside a fancy private clinic.

The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and one of its poorest, has asked officials to seize the property of people he accuses of "spreading rumours" about shortages on social media. (The police in Amethi, a town in northern India, reportedly brought criminal charges against one man for appealing on Twitter for an oxygen bottle for his sick grandfather.) The Indian government has ordered Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to take down dozens of posts criticising its handling of the pandemic.

Counting the dead

But mass cremations have captured what epidemiologists call "excess mortality" in gruesome detail. Everyone I know has lost someone to the virus. Many have lost several members of their family.

But while you are in lockdown, the dead do not feel dead as much as disappeared. So when my father called me last Tuesday to say that his uncle had died of Covid-19, that the uncle's whole family was ill with the disease and that a cousin of my father's was in an intensive care unit (ICU), I sensed the onset of a familiar numbness.

"I might go out for a drive," I mumbled vaguely to my wife. But as I got into my car the next morning and drove out to several crematories, I realised I just wanted to feel something.

The parking lot in Ghazipur is so small and the bodies are so closely packed that the pyres can be lit only all at once. So the corpses are placed on individual pyres through the day and then ignited in one big blaze in the evening. (Other crematories, especially those with pyres powered by electricity or gas, burn corpses from morning to sundown.)

Mr Mishra, the priest, told me that for the past 10 days, the crematory's staff had been burning between 40 and 50 bodies every day in a space no larger than two tennis courts.

A cremation site is a mostly male space. Many Hindus still believe that only a son has the right to light his parent's funeral pyre. At Ghazipur, small groups of young men briefly put their grief on hold to divide themselves into teams and tend to various tasks. One group runs off to stand in the queue to register the corpse of their loved one. Another dashes to the shed to get its allotted share of wood before all the good pieces run out. A third rushes with the body to reserve a spot on which to build a pyre. Everything in this pandemic - medicines, oxygen, ventilators, hospital beds - has been marked by scarcity born of the government's failure to plan for and procure essential supplies. The crematory is no different.

Last Wednesday, Ms Malvika Parakh, one of the few women at Ghazipur, stood alone amid this frenzy, the body of her father, Dr Dattaraj Bhalchandra Parakh, at her feet. He was a plant pathologist at India's National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources and was 65 years old when he died of Covid-19. He needed an ICU bed with a ventilator, but she could organise only a hospital bed with an oxygen cylinder.

Ms Parakh's mother died a decade ago; most of her other relatives had Covid-19. A family member who had escorted her father's body from the hospital morgue to the crematory had suddenly felt sick there. So here she was alone, a 32-year-old clinical psychologist standing by her father's corpse in a parking lot-turned-crematory, trying to make sense of it all.

"It's like one of those movies in which the world has been attacked, and there are bodies everywhere," she said, as she looked at the rows and rows and rows and rows of pyres in various stages of completion. "You wait for the superhero to come and save everyone. Only in this case, there is no superhero."