Singapore is closing its borders starting Tuesday after recording its first two deaths because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The city-state has banned visitors from several countries and required all short-term visitors to observe a 14-day home quarantine. But, government officials said all short-term visitors will be barred from entering or traveling through the country starting Tuesday.
The government announced in a statement Sunday that this will reduce the risk of imported cases and free up resources to focus on its citizens. It added that Singapore’s citizens, permanent residents and foreign nationals with long-term work passes could return, but each needed to undergo a 14-day self-quarantine.
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The city-state of nearly six million people has recorded 432 cases so far. On Saturday, it reported that a 75-year-old Singaporean woman and an Indonesian visitor, 64, have died from the virus.
Singapore had one of the earliest and biggest clusters of cases of the coronavirus in early February, before it ramped up its rapid expansion around the globe.
Within weeks, its tally of infections with the highly contagious virus was overtaken by skyrocketing caseloads in South Korea, several European countries and the U.S.
Some strategies have been proving more effective than others in containing the pandemic: proactive efforts to track down and isolate the infected, access to basic, affordable public health care and clear, reassuring messaging from leaders. East Asia’s experience with the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome [SARS], which also originated in China, has likewise helped.
Assuming the numbers reported to the World Health Organization [WHO] have been accurate, many of the countries with lower caseloads were relatively isolated geographically: such as Singapore.
The experience of battling the 2003 SARS outbreak, which infected some 8,000 people and killed nearly 800, helped ensure residents took the risks seriously, experts said.
“Almost everyone played ball and followed accordingly,” Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases specialist at Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, said. “SARS was our baptism by fire and we were forced to learn everything by swimming in the deep end of the pool.”
From Feb. 1, Singapore blocked entry and transit for new visitors who had traveled to mainland China within 14 days. These restrictions have since expanded to include visitors with recent travel to Iran, northern Italy or South Korea.
When the number of local cases without links to previous cases or travel in China surged, the government raised its alert to “orange,” the second-highest level, on Feb. 7. The Singapore Air Show, a huge event that draws thousands, scaled back the number of participants and barred most exhibitors and visitors from China from attending. Good hygiene and avoiding handshakes were recommended.
The National Public Health Laboratory, set up after SARS, was prepared to fast-track testing, using advanced diagnostics and newly developed COVID-19 test kits.
Rapid testing and isolation of suspected cases, and painstaking tracing of contacts, helped by police, surveillance videos and ATM records, have helped prevent a worse local outbreak, said Tikki Pangestu, a visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and former director of WHO’s research policy and cooperation department.
Once a COVID-19 case was confirmed, officials embarked on “diligent contract tracing,” Pangestu said. Singapore ordered workers arriving from countries with endemic virus infections to stay home. Worship services were suspended in favor of livestreaming after a cluster was found at a church. Schools suspended mass assemblies and staggered recess.
It’s unclear if strategies used in an authoritarian society such as Singapore’s could prevail in larger places. Singapore is a small island with strong public trust in the government, “a strong health-care system, excellent information systems and plenty of money,” Pangestu said. “Many other countries, especially developing ones, do not have these capacities or characteristics.”
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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, lauded for adopting a calming, clear approach early on, said in a televised talk last week that the situation was under control but the government was planning ahead, trying to free up hospital beds to be prepared for any surge in cases.
Singaporeans “feel we are all in this together,” Lee said, “and we don’t leave anyone behind.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.