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Coronavirus: Why Singapore is so vulnerable to coronavirus spread



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Media captionCoronavirus: Singapore minister says the country is ‘vulnerable’

Several international cases of the coronavirus from the UK to South Korea can be traced back to Singapore and some countries are now advising against travel to the international hub. But while Singapore has been commended for its management of the crisis, the tiny city-state faces unique challenges.

Changi airport in Singapore is one of the most interconnected hubs in the world.

In fact, there’s a flight taking off and arriving every 80 seconds here, making it more connected than JFK and San Francisco in the US and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

But the scenes there these days are very different.

Dozens of thermal scanners dot the terminals, automatically taking the temperature of passengers as they enter and exit Singapore.

Travellers are checked for fever, cold and cough symptoms – airport staff on the lookout for any sign of the coronavirus.

The country’s open borders and interconnectedness as well as its pro-active approach to testing means it has reported one of the highest tallies outside mainland China – 50.

“We are vulnerable, but we have to do everything that we can to contain that spread of the virus,” says Lawrence Wong, co-chair of Singapore’s task force on the coronavirus.

But when a virus comes to Singapore it won’t just affect this city. It can and has spread through Singapore to other countries around the world.

The meeting that infected the world

This became painfully obvious when one meeting held in a luxury hotel in mid-January spawned several coronavirus cases around the world.

More than 100 people attended the sales conference, including some from China.

About a week after that meeting, stories of confirmed coronavirus cases began popping up all over the world – from South Korea to Malaysia, the UK and even Spain.

The first Malaysian to catch the virus was a 41-year-old man who had attended the conference along with colleagues from China.

Subsequently, his sister and mother-in-law caught it from him.

Then, South Korea confirmed two infected cases of South Korean nationals who had also attended the meeting.

Singapore reported three cases: two Singaporean nationals and a permanent resident.

British national and super-spreader Steve Walsh was also at the Singapore conference.

After his meetings in the tropical city-state he flew to a French ski resort for a holiday, on his way back home.

He is thought to have infected 11 others while he was there – people who eventually flew elsewhere – leading to five cases in England, five in France, and one in Majorca, Spain.

This one meeting demonstrates how Singapore became a super-conductor for the virus.

And the worry is it’s not just one conference.

Singapore is at risk of spreading the virus precisely because it is a top destination for business meetings and international travellers.

The city-state is a big draw for Chinese businesses too, given the close economic links between the two countries – 3.62m Chinese visitors came to Singapore in 2019, making up the largest group.

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Singapore learnt lessons from the Sars crisis in 2002-3

With Chinese tourists shunning Hong Kong because of the anti-government protests there, many chose to come to Singapore over the Lunar New Year holidays – which coincided with the coronavirus outbreak.

“We are very mindful that we are indeed an open economy, we are an international travel hub,” Mr Wong says. “So we are doing all we can to contain that spread. We are putting out information in a very transparent manner and we continue to work with all health authorities overseas.”

Steps Singapore is taking

At home, Singapore is stepping up its coronavirus response by taking extreme measures.

It immediately understood the implications of spread in a densely-populated city. Indeed, eight of the 50 cases reported so far have no known links to clusters that had been in contact with Chinese travellers from Wuhan. That is likely to be of concern because it means the linking cases out there could yet pass on the illness to others.

That’s why Singapore has put in place a highly sophisticated contact tracing mechanism to hunt down every known possible contact of those infected so they can be quarantined or monitored.

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Media captionCoronavirus quarantine in US: ‘I haven’t had freedom for a month’

It was the first country after North Korea and Russia to shut its borders to China and has enforced a strict 14-day leave of absence for Chinese nationals returning from the mainland who are permanent residents or have work permits

It has a zero tolerance approach to any breaches of the measures it has put in – and this is of comfort to many Singaporeans. Employees caught breaking isolation rules saw their work permits revoked and were barred from working in Singapore permanently.

Meanwhile, their employers have been banned from hiring foreigners for two years.

Singapore also distributed masks to more than a million households and has started a government-run WhatsApp group that provides daily updates to subscribers on the number of infected.

It’s even cleared out university dorms to make room for quarantined patients, a move that was executed so quickly it took students by surprise.

Panic buying, shortage of masks

But while the measures have been applauded by international health experts, Singaporeans themselves have not always bought the government’s messaging.

Social media comments show many Singaporeans don’t believe the government’s advice to wear masks only when you’re unwell, suspecting a shortage of masks instead.

Many also complained Singapore didn’t close borders to China soon enough.

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Anti-fake news laws are being used to combat misinformation

And when authorities raised the health alert level last week, indicating the spread of the disease was severe, scores of Singaporeans rushed to the supermarkets to stock up on rice, instant noodles and toilet paper, worried the country was going into lockdown.

The panic abated only when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong released a recorded message assuring his citizens there were more than enough supplies.

This level of control is only achievable in Singapore because of its centralised form of decision-making and the massive parliamentary majority the ruling party enjoys.

There are also strict restrictions on what you can say in the public domain about the coronavirus, with the country’s anti-fake news law being used to curtail the spread of misinformation.

Lessons from Sars

Still, the main reason Singapore can move fast and quickly to fight the coronavirus is because it’s so small, and it is clear that there is a plan in place – one that has been crafted from the harsh lessons of the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) crisis in 2002-2003.

“You would see your colleagues one day at lunch, and then a few days later, you would hear that they are in the ICU, or worse – dead,” says Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases specialist.

A Sars survivor, he was on the frontline treating people with the illness in a period that, he says, “scarred and traumatised Singaporeans”.

Some 238 people were infected and 33 lost their lives.

“We are such a vulnerable country, so small and well connected,” Dr Leong says.

“You could have a disease one day in China, or anywhere else in the world, and the next minute it could be in Singapore. Containment is actually unrealistic, I don’t think China will be able to control it.

“I think a weakened form of the virus will emerge, like a common cold. That will be the eventuality of this virus.”

Singapore has no choice but to be extra vigilant and transparent in its fight against this deadly disease. This country is dependent on the rest of the world for its economy, for its food, for its lifeline.

Its strict containment methods managed to stamp out Sars but in the last 10 years Singapore has become more – not less – integrated into the global economy, and more closely tied to China.

The stakes are much higher this time.

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Thursday briefing: 10,000 excess deaths at home since June | World news




Top story: Care home admissions fall

Good morning and welcome to this Thursday briefing with me, Alison Rourke.

Some 10,000 more deaths than normal have happened at homes across the UK in the past three months, which experts say may suggest people have been avoiding hospitals or sending loved ones to care homes. “Deconditioning”, which is caused by decreased physical activity among older people shielding at home, for example not walking around a supermarket or garden centre as they might normally, is also thought to be a factor. David Leon, professor of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, says lower infection figures during the period means much of the excess can be excluded as being related to Covid. “So what we see is probably more to do with decisions that are being taken by families, by individuals, their GPs and also hospitals’ willingness to admit.”

Meanwhile, a new study has shown that fears over contacting GPs during Covid could be fuelling a rise in missed or delayed diagnoses. It comes as government sources warned that take-up of the NHS contact tracing app could be as low as 10%. On Thursday the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, will announce fresh measures to halt job losses and business failures amid government fears that a second wave could lead to a double-dip recession. He will use his statement to MPs to announce an extension of business loan schemes and a package of employment support to replace the government’s furlough scheme, which is due to end next month. A new report by the Institute for Public Policy Research found ethnic minorities are at greater risk of financial hardship during the pandemic, as well as experiencing disproportionate health impacts.

Abroad, and our correspondent in Rome, Angela Giuffrida, writes about how the devastating first wave has led to the widespread adoption of Covid rules in Italy, and an excellent tracking and tracing system has left the country faring better than some of its European neighbours. You can stay up to date on all the global news on our live blog.

Sir Harold Evans dies – The trailblazing newspaper editor, whose 70-year career as a hard-driving investigative journalist, magazine founder, book publisher and author made him one of the most influential media figures of his generation, has died at the age of 92 from congestive heart failure. A former editor of the Sunday Times and the Times, Evans championed causes either overlooked or denied. He and his team uncovered human rights abuses and political scandals, and advocated for clean air policies. One of his most famous investigations exposed the plight of hundreds of British thalidomide children who had never received any compensation for their birth defects.

Sir Harold Evans died in New York onWednesday.

Sir Harold Evans died in New York onWednesday. Photograph: Felix Clay

Xinjiang – China has built nearly 400 internment camps, with construction on dozens continuing over the past two years, even as Beijing claimed their “re-education” system was winding down, an Australian thinktank has found. The information has been made public, including the coordinates for individual camps, in a database that can be accessed online, the Xinjiang Data Project. “Camps are also often co-located with factory complexes, which can suggest the nature of a facility and highlight the direct pipeline between arbitrary detention in Xinjiang and forced labour,” the report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said.

Breonna Taylor killing – Protests erupted in more than a dozen US cities on Wednesday in response to the announcement that three officers involved in the killing of Breonna Taylor would not be charged over her death. One officer was charged with wanton endangerment for firing shots that went into another home with people inside, but jurors didn’t indict any of the officers on charges directly related to Taylor’s killing. The protests came as Donald Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he wins in November. “We’re going to have to see what happens, you know that. I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster.” The reporter pressed the president: “I understand that, but people are rioting. Do you commit to make sure that there’s a peaceful transferral of power?” Still Trump refused to commit: “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.”

Labour – The party has sacked three junior shadow ministers who joined with Jeremy Corbyn and 14 other Socialist Campaign group MPs in breaking the party’s whip by voting against the second reading of a controversial armed forces bill, that aims to introduce a presumption against prosecution for British soldiers serving abroad. Sources close to the party’s leadership said that the three MPs, Nadia Whittome, Beth Winter and Olivia Blake, were warned in advance that they could not remain in their posts as parliamentary private secretaries if they voted against the bill.

DrFrostMaths –A London maths teacher has been shortlisted for a $1m (£780,000) international teaching prize after his tuition website went global during lockdown. Dr Jamie Frost, who is maths lead at Tiffin school, an all-boys grammar in Kingston-upon-Thames, is a top-10 finalist for the 2020 Global Teacher Prize. His website, DrFrostMaths, became a lifeline for pupils – and teachers – during lockdown, offering teaching resources, videos and a vast bank of exam questions free of charge as schools around the world were forced to close and move lessons online.

Today in Focus podcast: Is the UK ready for a Covid second wave?

From hospitals to care homes to community testing, the first wave of Covid-19 infections was met with unprecedented national efforts but also with panic, errors and delays. As infections begin to rise again, is the country better prepared?

a covid sign outside a bar

Is the UK prepared for a second wave? Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
Today in Focus

Is the UK ready for a Covid second wave?

Lunchtime read: BLM co-founder: ‘I do this because we deserve to live’

Seven years ago Opal Tometi helped to create what is possibly the biggest protest movement in US history. She tells the Guardian’s Ellen Jones what the critics of BLM get wrong, how her family’s story made her an activist and why she is certain the movement will succeed.

Opal Tometi is a human rights activist, writer, strategist, and community organiser, and a co-founder of Black Lives Matter movement.

Opal Tometi is a human rights activist, writer, strategist, and community organiser, and a co-founder of Black Lives Matter movement. Photograph: Bethany Mollenkof/The Guardian


Arsenal won 2-0 at Leicester to set up a Carabao Cup fourth-round tie against Liverpool or Lincoln while there were big wins for Chelsea against Barnsley and Newcastle against Morecambe. Stephen Vaughan has warned Premiership rugby clubs will have to make drastic cuts in a struggle for survival unless the government agrees to a compensation proposal. The EFL is expecting to receive funding from government to help avert immediate catastrophe in English football. West Indies unsuccessfully attempted to inject some fire into their Twenty20 series against England, but ultimately fell short in a 47-run defeat. A Los Angeles Chargers doctor punctured the lung of the team’s starting quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, while attempting to give him a pain-killing injection. And New Zealand Rugby has voiced its disappointment over date changes for an upcoming match against bitter rivals Australia that means All Blacks players are set to spend Christmas in quarantine.


Ahead of Rishi Sunak’s announcement today on measures to shore up businesses and job losses, we ask what cancelling the budget means for the government, how Whitehall will cope, and what kinds of precedents there are. Larry Elliot also looks at whether Sunak could do worse than follow Germany furlough scheme, called Kurzarbeit (“short work”), where Berlin tops up wages of those put on reduced working hours. Meanwhile, a quarter of British pubs and restaurants fear collapse before Christmas without further government support, according to a wide-ranging survey that warns the pandemic could cost 675,000 jobs in the hospitality sector by February.

The pound is buying €1.09 and $1.27.

The papers

The Guardian front page 24 September 2020.

The Guardian front page 24 September 2020. Photograph: The Guardian

Several papers splash on the chancellor dumping the budget. “Sunak axes budget in scramble for urgent measures to save jobs” is the Guardian’s headline. The Telegraph has “Wage subsidies to replace furlough”. The FT says “Sunak scraps Budget to focus on emergency jobs package” and the Times leads with “Sunak puts billions into new Covid rescue plan”. The Express describes the chancellor’s plan as a “Jobs lifeline to save economy”. The Mail says the bailout will be a “Price we can’t afford to pay”. The Mirror carries a large photo of the PM with the headline: “The blame lies here …”, and the i says “Students get Christmas lockdown warning”.

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Canadian PM Trudeau promises ‘ambitious’ recovery plan




Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to the National Anthem prior to the Speech from the Throne on September 23, 2020, in Ottawa, CanadaImage copyright
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The pandemic was the main focus of PM Justin Trudeau’s Throne Speech

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has unveiled an “ambitious plan for an unprecedented reality” amid rising Covid-19 cases.

His expansive new legislative agenda includes new investments and initiatives to help the country recover from the pandemic.

It came with a vow to support Canadians “through this crisis as long as it lasts, whatever it takes”.

Opposition parties have criticised the Liberals’ plan.

The Conservatives said it lacked a commitment to fiscal restraint and failed to address the needs of “everyday Canadians”.

The four-pronged approach to the pandemic and the recovery was delivered on Wednesday by Governor General Julie Payette, the Queen’s representative in Canada, in a Speech from the Throne.

Mr Trudeau warned Canadians in a televised address following the speech that a second wave of the pandemic was “already under way”.

“We’re on the brink of a fall that could be much worse than the spring,” he said.

What are some of the promises?

The Liberal federal government said it would work with Canadian provinces to improve testing capacity.

There were also vows to assist in the economic recovery, including a plan to create more than a million jobs, a commitment to extend wage subsidies until next summer, and support for industries hardest hit by Covid-19, like the travel, tourism and hospitality sectors.

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Media captionCanada Throne Speech: “This is our generation’s crossroads”

There was a promise to make a significant, long-term investment in childcare, which is seen by some economists as key to helping women fully return to the workforce.

Long-term care homes were especially hard hit early in the pandemic in Canada, highlighting issues of inadequate care within the system. The speech included commitments to bring in national standards of care and tougher penalties for cases of neglect.

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Toronto Star via Getty Images)

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There have been growing wait times for testing in the province of Ontario

Climate initiatives were billed as the “cornerstone” of the recovery efforts, including the creation of green jobs.

Canada’s chief public health officer said this week the country was at a “crossroads” because of the accelerating national count of Covid-19 cases.

In the last week, an average of about 1,100 cases were reported daily, compared to 380 cases reported each day in mid-August.

There have been over 146,000 cases in Canada and over 9,200 deaths.

What was the reaction?

While the speech made no specific spending commitments – those will come later – it said this was “not the time for austerity”.

Opposition Conservatives quickly panned the speech for failing to include more support for small businesses and measures to control government spending, and to address issues of national unity.

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The pandemic has increased calls for reliable and affordable childcare

Earlier this year, Canada projected its largest budget deficit since World War Two – C$343bn, with more than C$212bn in direct Covid-19 support.

“We support Canadians but there has to be some fiscal stability,” said Conservative MP Candice Bergen.

The Bloc Quebecois said the plan did not respect provincial jurisdiction over healthcare and did not address the request from provinces for increased healthcare transfers.

Mr Trudeau’s Liberals formed a minority government last autumn, when they won more seats than any other party at a general election but failed to secure an overall majority in parliament.

The speech will prompt a confidence vote in the House of Commons – a key test of whether a sitting government has the “confidence” of the majority.

The Liberals will need the support of at least one other federal political party to avoid possibly triggering a snap election. That vote could happen as early as next week.

New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh said on Wednesday his party had yet to decide whether it will support the government.

The NDP will push for more support for Canadian workers who lost work due to the pandemic and for paid sick leave, he said.

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Saudi King’s Rare Address to UN Showcases Monarch in Charge | World News




By AYA BATRAWY, Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Arabia’s King Salman made a rare address to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, using the moment to highlight the foundational notions of his regime — his steadfast commitment to the Palestinians, his stature as custodian of Islam’s holiest sites and his assertion that Iran is responsible for much of the region’s instability.

The prerecorded speech to world leaders suggested that the 84-year-old king, who delivers only a handful of public remarks each year, retains oversight of high-level policies despite the immense powers amassed by his son, the crown prince.

In delivering his remarks, he became only the second Saudi king to deliver a speech to the world assembly. The first was his late brother, King Saud, in 1957 at U.N. headquarters in New York. And like his brother’s speech 63 years prior, King Salman noted the sacred role of Islam in Saudi Arabia and the importance that entails.

“We in the kingdom, due to our position in the Muslim world, bear a special and historic responsibility to protect our tolerant Islamic faith from attempts by terrorist organizations and extremist groups to pervert it,” Salman said.

He emphasized at the top of his speech that he was speaking from “the birthplace of Islam, the home of its revelation” — a reference to the Muslim belief that the word of God was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago in the mountainous caves of Mecca.

Those words carry political undertones as well. Saudi rivals Turkey and Iran also profess to champion Muslim causes worldwide as part of a broader struggle for leadership of Muslims globally.

The king oversees a nation that is the Arab world’s biggest economy and the planet’s most prolific oil producer. Saudi Arabia has long been a close U.S. ally in the region and a strategic partner, though some in American politics worry where the relationship will go in coming years given the unpredictability of the brash Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Reading from a piece of paper and seated at a desk under a large portrait of his father, King Abdulaziz, the current monarch reiterated his support for Palestinian statehood as a prerequisite for recognition of Israel.

He said the Arab Peace Initiative, which offers Israel full ties with Arab states in exchange for concessions that lead to a Palestinian state, provides a basis for resolving the region’s longest-running conflict. That 2002 initiative stands in stark contrast to the White House’s Middle East Peace plan, which has been rejected outright by the Palestinians as one-sided in favor of Israel.

The king made no mention of recent deals struck by neighboring United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to formalize ties with Israel. The agreements were brokered by the Trump administration and branded by the Palestinians as acts of betrayal.

Despite the appearance Wednesday that Salman was in control of major policies, there are indications that change is already underway with Israel under the guidance of the crown prince. The divergent messages on the possibility of Saudi ties with Israel reflect what analysts call a generational divide between the world views of the prince and the king.

Salman hails from an era of leadership that holds with high regard the ideals of pan-Arab and pan-Islamic multilateralism. He was born just four years after his father founded the country by unifying tribes and establishing control over the western Hijaz region, where Mecca is located. He also witnessed the country’s oil-fueled transformation, and as the governor of Riyadh helped to turn the desert capital into a city teeming with skyscrapers, highways, universities and malls. His reign marks the final chapter of power being passed from brother to brother from among the sons of King Abdelaziz as a new generation prepares for the throne.

The crown prince, on the other hand, reflects a cohort of younger Gulf Arab rulers whose policies prioritize national interests and greater self-reliance. He’s pushed for localizing the production of defense equipment, transforming the economy to be less dependent on oil exports and overseen efforts to supplant a religiously conservative Saudi identity with one rooted in hyper-nationalism.

King Salman has backed his son by elevating him from near obscurity and handing him day-to-day decision making powers. He’s stood by him amid the protracted Yemen war, international fallout from the killing of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and as Prince Mohammed moved to crackdown on dissidents, businessmen and sideline more experienced and senior royals in the line of succession.

It’s unclear how much the king knows about controversies, such as the November 2017 debacle with then-Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whom top Lebanese officials at the time said had been forced to resign and was being held in Saudi Arabia against his will before France’s president personally intervened.

What was clear as Salman spoke Wednesday, though, was that his nation’s views on nearby Iran remained unwavering. He blamed Iran for targeting Saudi oil facilities with missiles and drones last year, saying: “It demonstrated that this regime has total disregard for the stability of the global economy or stability of oil supplies to international markets.”

Yemeni rebel Houthis claimed responsibility for that attack and Iran has denied involvement. A U.N. probe concluded the missiles were of Iranian origin. The king said Iran interfered in Yemen by backing the Houthis when they ousted the internationally-backed government from the capital in late 2014, prompting the Saudi-led war there.

Salman said Saudi Arabia has tried to extend its hand over the years to Iran, “but to no avail.”

For observers of the kingdom with no access to the inner workings of the royal court, the U.N. speech was Salman’s first public statement before cameras since he was discharged from the hospital for gall bladder surgery in late July.

Follow Dubai-based Associated Press journalist Aya Batrawy on Twitter at

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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