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Coronavirus: Singapore's closed borders spark scramble to return home amid global flight cuts

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 23/3/2020 Dewey Sim and Kok Xinghui
a flat screen television: Travellers undergo a temperature check at Singapore’s Changi Airport. Photo: EPA © EPA Travellers undergo a temperature check at Singapore’s Changi Airport. Photo: EPA
  • Tighter travel restrictions around the world have upended air travel, with some carriers slashing flights by up to 95 per cent
  • Singapore has banned tourists from entering the country, but has kept bars, restaurants and schools open

When Singapore announced it was shutting its borders to tourists starting Tuesday, entrepreneur Lee Xiaohui, 34, heaved a sigh of relief at her timing. Just two days earlier, she had booked her parents a flight home to the island nation from the United States, where they were helping out with her sister’s newborn.

Lee said she was lucky to have bought the tickets before California declared a state of emergency over the weekend, and tighter travel restrictions worldwide upended air travel. An online search shows just three flights leaving Los Angeles for Singapore this week, and only one next week.

"Considering that they are transiting in Los Angeles now, we are still quite worried and are unsure if they will be able to board their connecting flight,” she said. "We don’t want them to get stuck there because if they really catch the virus, they won’t get the attention they need. It is safer to be in Singapore even though they could get infected on the flight back.”

Amid the global uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, many worried Singaporeans who are studying or working abroad have cut their trips short or are scrambling to return home as international airlines drastically reduce flights.

At least 65 airlines have cut flights by roughly 95 per cent as the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc on the global travel industry, with Singapore Airlines being the latest to ground passenger planes.

The national carrier on Monday said it would cut its flight capacity by 96 per cent until the end of April and ground 185 of its 196 aircraft. It has described the outbreak as the "greatest challenge that the SIA Group has faced in its existence”.

Singapore Airlines’ announcement comes a day after the Lion City announced a ban on all short-term visitors, including those entering or transiting, as well as tightened travel restrictions on work pass holders and their dependents.

A recent spike in imported cases has threatened the success of Singapore’s containment measures, while authorities have been tightening border controls so the health care system would not be too taxed. Of its 23 confirmed infections on Sunday, 18 had a recent travel history to either Europe, the US or Southeast Asian countries.

Singapore now has a total of 455 cases. Of these, 144 have recovered, 14 are in intensive care and two have died. Globally, there are more than 334,000 infections and 14,000 deaths, with numbers climbing quickly in Europe and in the US.

National development minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs a multi-ministerial task force that deals with the virus, said it was a significant move for a small and open economy like Singapore.

Even though the Tuesday travel ban would not affect residents from entering the city state, the dwindling number of international flights has worried many abroad, with some unable to come home.

Jessica Glazov, a 21-year-old Singaporean studying psychology at King’s College London, said many students in Britain initially viewed the virus as something "distant” and contained in Asia.

"[Then] it hit me that the situation was getting serious,” Glazov said. "I had a flight home on March 30 for Easter break that I booked back in December. But as the number of cases [in London] grew, my parents were increasingly concerned and I moved my flight earlier a couple of times.”

Fearing a lockdown across Britain, her mother got her to fly back on Friday. Glazov said she was glad to be with her family during the pandemic, but was worried she might not be able to re-enter Britain in the summer for an internship she had landed.

Singapore last week also started recalling students who were on official overseas placements, including internships and exchange programmes, urging them to return to Singapore as soon as possible.

Among those affected is Elvin Ong, a postdoctoral student at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

Ong said even though his family was not too worried, he decided to make the trip back to Singapore and arrived on Sunday. "I feel fairly sad and disappointed that I left Vancouver quite abruptly without a proper farewell with my friends there … But I do understand the need to be back,” he said.

Despite the measures, Singapore has largely remained calm. The central business district was humming along as usual on Monday, with queues forming outside popular hawker stalls at Amoy Street Food Centre.

Bars and boutique gyms are still operating, although some yoga studios have cut down on class sizes so students are spaced a metre apart as recommended by the authorities.

Most countries in the region have shut schools, including Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand and parts of Indonesia. In Singapore, meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of students headed back to school on Monday after their one-week school holidays ended.

In a Facebook post on Sunday, education minister Ong Ye Kung said he had received many messages from parents asking for the holidays to be extended, but he reasoned that Singapore’s enhanced measures were to keep daily activities – including attending school – carrying on as usual.

"With the virus being around for several months now, there is a body of scientific evidence showing that Covid-19 does not affect the young very much as compared to adults,” he wrote, citing Dale Fisher, the chair of the World Health Organisation’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network. "Neither is there evidence to show that the young are vectors or spreaders of the virus. The reverse appears to be the case, where the young get infected by adults at home.”

Ong added that if schools were closed, many would not stay home and this exposed them to greater risks. Ministers had earlier said, however, that suspending schools remained an option if the situation worsened.

Angela Liang, 33, a teacher at an international school, felt the situation in Singaporean schools was safer as most of the country’s cases were imported. However, she said it was better to "play it safe”, and so she kept her two children – aged three and five – at home on Monday.

Tao, who asked to be known only by his last name, has taken it a step further and pulled his seven-year-old son out of school until the end of April. He said Singapore was lucky the coronavirus had not affected any young students yet "but you can’t be lucky all the time”.

Conversely, Lee – a self-employed Singaporean who also asked to be known by her last name – said it was a good idea that schools were left open.

"Schools have taken measures to minimise large gatherings of students, for example they now have assembly in class and staggered recess times,” said the 38-year-old, who has four children. "For now I think that the measures we have in place are sufficient. I believe that life should go on as normally as possible in this situation.”

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. 

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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