Singapore reports first coronavirus deaths as cases rise across ASEAN
March 21 2020 10:29 AM
A woman wearing a face mask approaches a temperature screening area of an office building as a preve
A woman wearing a face mask approaches a temperature screening area of an office building as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus in Singapore

Dpa/Kuala Lumpur

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned Singaporeans on Saturday to expect more deaths from the coronavirus outbreak after the city-state's first fatalities were announced earlier in the day.

‘As we get more COVID-19 cases, more patients will need ICU [intensive care unit] care, and we must brace ourselves for more losses,’ Lee said in a Facebook post.

Earlier Health Minister Gan Kim Yong announced the deaths of a 75-year-old Singaporean woman and a 64-year-old Indonesian man who had been diagnosed with Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

‘We are deeply saddened by their passing,’ Gan said, explaining that the woman had several medical conditions and was admitted to hospital a month ago with pneumonia.

The man was placed in intensive care on March 13, the day he arrived in Singapore from Indonesia, Gan added.

Singapore, with 385 positive diagnoses, has the third-highest coronavirus caseload in South-East Asia after Malaysia and Thailand, though almost half have recovered.

Some 2,645 coronavirus cases had been diagnosed across the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) by Saturday afternoon, according to national government data collated by Johns Hopkins University.

The Singapore deaths took the regional total to 56, most of which have been in Indonesia and the Philippines, with 32 and 18 fatalities respectively.

Despite their large populations, estimated at 270 million in Indonesia and 109 million in the Philippines, reported Covid-19 cases remain relatively low at 369 and 230.

Malaysia's cases increased five-fold over the past week, to 1,030 by Friday. The country has been on lockdown since Wednesday, with the health ministry warning of a possible ‘tsunami’ of new diagnoses.

Confusion about the spread of coronavirus across ASEAN has prompted Singapore - a wealthy trade and tourism-oriented economy and a finance hub for the region - to tighten border controls.

The national development minister Lawrence Wong last week justified new restrictions that require visitors from ASEAN countries to present a health certificate at a Singaporean embassy for vetting prior to travel.

He said that Singapore's hospitals could become overwhelmed with Covid-19 sufferers from neighbouring countries seeking treatment.

Both the International Monetary Fund and World Bank estimate Singapore's gross domestic products per capita to be world's fourth-highest. Its well-funded healthcare system often draws patients from neighbouring countries such as Indonesia.

Singapore has also banned travel from hard-hit countries such as China, France, Germany, Italy and South Korea, and has managed to keep local case numbers low by global standards.

The tiny island nation has carried out rigorous health screening at airports and implemented an intricate system of ‘contact-tracing’ that has seen over 6,000 people placed in strictly-monitored quarantine. Penalties include fines and jail time if quarantine measures are breached.

Over 4,000 of those quarantined since the outbreak of the pandemic have been released.

On Friday the health ministry sought to hone the tracing system by launching a smartphone application called TouchTrace that uses Bluetooth to identify people who have spent at least 30 minutes within two metres of any coronavirus patient.

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