Asia tries to fight a second wave of coronavirus cases sparked by travellers

A group of passengers at the arrival hall of Changi Airport Terminal 2, on March 16, 2020.
A group of passengers at the arrival hall of Changi Airport Terminal 2, on March 16, 2020.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Asian countries battling a new wave of coronavirus infections brought in by travellers from abroad are turning to high-tech wristband monitors, jail time and steep fines in an escalation of containment measures.

As the pandemic widens overseas and engulfs Europe in particular, places like Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan that had successfully contained their first wave from China are now facing a second surge from the West. In the past week, they all saw new cases hit record highs primarily due to travellers carrying the virus arriving at their borders.

That's forced governments to double down on surveillance technology to prevent the new infections from spreading, as well as implement strict travel bans and stay-home orders that undercut their reputations as open travel hubs. The virus has infected over 211,000 globally and killed over 8,700, and its epicentre has shifted to Europe, which has now surpassed China in number of infections.

Adding to Asia's woes, some of its bigger, poorer countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and India are seeing reported cases spike as authorities finally begin testing in earnest for the virus, pointing to the likelihood that infected people have been circulating in their populations for far longer than known.

Singapore, located near other South-east Asian countries where testing has lagged behind, saw its largest one-day increase of cases on Wednesday, with 47 additional infections mostly from Singapore travellers returning to the country. It reported another 32 on Thursday for a total of 345.

The government has implored locals to defer unnecessary trips, banned visitors from four European countries, and issued orders to travellers from South-east Asia and other countries to stay home for two weeks.

Hong Kong also had its biggest daily increase on Wednesday, with 25 new cases mostly travellers and students returning from abroad, primarily Europe. Its total as of Thursday was 199. It's now ordered all people entering the territory, except from Macau and Taiwan, to submit to a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Taiwan, with a total of 107 cases, has barred all new foreign arrivals with few exceptions. Vietnam - where a reprieve of three weeks with no cases was interrupted by an outbreak tied to a flight from London to Hanoi - is putting everyone arriving from countries hit with the virus into government-run quarantine bases. Others may be asked to stay in isolation at home.

Wearable tech and smart phone apps are being deployed to enforce the new rules. In Hong Kong, travellers will be issued one of 20,000 wristbands the government has procured to monitor the movement of those in quarantine. The no-frills band connects to an app which sends out alerts for the person to take pictures of themselves still wearing the wristband, and issues warnings if it senses the person has left their residence.

The device detects and analyses radio signals, including bluetooth, WiFi, and geographical location signals (GPS). Police and health officials track down those not in compliance.

In Taiwan, the government has integrated the databases of the national health insurance, immigration and customs agencies to generate data that traces the travel history and clinical symptoms of residents. It's also set up an online shopping platform so that citizens can order take-out and buy groceries. There are also apps that check the stock of face masks at nearby pharmacies.

FINES AND IMPRISONMENT

Steep fines and the threat of imprisonment add to the incentives for incoming travellers to abide by the rules. Taiwan has fined several residents for not adhering to self-quarantines or leaving a quarantine hotel to the tune of NT$1 million (S$47,246).

 
 
 

Singapore charged a couple from China last month under the Infectious Diseases Act for providing false information and obstructing coronavirus contact tracing. Anyone convicted for a first offence under the act can be fined as much as S$10,000 and jailed for as long as six months.

Those who don't abide by Hong Kong's quarantine requirements also face the same jail time, and are liable to be fined a maximum of HK$25,000 (S$4,680).

Vivian Ma, 23, a student at Chinese University of Hong Kong, was under quarantine at home in Hong Kong after she entered the territory mid-February. She was tracked through a social app on her phone and received four unannounced requests to conduct live video calls or share her location by phone with officials. "There's a possibility that some people can escape the spot checks," she said. "But the very serious punishment Hong Kong set is quite scary."

The Sars pandemic of 2003 that infected about 8,000 people mostly in Asia left "residual scars which means people in some parts of Asia have a better understanding of how they need to change their behaviours to reduce the risk of community transmission," said Ben Cowling, an epidemiology professor at the University of Hong Kong. "Even so it is going to be difficult to sustain the containment measures over the next year."

SOUTH-EAST ASIA LOCKDOWNS

Even as these global cities gird for battle with second waves of infection, some of the region's biggest countries are now discovering large pockets of coronavirus among their populations and taking extreme containment measures reminiscent of China's draconian lockdowns.

Malaysia is banning residents from travelling overseas while places of worship, schools and businesses will be shut except for markets that supply daily needs until the end of the month.

 
 

"Stay at home and protect yourself and your family," said Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who warned that the lockdown could be extended if the containment moves aren't sufficient. The broad restrictions on movement were adopted after the country saw a wave of new cases linked to a religious gathering at a mosque attended by 16,000.

Meanwhile, 60 million residents on the Philippines island of Luzon, the country's most populous that includes Manila, is on lockdown until April 12. The country's police force and military have been called in to enforce the order. Soldiers are manning checkpoints throughout the island, while schools, mass transport and nearly all businesses are closed.

"We are at war against a vicious and invisible enemy, one that cannot be seen by the naked eye," said President Rodrigo Duterte. "In this extraordinary war, we are all soldiers."