SINGAPORE (THE NEW PAPER) - As the Covid-19 pandemic grips the world, claiming thousands of lives daily, some have decided to turn the crisis into a game.
Illegal gambling websites are targeting punters in Singapore and other countries by offering the option of betting on the daily number of cases.
The New Paper found at least five such sites, all of which have a similar betting interface.
The sites encourage punters to place bets on the last digit of the number of daily new cases announced by Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.
Punters can also bet on whether the number is even or odd, and if the latest number in the respective countries is higher than the previous day's.
Odds and results
The daily odds and results are displayed with other sports betting options and appear to have taken on more prominence than football betting, the usual mainstay of such sites.
Psychiatrists who spoke to The New Paper said that while they had not expected gamblers to bet on coronavirus cases, they were not surprised.
Dr Adrian Wang, a psychiatrist and counsellor at Gleneagles Medical Centre, said problem gamblers would turn to any avenue, including illegal ones, to feed their addiction.
"The act of gambling triggers pleasure centres in the brain, releasing neurochemicals that give them a sense of reward and satisfaction," he said.
"They need this regular fix. Like an alcoholic who suddenly finds himself unable to afford whisky and has to settle for cheap rice wine, problem gamblers who can't bet in the casino or on suspended soccer games... will take what's available."
The betting options on Covid-19 cases surfaced after the suspension of legal betting outlets in Singapore.
The two casinos, Singapore Pools and Singapore Turf Club have suspended operations since the circuit breaker period began on April 7.
Measures to fight the pandemic, such as movement restrictions, have also made many punters turn to online gambling services.
A recent study by analytics group AlphaBeta in Australia found that online gambling there has shot up by more than 65 per cent since last month.
Similarly, website Global Poker noted a 43 per cent rise in the use of similar sites in the United States, with a 255 per cent increase in first-time users, gaming news site Inside Asian Gaming reported.
As remote gambling is regulated in Singapore, a police spokesman told TNP that firm action will be taken against anyone found to be involved in illegal gambling.
"The police are aware of betting activities relating to the number of daily Covid-19 cases and are looking into the matter," she added.
Stressing that online betting contravenes the Remote Gambling Act, she said the police take a serious view of all forms of illegal remote gambling and will take tough enforcement action against offenders.
Under the Act, those caught using an illegal remote gambling service can be fined up to $5,000, or jailed for up to six months, or both.
Anyone who provides such an illegal service, whether from Singapore or overseas, can be fined up to $200,000, or jailed for up to five years, or both.
Even with tough penalties and the dark reality of what they are betting on, problem gamblers are unlikely to be deterred, said Dr Munidasa Winslow, senior consultant psychiatrist at Promises Healthcare.
Noting that such people will find a way to gamble in some form even when deprived of legal means, he said: "If they don't have Singapore Pools, they will turn to online bookies and anyone else who is willing to take a bet.
"Betting on the number of daily Covid-19 cases is dark, but in the mind of a gambler, it's just another avenue for what they claim is a game of skill."
He added that problem gamblers will delude themselves and may even be spurred on by betting on distasteful topics.
Dr Winslow said some of them may see this as adding to the thrill, so they will "bet on deaths, or when a serial killer will be caught, a lot of strange things".
"Even if they are gambling on people's lives, they will make that bet if someone is willing to accept it."