SINGAPORE - Alcohol, singing and dice games in the intimate company of social hostesses are a recipe for some serious Covid-19 trouble, as Singapore found out this week.
On Monday (July 12), the authorities said they were investigating cases of Covid-19 infection among Vietnamese social hostesses who had frequented three KTV lounges in three malls.
By Thursday, this had become Singapore's second-largest active cluster, with 88 cases. The current largest active cluster remains the Bukit Merah View Market and Food Centre cluster, at 94 cases.
In a time of Covid-19, KTV lounges are not allowed to offer activities involving close contact such as dice games played in the company of hostesses. To remain open, they must be operating instead as food and beverage outlets.
This was purportedly the case for the three KTV lounges - Supreme KTV (Far East Shopping Centre), Empress KTV (Tanglin Shopping Centre) and Club Dolce (Balestier Point).
My colleague David Sun, who spoke to shopkeepers in the malls, said two of the bars were under renovation and started operating only this month. When safe distancing ambassadors went around to do their checks, they were there only during the day.
Free testing was quickly extended not only to KTV lounge patrons but also to anyone who had interacted with Vietnamese social hostesses in any setting since June 29.
The ingredients of a runaway cluster are there, especially with a more infectious Delta variant circulating: Hostesses move from table to table, room to room or lounge to lounge. They most likely live with other hostesses, who could also be here on short-term visit passes. It is not known how many have been vaccinated.
The Health Ministry has warned that there is likely to be ongoing transmission of the coronavirus at four more KTV lounges and clubs operating as food and beverage outlets.
Since the cluster surfaced, the police have arrested 20 women, among them South Koreans, Malaysians, Thais and Vietnamese, for suspected vice activities at KTV lounges.
Because the nature of the activity makes it prone to seeding a Covid-19 outbreak, nightlife clusters have formed also in other places such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.
As early as April 2020, clusters had emerged in Tokyo's hostess bars that were hard to trace. Taiwan had the same issues in May this year, as many who tested positive were unwilling to say they had visited adult entertainment venues known as teahouses.
Health Minister Ong Ye Kung has said the embers of the pandemic are still burning and they can easily spark a major flare-up again.
To prevent the cluster from getting out of hand and spreading secretly, anyone who has been offered testing should take it. Testing is confidential.
They should not wait.
A clandestine gathering can become an open secret. So far, the cluster has forced an entire cruise ship with 1,646 passengers and 1,249 crew members to turn back to Singapore.
It had to, when a 40-year-old passenger was identified as a close contact of a confirmed Covid-19 case in the KTV cluster.
In late June, World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the Delta variant was the most transmissible of the variants identified so far.
Today, it is in more than 100 countries, and many have reimposed lockdowns to curb its spread.
Here, if a student were to test positive, the whole school may temporarily revert to home-based learning.
If a mall is affected, it can be closed for cleaning, affecting numerous businesses and consumers.
Some 2.4 million people here are fully vaccinated, while others are waiting for their second jab or have yet to get one. In the meantime, getting tested will help to protect the wider community.
More importantly, it will protect one's loved ones, particularly if they are the vulnerable groups who are at higher risk of becoming very ill with Covid-19.