Singapore

Chinatown so crowded that safe distancing is not possible

Expert warns of super spreader event as Chinatown gets so crowded that safe distancing is not possible

The Chinese New Year bazaar may have been cancelled, but that has not stopped crowds from thronging Chinatown during this festive season.

When The New Paper team was there for three hours on Saturday, Trengganu Street, Temple Street and Pagoda Street were teeming with hundreds of shoppers who were all wearing masks.

But safe distancing was simply not possible as many people literally rubbed shoulders on the packed streets and in shops.

Also of concern was that only one shop in the area was seen enforcing SafeEntry protocol, which enables contact tracing in the event of a Covid-19 infection.

When shown photographs of the scene, infectious disease specialist Leong Hoe Nam said with a sigh: "Too many people. Exactly what the virus would want. I expected it. We have Covid fatigue."

The eight shoppers that TNP approached were confident that masking up would give them enough protection from the coronavirus that has blighted the world in the past year.

One of them, who was with her husband and wanted to be known only as Ms Nancy, 58, said: "I think it is okay and safe without social distancing because people are wearing masks."

Another shopper, Mr Hong, 47, who was with his wife and son, said: "I am not worried because we are moving around and not trapped in one area. It is fine because people are wearing masks."

Dr Leong said while it is true that masks do provide some protection, the assumption is they are good quality masks that are used properly in tandem with strict hand hygiene.

"The mask is only as good as how you use it. Many wear it with their nose exposed and with big gaps by the side," he added.

When approached, many shop owners and assistants either declined to comment or were defensive about the lax safety measures in the area.

When asked about SafeEntry, a woman selling festive snacks kept asking if the TNP team wanted to make a purchase before she finally pointed to a neighbouring shop and said: "There is a QR code next to our shop. It is the same if you scan next door."

At the only shop enforcing SafeEntry and temperature- taking, the owner who wanted to be known only as Mr Larry, 28, said: "I am worried that there is no social distancing and customers are not keeping a distance from one another."

Mr Low Chek Liang, 58, who runs a shop selling Chinese New Year decorations, said: "I am not scared even though there is no SafeEntry. If you have a strong immunity, there is nothing to be scared of. I think I have a strong immunity."

Last November, the Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng Citizens' Consultative Committee decided to cancel the Chinese New Year bazaar over crowd control concerns.

But it has done little to keep the crowds away. On Saturday, three safe distancing ambassadors told TNP about the difficulties their team of 10 faced in trying to manage the crowds.

DIFFICULT

"We have to make sure everyone is 1m apart and wearing masks, but since it is a weekend, it is difficult to control them," said one.

"We even activated teams from Orchard and other areas to come over and help, along with assistance from police officers.

"But we really need the full cooperation of the public."

The surge in physical interactions is highly risky, warned Dr Leong.

"If we continue like this, a super spreading event will occur. What made us safe previously may not be good enough for the next lap," he said.

Dr Leong added that while we have managed to "push back" the virus in recent months, if we just "maintain status quo, we will falter".

This is because the virus is adapting into new strains that are more infectious in places such as Britain, South Africa and Brazil.

Meanwhile, complacency set in here with the more relaxed measures in phase three, likely contributing to a rise in community cases, he noted.

Dr Leong expects a spike after the festive celebrations as "we have a coming together of a perfect storm. Big gatherings, more transmissible virus, Covid fatigue".

Warning that the virus was "coming back with a vengeance" in several countries, he said: "The vengeance reeked of death, illness and misery in Manaus, Brazil.

"They are having 'Covid deja vu'.

"One circuit breaker (in Singapore) is one too many. Nobody wants CB deja vu."

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