Singapore’s coronavirus caseload tops 20,000 as pandemic batters business – dpa international


Fruit and vegetables for sale at Tekka Market in Singapore’s Little India (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — Singapore confirmed 788 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, taking the total to 20,198, the second-highest reported number in East Asia after China.

The ministry stated that the “vast majority” of the new cases “are work permit holders residing in foreign worker dormitories.”

Singapore has the world’s fourth-highest gross domestic product per head, according to an International Monetary Fund ranking, and depends on 1.4 million foreign workers – 320,000 of them living in cramped dormitories that have become virus hotbeds – to help run its open economy.

Singapore diagnosed its first case of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, as far back as January 23. The wealthy and trade-dependent city-state was in March lauded for keeping case numbers relatively low, even as the pandemic spread around the world – with just 1,000 confirmed by April 1.

However that landmark heralded the onset of a surge, with case numbers hitting 10,000 two weeks ago and double that number by Wednesday.

In between, on April 7, the government imposed a lockdown in an attempt to prevent the outbreaks in the dormitories from spreading elsewhere. Despite the surge in cases, only 18 deaths related to the virus have been reported by health authorities.

The lockdown – which the government calls a “circuit breaker” – will run until June 1 and was put in place long after less-affluent neighbours such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand issued restrictions.

The 5.8-million-population city-state relies also on travel and foreign investment – both of which have been hammered by the pandemic and lockdowns.

In turn, according to a widely-cited survey, business activity in Singapore plunged to a record low in April.

The monthly purchasing managers index (PMI) showed a fall to 28.1 from March’s 33.1 – “yet another unprecedented month-to-month deterioration,” according to IHS Markit, which conducts PMI surveys in 40 countries.

Anything below 50 suggests that businesses are cutting back. A locally-published PMI on Monday suggested a less-precipitous decline, though the 44.7 recorded was nonetheless the lowest since the 2008-09 global financial crisis.

Singapore was the first Asian country to fall into recession in 2008 and this time the government has repeatedly warned that 4 per cent GDP contraction is possible in 2020.

“Small open economies are undoubtedly going to be some of the worst hit,” said Joe Hayes of IHS Markit.

On Tuesday, Singapore’s official retail sales data for March showed a 13.3 per cent fall – to a level unseen in 22 years. Coming before the imposition of the “circuit breaker” lockdown on April 7, the retail numbers hint at worse to come in April.

However grocery stores and supermarkets enjoyed a spike in sales in March as people cut back on restaurant dining, suggesting more of the same lies ahead after April’s lockdown numbers are crunched.

Other government data released in recent weeks show Singapore’s lynchpin pharmaceutical and medical sectors increasing their exports on the back of demand spurred by the pandemic.

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