Singapore orders Facebook, Twitter to correct false claims on a ‘new’ Covid variant

Health, Fitness & Food

People walk on their lunch break at the Raffles Place financial business district in Singapore on May 5, 2021.
Roslan Rahman | AFP | Getty Images

SINGAPORE — Singapore has ordered Facebook, Twitter and a local publisher to correct what it says is a false statement circulating that implies a new coronavirus variant originated in the city-state and risks spreading to India.

Under a law aimed at preventing the spread of falsehoods online — officially named POFMA, or Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act — Singapore’s Health Minister Ong Ye Kung instructed the two social media giants and SPH Magazines to issue a correction notice to their users in Singapore. SPH Magazines owns a popular forum called HardwareZone.

“There is no new ‘Singapore’ variant of Covid-19. Neither is there evidence of any Covid-19 variant that is ‘extremely dangerous for kids,'” Singapore’s Ministry of Health said.

“The strain that is prevalent in many of the Covid-19 cases detected in Singapore in recent weeks is the B.1.617.2 variant, which originated from India,” it added. “The existence and spread of the B.1.617.2 variant within India predates the detection of the variant in Singapore, and this has been publicly known and reported by various media sources from as early as 5 May 2021.”

The Covid variant B.1.617 was first detected in India last year. The World Health Organization recently dubbed the B.1.617 a “variant of concern,” which indicates that it’s become a global health threat.

What happened?

The move from Singapore came after unsubstantiated comments from an Indian politician this week sparked a diplomatic incident between the two countries.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on Tuesday tweeted that a new coronavirus variant in Singapore is said to be extremely dangerous for children and could result in a third wave in India. He did not provide any evidence to back his claims.

Instead, he appealed to the Indian central government to suspend flights with the Southeast Asian country immediately and prioritize vaccination options for children. His claims were carried by major Indian news outlets.

Singapore’s health ministry dismissed the claims, saying there was “no truth whatsoever in the assertions.”

What was the reaction?

Kejriwal was publicly rebuked by the foreign ministers of both countries.

“Politicians should stick to facts! There is no ‘Singapore variant,'” Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s foreign minister, said in a tweet in response to Kejriwal’s claim.

Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Wednesday it regrets the “unfounded assertions” made by Kejriwal.

“MFA is disappointed that a prominent political figure had failed to ascertain the facts before making such claims. MFA met the High Commissioner of India P Kumaran this morning to express these concerns,” the foreign ministry said.

India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said the two countries have been “solid partners” in the fight against the pandemic.

“However, irresponsible comments from those who should know better can damage long-standing partnerships. So, let me clarify — Delhi CM does not speak for India,” he said on Twitter. Jaishankar previously served as India’s high commissioner to Singapore.

India’s civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri responded to Kejriwal’s comments on Twitter, and pointed out that international flights to India have been suspended since March 2020.

He also pointed out that India and Singapore do not have an air travel bubble and that New Delhi only runs repatriation flights from the city-state to bring back stranded Indians.

“Still, we have our eyes on the situation. All precautions are being taken,” Puri said, according to a CNBC translation of his remarks in Hindi.

Covid in India and Singapore

Singapore has seen a recent spike in locally transmitted cases, which prompted the government to step up social restrictions again.

While a number of children in the city-state have been recently infected with Covid-19, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said Sunday that none of them are seriously ill but the situation is still worrying, according to the Straits Times.

Still, Singapore announced Tuesday it will allow children aged between 12 and 15 to be inoculated.

Singapore has reported more than 61,600 cases so far and 31 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

India is the second worst-infected country in the world behind the United States and is facing a devastating second wave. So far, India has reported more than 25 million cases and over 287,000 deaths, but experts suggest the numbers have been severely undercounted.

Delhi has been one of the worst-hit regions in the country where hospitals have faced shortages in hospital beds, oxygen supply and medicines to treat Covid-19 patients.

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