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Singapore, Coronavirus Model, Threatens Prison For Social Distancing Violators

Singapore, one of the first countries in the world to report cases of the coronavirus outside China, has so far managed to keep its numbers in the hundreds even as confirmed cases in the U.S., Italy and elsewhere have exploded into the tens of thousands. For that, the small island country has won international praise — but the victory hasn't come easily for residents, nor is it complete.

That much is clear from strict new measures rolled out Thursday in Singapore, which threaten a penalty of up to six months in prison and thousands of dollars in fines for violating the country's social distancing rules.

Among the kinds of behaviors that could land you behind bars: holding any kind of sporting event, exhibition or concert in a public place that includes more than 10 people; or — even if you are holding or attending a sanctioned event — sitting or standing closer than about one meter (about three feet) from your fellow attendees.

The steep penalty is just the latest in a heap of measures adopted in the country of some 6 million people — including aggressive testing and quarantines, even while keeping most schools open.

Earlier this week, Mike Ryan of the World Health Organization offered it up as an example of how to combat the virus effectively without adopting the "draconian measures" like the village blockages undertaken in mainland China, the initial epicenter of the coronavirus.

"They've been able to make tactical decisions regarding schools, tactical decisions regarding movements," he told journalists, praising South Korea as well.

Singapore is far from the only country to threaten punishment for folks who fail to keep their distance amid the global pandemic. Thousands of curfew- and quarantine-violators have been arrested in far-flung locales from Argentinato Jordan, and a man in New Jersey faces years in prison for allegedly coughing in the direction of a supermarket employee, then claiming he was infected.

Singapore, which was already known for its rigorous bans on some seemingly innocuous things — including potential jail time for selling or importing certain kinds of chewing gum — has been no less rigorous in its response to the significantly less innocuous coronavirus. The country closed its borders to most short-term visitors earlier this week.

Still, Singapore has promised there may be more to come. The country reported its largest one-day spike in new cases yet on Wednesday, with at least 73.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.