SINGAPORE: Afraid that people might say she was having an affair, a woman who was a COVID-19 case and part of the SAFRA Jurong cluster failed to tell contact tracers that she had met a man who was not her husband five times while infectious.
The man later contracted the disease, and she called him when he was exhibiting symptoms to ask him not to tell anyone about their meetings.
For hindering Ministry of Health (MOH) officers in their work, 65-year-old Oh Bee Hiok was given five months’ jail on Friday (Jan 8). Another two charges of hindering healthcare workers and instigating the man to omit information were taken into consideration.
She is the first person to be sentenced for such an offence in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The court heard that Oh was admitted to hospital on Feb 24 with a high fever and was confirmed to have COVID-19 two days later.
An epidemiologist spoke to her on Feb 26 for the purposes of contact tracing and activity mapping, so as to establish her activities between Feb 3 and Feb 17.
Oh told him that her usual routine was to go to the wet market on some days to buy groceries alone, but said she would otherwise remain at home.
She saw a doctor on Feb 17 and developed a fever on Feb 21, but did not see a doctor and continued to take earlier medication. She celebrated her husband’s birthday the next day, but gave no further details of this.
When she saw a doctor again on Feb 24, she was advised to go to the emergency department and she was warded as a suspected COVID-19 case.
After this, two MOH officers tried to get more information from Oh, emphasising that she had to give all details. Oh drip-fed the officers the new bits of information, telling an officer that she had gone to a temple for a Chinese New Year dinner on Feb 7, but not saying anything more.
At this time, Oh already knew her grandson was unwell and was warded in hospital. He later tested positive for COVID-19, having contracted it from Oh, the court heard.
When a second MOH officer conducted contact tracing for another case, she discovered that the other case had met Oh at the Joy Garden Restaurant at SAFRA Jurong on Feb 15 during a dinner and karaoke event.
READ: Singapore reports 12 new COVID-19 cases, nine linked to SAFRA Jurong cluster
She contacted Oh and asked if she had gone to SAFRA Jurong, and why she had not said anything about it before. Oh did not deny going there but insisted she was there only for a short while.
She refused to give details on her wet market trips and said she went as and when she liked and would remain home otherwise. She was also defensive and not forthcoming, such that the officer had to warn her that it is an offence to conceal information.
MOH DISCOVERS HER MEETINGS WITH A MAN
After this, MOH commenced investigations against Oh and discovered multiple meetings she had with a 72-year-old man, her close friend Mr Lim Kiang Hong, between Feb 4 and Feb 20.
She met him at West Coast Plaza on Feb 4, for a Chinese New Year dinner on Feb 6, at a cafe in IMM on Feb 16, at West Coast Plaza again on Feb 18 and at Westgate mall on Feb 20.
This information was gleaned after reviews of Mr Lim’s and Oh’s car park gantry records, car park closed-circuit television footage and Mr Lim’s phone records.
MOH officers also interviewed Mr Lim and discovered that he had met Oh numerous times.
When an MOH investigating officer met Oh to take a statement from her on Mar 8, Oh did not disclose any of the meetings with Mr Lim, admitting to it only a day later.
She explained that she usually met Mr Lim on certain weekdays for lunch, tea or dinner, when she did not have to cook and her husband was away playing badminton.
She admitted that she deliberately withheld her details as she wanted to keep her meetings with Mr Lim private. She did not want her family or Mr Lim’s family to find out they were going out so frequently, as she thought they would think they were in a relationship and would spread rumours about them being in an affair.
When Mr Lim was exhibiting symptoms, Oh called him and asked him to keep quiet about their outings. He tested positive for COVID-19 on Mar 20.
PROSECUTOR ASKS FOR MAXIMUM JAIL TERM
Deputy Public Prosecutor Jane Lim asked for the maximum six months’ jail, citing numerous aggravating factors in this case.
Oh was not just a suspected COVID-19 case, but had tested positive for the disease and knew this. Despite this and knowing her grandson had also contracted COVID-19, she deliberately withheld information on her meetings with Mr Lim.
These were in public places with high human density, such as shopping centres and eateries, said the prosecutor.
Oh’s offences undermined MOH’s contact tracing efforts, and she initially withheld the fact that she was at the SAFRA Jurong dinner, which was a well-known cluster.
“Her actions led to a significant waste of public resources,” said the prosecutor. Multiple people were needed to ascertain activity mapping because she was not forthcoming.
Authorities reviewed car park records, conducted screenings of the CCTV footage of all these car parks and looked into Mr Lim’s credit card and phone records in order to ascertain Oh’s omissions.
At the time, the COVID-19 pandemic had just broken out and the Government was taking efforts to contain it, so the information of her whereabouts was relevant and material, said Ms Lim.
Oh had committed the offences for “entirely self-serving purposes”, as she wanted to cover up the fact that she had met her friend frequently. Not only did she hinder contact tracers’ work, she also tried to instigate Mr Lim to do the same.
The prosecutor dismissed the defence’s argument that Oh did not know “how bad” the pandemic was at that time. Justifying her submission for the maximum of six months’ jail, Ms Lim said that to date, there has been no other offence under this section that carries as high culpability or harm.
CLIENT WAS PREOCCUPIED WITH THOUGHTS OF DEATH: DEFENCE
Defence lawyer Goh Teck Wee said Oh should be spared imprisonment and asked for “a stiff fine”, saying that she was very ill at the time and “preoccupied with thoughts of death”.
“She is a housewife. She does not maintain a calendar, unlike most working people. It would’ve been very hard for her to recall her last 14 days of activity,” said Mr Goh. “In fact, if I don’t have a calendar, I wouldn’t be able to remember what I did in the last three days during my work.”
He said Oh did eventually give the required information, adding that if she had not, there would be “no way” for health officers to know about the five meetings, as the TraceTogether app was not launched yet.
“I want to suggest (that) she could have avoided prosecution by claiming she couldn’t recall,” said the defence lawyer.
He said that Mr Lim initially tested negative and cited an MOH announcement on Mar 20, the day he tested positive for COVID-19, that said none of the day’s cases were linked to the SAFRA Jurong cluster.
The judge said that since Oh was afraid of dying, she knew the consequences of the disease. In response, the lawyer said she did not know it was as widespread as it is today.
He said Oh thought to herself, “why am I on the brink of death, being bothered by another MOH officer”.
He said she is remorseful, has multiple medical ailments and added that it will send “a wrong message” to the public that they will go to jail for giving information, if they had omitted this information previously.
In response, the prosecutor said the facts of the case do not bear this out at all.
“It’s not a case where she voluntarily came forward and was forthcoming at some point in time and that it was merely a ‘delay’,” said Ms Lim.
“I think the accurate depiction is – an offender who had deliberately at the outset decided she did not want to reveal her outings with Mr Lim for her own personal self-motivated reasons, and it’s only when she’s pressed that she came forward.”
She added that she was unable to speculate how Mr Lim got the infection.
“But she had interacted with him in the two-week period she was infectious. Without the science to back us up, we do not know the exact infections she may or may not have caused,” said Ms Lim.
She added that the harm caused is “pretty much unprecedented” and is the worst of its kind.
“To date, we have no other case of hindering that has concluded. We do have Hu Jun and Shi Sha but that’s going through trial.”
CONTACT TRACING ESSENTIAL IN FIGHT: JUDGE
In giving Oh five months’ jail, District Judge Marvin Bay said contact tracing is essential to the country’s fight against the pandemic and “we are only as strong as our weakest link”.
“While I would understand her motivations and desire to maintain the secrecy of her meetings with Mr Lim, I agree these are self-serving and selfish reasons within the pressing public interest need to control the pandemic,” said Judge Bay.
“In this regard, the court must send a clear message that any act of withholding information likely to mislead contact tracers is totally unacceptable.”
He acknowledged Oh’s plea of guilt, but said her “non-cooperation was of virtually incorrigible proportions, given that (she) was stated to be concerned of the possibility of her own death” and so would be fully aware of the potential consequences of the spread of COVID-19.
Oh intends to file an appeal against her sentence.
For hindering health officers in contact tracing, she could have been jailed for up to six months, fined up to S$10,000, or both.
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