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Coronavirus

Grab and Gojek scramble to curb coronavirus spread in Singapore

Ride-hailers stockpile masks and help city-state trace potential patients

As the number of coronavirus cases in Asia grows, ride-hailing services Grab and Gojek are ready to help authorities combat the epidemic. (Nikkei montage/Ken Kobayashi)

SINGAPORE -- As Singapore intensifies its response to the coronavirus outbreak, ride-hailing leaders Grab and Gojek find themselves on the front lines of efforts to stop the spread of the infection.

Singapore barred entry Wednesday for people with a Chinese passport issued in Hubei Province and those who traveled recently to Hubei, adding to the existing border measures such as screening individuals for body temperature. Singapore has confirmed 10 infection cases, all of them Chinese nationals from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.

Singapore occupies only about 720 sq. kilometers, but the city-state's dense population, large number of inbound travelers and well-developed transport networks create many avenues for infection risk.

Founded after the 2002-03 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, Singapore-based Grab and Indonesian peer Gojek have never faced an infectious disease on the scale of the Wuhan coronavirus. Both companies have been in touch with local officials to provide support such as collaboration in tracing potential patients, their representatives told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Gojek said it is working with authorities, including on "a process for contact tracing" -- meaning the company shares the travel data of potentially infected people -- based on the country's Infectious Diseases Act.

Unlike the operators of traditional taxis, public buses and commuter trains, app-based ride-hailing services like Gojek keep the travel histories, contact information and other data of every user. The information can be used to help identify passengers who might have come into contact with an infected person and trace where they have gone or are going in Singapore. Authorities believe this knowledge can help them prevent the potential spread of the infectious disease.

Meanwhile, Grab said it is "ready to provide support to help reduce the transmission of the virus."

"In light of the novel coronavirus situation, Grab has put in place measures and raised our level of preparedness in addressing potential incidents given the high volume of travel within the city-state," a Grab spokesperson said.

Grab's drivers "have been reminded to clean and disinfect their vehicles more regularly" and "to wear a mask while ferrying passengers," the company said. The ride-hailer also is stockpiling masks and disinfectant for deployment should the need arise, the spokesperson said.

Gojek has begun providing surgical masks and hand sanitizers to drivers.

As Asia's financial and transport hub, Singapore has embraced mobility services to accelerate economic growth. On top of public bus and rail networks, ride-hailing services also have spread rapidly since their arrival in 2013. Government statistics show 77,000 "private hire cars" in the city-state as of December, quadruple the 18,500 taxi cars.

According to the Global Digital Report 2019 by We Are Social and Hootsuite, 52% of Singapore's internet users hail a ride at least once a month, topping the world in terms of using ride-hailing apps.

Similar measures have been taken by other land transport companies in Singapore. Taxi and bus operator ComfortDelGro has encouraged drivers to take precautions such as cleaning and disinfecting their cabs more frequently and to wear a mask if they have respiratory symptoms.

"Ever since SARS in 2003, we have made sure that we are always ready for any similar incident," CEO Yang Ban Seng said. "All staff and cabbies have been notified, and we will continue to keep them informed of developments as they unfold."

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