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China, Singapore Plan Covid-19 'Bubble' for Essential Travel

FILE- Travelers wearing face masks wait in line at the Hainan Airlines check-in counters at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing, March 6, 2020.
FILE- Travelers wearing face masks wait in line at the Hainan Airlines check-in counters at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing, March 6, 2020.

Planes jetting between Singapore and China next week will be carrying some of the first passengers of the two nations’ “Covid-19 travel “bubble.” Before then flights linked to China were starting to become a political matter, as the nation took issue with places from the United States to Vietnam for canceling travel in the wake of the virus emergency.

A new world of travel

Passengers have to be sponsored by a government agency or a company and were able to start applying for the “fast lane” for essential travel on Monday, according to Singapore’s trade and foreign ministries. Approval means residents can travel between China and Singapore without a quarantine if they test negative for the virus and follow other rules.

Flights had become yet another global flashpoint of the Covid-19 chaos, particularly in the already tense relations between the world’s two biggest economies. The U.S. was like most nations that had suspended flights from China to curb the virus, but tensions escalated this month when both sides moved to restrict airlines from the other nation. Both sides have since eased up on the planned restrictions.

Signs of economic life

The joint decision by China and Singapore to allow some travel also eases up on virus-related limits. “It will be a long while before life returns to near normal, but we are beginning to see some light,” the Singapore Minister of Transport Khaw Boon Wan said of the plan to increase flights, via a Facebook post. “However, recreational travel will have to take a back seat for now.”

The limited flights are mostly meant for business and official travel. With the coronavirus spreading around the world from the start of the year, international travel has plummeted to near oblivion. However some nations that were able to curb the spread have struck agreements with their neighbors to form a “bubble” of limited travel without a quarantine, because of the lower risk of each other’s citizens passing on the virus. Denmark and Norway have done that, for instance, as have Australia and New Zealand. Singapore, along with South Korea and Canada, are working with the latter two nations on opening up to further travel as well.

China heavily involved

The fast lane will allow for essential travel between Singapore and six cities in China: Shanghai, Guangdong, Tianjin, Chongqing, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. That could help facilitate business for companies such as LabMed, which produces personal and protective medical equipment in China and sends it to Singapore to be distributed to the rest of the world. The company has contracted out to GEODIS to handle logistics, a sector that has become more complicated with Covid-19.

“During the current pandemic, we are even more intimately involved in the business of local customers who partner with us,” Rene Bach-Larsen, the managing director for the Southeast Asian subregion at GEODIS, said. “As an essential service, we continue to fast track their growth, using for instance, specially arranged weekly scheduled flights to many destinations.”

Help for the economy

While some Singaporeans question whether the fast lane is a safe public health decision, the increased business travel is expected to aid the economic recovery in China and Singapore. China’s gross domestic product contracted 6.8% in the first quarter of the year because of Covid-19, marking the first contraction in about three decades. Singapore forecast GDP would contract between 4% and 7% in 2020, the worst the economy will have seen in more than half a century.

To take advantage of the travel bubble, passengers have to apply to their respective governments and, if approved, pay for and pass the coronavirus test twice - before departure and after landing. They will then be allowed to travel on an approved itinerary but will not have to quarantine for two weeks, as is common in other nations.