A 26-year-old Indian national pleaded guilty on Friday to a charge each of exposing others to the risk of COVID-19 infection by loitering at the busy Changi Airport and leaving an isolation area without permission, a media report said. Parthiban Balachandran, who suspected he had COVID-19, failed to stay at the hospital as directed. Instead he took public transport to Changi Airport where he loitered for hours hoping to get a flight home.
Another two charges of exposing others to the risk of infection and of using insulting words towards a health officer will be considered in sentencing, the Channel News Asia reported. Balachandran and the prosecutors will return to the court in June for further hearings, it said.
The court heard that Balachandran stayed at Jurong Penjuru dormitory, which was among the dorms declared in April 2020 to be an isolation area. On May 23 last year, Balachandran reported sick at the dorm, complaining of a fever and sore throat. Based on his symptoms and knowing that other dorm residents had reported positive for COVID-19, he suspected that he was infected with the virus.
He was taken to the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) by ambulance where a swab test was taken from him. He was transferred to a fever-screening area in the hospital's multi-storey car park, where staff nurses briefed him repeatedly in English and Tamil not to leave until his test results were ready, and not to go anywhere unless instructed. He was also told not to leave so that he would not risk infecting others if he did have COVID-19.
Swab test results later showed he was a confirmed COVID-19 case. At about 5.30pm the same day, Balachandran left the hospital without informing anyone, intending to go to the airport to buy a ticket and return to India immediately.
He took the taxi to Changi Airport Terminal 1, where he spoke to airport staff and tried to buy a ticket to India. He was not sold a ticket, and loitered at the airport for about four hours until the police found him and escorted him back to the hospital. The taxi driver who took him to the airport was issued a quarantine order for 14 days and could not work during this time. He tested negative for the virus.
Balachandran completed his period of isolation in the hospital on June 8 last year and was diagnosed to be no longer infectious. He was sent back to the dormitory and ordered to serve another 14 days' leave of absence, and was not allowed to leave the dorm. On June 16, before the period was up, Balachandran packed two bags of belongings and left the dorm. He intended to leave Singapore as he knew many dorm residents had tested positive for COVID-19.
He took a cab to the airport but was told by airport staff that he could not buy a ticket. He loitered at the airport and slept there, before heading to a relative's home in Tampines the next day. He told his relative that he had left the dorm without permission only after entering the flat. His relative called his employer and the police escorted him back to the dormitory.
In a charge taken into consideration, Balachandran also used insulting words at a Ministry of Health officer at Harbourfront Centre on October 14 last year. When the officer read a charge to him, he said in Tamil: "Who are you both to charge me? Are you a judge?" Other things he said were: "What rights do you have to charge me?", "Have you read law? Or do you have proper education to charge me?". He also said to the officer: "I have BABL (Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Law). Do you have a law degree in the first place? Do you want to see my degree?" The prosecutor is asking for the maximum six months' jail for Balachandran.
Defence lawyer Cory Wong of Invictus Law, who took the case on pro bono, asked the judge to remand Balachandran at the Institute of Mental Health for psychiatric observation. "As far as we understand, the prosecution is asking for the maximum six-month jail term. Even with the COVID situation now … we urge the court to exercise some caution and compassion, so we have all the relevant facts before we proceed with sentencing," said Wong.
He said the remand would be to assess if Balachandran had any mental condition at the time of the offences and if there was any link between this and the offences. The judge initially had reservations, saying the courts usually order IMH remand only at the charging or initial stages of cases, according to the Channel report.
However, after considering further the prosecutor said he did not object, the judge ordered Parthiban to be remanded at IMH for psychiatric observation. The maximum penalties for exposing others to the risk of infection are six months' jail, a SGD 10,000 fine, or both.