Residents bar NEA from checking their homes despite dengue crisis

SINGAPORE - There are no mosquitoes in my home, so there is no need for you to come in to check.

This was the reason given by two residents in Yishun when they refused to let National Environment Agency (NEA) officers into their units to do a spot check for mosquito-breeding areas.

The NEA officers did not enter the flats and told them they would be contacted later.

The two uncooperative residents live in Block 800, Yishun Ring Road, which is not a marked dengue cluster. But with Singapore facing its most serious dengue outbreak, should the NEA adopt a tougher approach towards such residents?

As of Friday, there have been 5,382 dengue cases this year, surpassing the 4,632 cases for the whole of last year.

The situation has got the Government so worried that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan hit the ground last Sunday to spread the anti-dengue message to the public at various locations.

When told about the residents who refused to let the NEA officers into their homes, the chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health, Dr Lam Pin Min, said the NEA should be more stringent with its checks as "half-hearted measures will only help perpetuate the problem".

He told The New Paper in an e-mail on Friday night: "NEA has revealed that the majority of mosquito-breeding sites are found within residential premises. As such, I think NEA should adopt a more stringent check regime if we are serious about breaking the cycle of transmission for dengue.

"Half-hearted measures will only help perpetuate the problem and render all other efforts futile. Homes that are not checked (as a result of residents' refusal) could jolly well be the sources of mosquito breeding, making it the weakest link in the entire anti-dengue campaign effort."

Dr Lam, who is the MP for Sengkang West, said that knowing the breeding cycle of the Aedes mosquito, which spreads dengue, is also essential in planning the frequency of checks.

Pointing out that the life cycle of Aedes mosquitoes can be completed within nine to 21 days, he said: "If checks are done only once every two weeks, it is theoretically possible for the entire life cycle of the mosquito to be completed between each fortnightly checks.

"As such, a more logical regime would be to conduct checks on a weekly basis to identify and annihilate the breeding cycles."

The two uncooperative residents were encountered on Friday when TNP followed NEA officers on their rounds in Yishun.

One of them, an elderly woman, told the officers in Mandarin: "My home has no mosquitoes, you don't need to check it. I have no plants. You don't have to come inside."

The other, a young man, shook his head and said there were no mosquitoes in his home.

Multiple visits

An NEA spokesman said that all premises in a cluster will have to be checked during the cluster period.

"Our officers will make multiple visits, including at night or weekends, to gain access to premises when residents are home," she said.

"If the officers are still unable to enter the premises after these repeated attempts, a legal notice to enter the premises under Section 35 of the Control of Vectors and Pesticides Act (CVPA) will be served, requiring residents to open their homes for inspection at a specified time or alternatively to make an appointment.

"If owners or occupiers fail to contact our officers and all attempts to contact the residents via neighbours, the grassroots, neighbourhood police and official records are unsuccessful, our officers will enter the premises by invoking Section 36 of the CVPA."

A period of two weeks is usually required before invoking Section 36 of the CVPA. From this month onwards, this has been reduced to a week for blocks with growing numbers of dengue cases.

This year, the NEA invoked the law three times, out of the nearly 1.5 million home inspections done from January to mid-April.

An owner or occupier of a residence in a dengue hot spot can be fined $200 for every offence of mosquito breeding. Recalcitrant offenders face fines not exceeding $5,000 and/or jail terms of up to three months.

While Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng agreed that there should be more stringent checks, he said residents in his constituency have told him that NEA officers are very strict.

"Some residents told me there were spots they had missed out, but the officers 'never give chance' and fined them. When they asked me to help them appeal to the agency, the appeal was rejected," he said.

"I don't know whether it is dependent on the officers themselves."

Tampines is the worst-hit dengue cluster in the whole of Singapore.

Mr Baey added that officers should make their own judgment based on the situation because some homes might be more prone to mosquito breeding.

When asked if penalties for mosquito breeding should be harsher, he disagreed.

"I don't think anyone deliberately wants to breed mosquitoes... So really it's more about the checks that are done and the education. And the checks, they have to be more forceful about it.

"Because sometimes residents may not be aware, the intent is to help them to check (if mosquitos are breeding) at spots that they might not be mindful about".

Mr Baey said he was also working with NEA to provide residents with samples of its officers' identification passes, to prevent people with ill-intent taking advantage of the situation to force their way into the homes of the elderly and vulnerable.

Location of active clusters

Time to get tough on the ground

Time for NEA to get tough on uncooperative residents

So we're in the middle of an epidemic. Sometimes, though, it's easy to forget that.

Especially when National Environment Agency (NEA) officers end up giving second chances to residents who refused to let them in when the officers want to inspect their homes for signs of mosquito breeding.

On Friday, when The New Paper followed these NEA officers on their rounds in Yishun, it happened twice.

One elderly female resident told the officers that her house does not have plants, so they did not need to go in to check.

The officers tried to convince her, but ended up passing her a dengue brochure before leaving.

There were about five potted plants outside her flat.

The second resident just shook his head repeatedly, insisted his home had no mosquitoes and closed the door after a while.

The NEA officers said they might return later to the two flats to see if the occupants were more cooperative then.

TNP understands that if residents continue to be uncooperative, the NEA can write in to them and send its officers to inspect the premises at another time.

When TNP checked with the agency later, it said that legal notices would be served to require residents who refuse to open up to do so at a specific time.

If the homeowner does not contact NEA to arrange a time and date, it can invoke Section 36 of the Control of Vectors and Pesticides Act (CVPA) to enter the home with or without the owner's permission.

NEA said that a period of two weeks is "usually required" before Section 36 is invoked.

From this month onwards, this has been cut down to a week for blocks with a growing number of dengue cases.

I'm sorry, but a week's notice when we are facing what one minister calls potentially the country's "worst epidemic"?

A week is enough time for a mosquito to lay its egg and for the larvae to become mosquitoes.

Not good enough

That is simply not good enough if we are determined to stamp out the disease. Section 36 of the CVPA also says that in cases of emergency, the Director-General of Public Health may order the "immediate execution" of work which he deems necessary for the safety of the public and for public health.

The question then is - when is this considered enough of an "emergency"?

Section 35 of the same Act does give a timeframe - 12 hours. This is the length of time that an officer cannot enter a home without giving its owner prior notice.

This sounds like a more reasonable timeframe to be able to enter the homes of uncooperative residents.

There are more dengue cases so far this year than the whole of last year and everyone from the Prime Minister down is reminding Singaporeans of that.

We don't need more campaigns and advertisements to drive home that point.

We need tough action.

And we need NEA to be the bad guys.

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