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Commentary: Singapore & COVID-19

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18 Aug Commentary: Singapore & COVID-19

By Simon Tay and Sarah Loh
For the Asia Media Centre

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected lives and livelihoods across the world, but there has been little global leadership.

Each country has responded in its own way and primarily with its own resources, and with varying outcomes. As the immediate shock of the first wave of infections is brought under control, many are also now searching for paths to move forward.

The Singapore Institute of International Affairs’ Chairman Professor Simon Tay and policy analyst Sarah Loh take a closer look at Singapore’s response to the virus, and the country’s future strategies and priorities.

Singapore’s current COVID case numbers have raised eyebrows across the region, given the country’s small population and comprehensive health system.

The current number of nearly 6000 active cases also contrasts to the very low numbers recorded when the pandemic first began to spread, and Singapore’s methods were upheld as setting a “gold standard” by epidemiologists.

So what happened ?

Singapore was one of the first countries to report COVID-19 cases – with its first case on 23 January 2020, imported from China. In this initial period, the country was effective in managing the pandemic. It imposed measures such as disallowing the entry of travellers who had been in China fourteen days before their arrival, and applying contact tracing methods which had been developed and used during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2003-2004.

Even as other countries experienced a surge of cases, the situation in Singapore initially seemed sufficiently under control. Schools, businesses and public areas like malls all continued to remain open. There was no domestic “lock down”, although precautions were taken, such as temperature checks and, following the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidance at the time, authorities only asked those who had symptoms to wear masks and requested returning travellers to self-quarantine at home.

By early April, however, this proved untenable. The country moved to impose a “circuit-breaker”, with restrictions much as other countries have done: schools and businesses had to shut, most were instructed to work from home, and all persons in public were required to wear masks. In retrospect, the virulence of COVID-19 had been underestimated, and a government re-evaluation was required.

There were considerable economic impacts, but for Singapore the new measures worked.

The government felt able to gradually lift restrictions in phases, beginning in June. While the initial number of community infections had risen to approximately 60 cases a day, by mid-June, the figure had gone down to an average of less than 10 cases per day. Singapore has begun to re-open, but social distancing requirements remain in place, and non-essential businesses are still encouraged to work from home unless necessary. The number of community cases continues to be closely monitored.

The main contributor for the overall number of cases in the country has not been from Singaporeans and the general community, but a specific outbreak in dormitories that house foreign workers. As of July 2020, 95 per cent of the cases reported in the country were from the foreign workers. There are approximately 300,000 foreign workers (mainly employed in construction work) who are housed in dormitories.

These facilities are purpose-built or converted from factories and other premises, and while kitchens, recreation areas and living quarters are provided, they were not planned with sufficient space and separation to allow for safe distancing and segregation in the time of a pandemic. This resulted in clusters of infections in the dormitories from April that peaked, towards the end of that month. On 20 April 2020, Singapore recorded 1,397 new cases of foreign worker infections, the highest daily number to date.

While the outbreak in the foreign worker dormitories was not prevented, the government faced the outbreak squarely and has responded effectively. The response has ensured the best treatment for the foreign workers, and to prevent transmission to the community outside the dormitories.

For the care of the foreign workers, medical care and (where needed) hospitalisation benefits were extended to all and free of charge. Testing in the dormitories was increased and, for those who did not have the virus, all efforts were made to segregate them and provide temporary alternative housing by converting other facilities such as sports halls. While high numbers of foreign dormitory cases were reported, these are attributable to increased and efficient testing.

Singapore’s COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce has announced that all foreign worker dormitories should be cleared of the disease in the next few weeks, save for 8 purpose built dormitories which will continue to serve as quarantine facilities for 28,000 workers – the last batch of workers to complete their isolation period.

Second, foreign worker clusters have all been isolated and there has been no cross infection outside the dormitories to the broader community in Singapore.

This week, 265,000 foreign workers have been given the green light to return to work, by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

Of these, 180,000 are residents in dormitories.

While the situation now appears under control, Singapore has learned a hard lesson about dealing with the healthcare needs of its large migrant population, and an even harder one about taking your eye off the ball when it comes tgo COVID.

Fortunately, Singapore’s hospitals and health care system have continued to function effectively and have not been overwhelmed; this has helped to ensure one of the world’s lowest mortality rates from the pandemic.

Tracing efforts have also been redoubled using the new digital check-in system known as “SafeEntry”. The “TraceTogether” app complements the effort by helping to identify those who have come into close contact with a COVID-19 patient. Even those who lack smartphones, such as senior citizens, have access to palm-sized devices called “TraceTogether Tokens”.

In June, Forbes magazine reported that a study had ranked Singapore 4th- safest country in the world during the pandemic, with Switzerland ranked 1st place.

New Zealand was ranked 9th in the study – which focussed on economic resilience as well as COVID preparadeness.

Singapore also continues to report one of the lowest mortality rates for COVID-19 in the world, with an approximate rate of 4 deaths per million number of infected cases.

ECONOMIC IMPACTS AND RESPONSES

Gross domestic product (GDP) shrank by 12.6 per cent year on year in the second quarter and 2020 forecasts hover at around a contraction of four to seven per cent.

This results from the restrictions imposed in the “circuit breaker” domestically and, even more, from the fall in the global and regional economy and trade on which Singapore depends as a hub economy.

To help offset the worst of these impacts, the Government has now released four stimulus packages amounting to S$92.9bn (US$65.5bn), making up 19.2 per cent of its GDP. The move provides subsidies to companies to offset employment and other costs, so that more businesses can stay solvent and keep people in jobs.

Help is also provided for the self-employed and “gig” economy workers and for households, especially those with lower incomes. The government has also committed to create 100,000 new jobs and traineeships, and will provide subsidies for employers to create these opportunities for both new graduates and older workers who are displaced.

The aim is not only to stabilise and offset the initial impacts of the pandemic, but to undertake efforts to hone and develop new capabilities to emerge stronger from the COVID-19 crisis.

The government established an “Emerging Stronger Taskforce”, which will help the country identify risks and systemic shifts arising from COVID-19, assess their impacts and provide recommendations on how Singapore should refresh, reimagine or reset its economic strategies to stay resilient, build dynamism and seize opportunities in a challenging post COVID-19 world.

The Taskforce is co-chaired between government and private sector representatives and has begun work with the aim to complete its report and deliver an initial set of actions by early next year.

NEXT STEPS

COVID-19 has dramatically disrupted flows of goods, people and services and the workings of our global economy. In many ways, it has accelerated attitudes of protectionism, narrow nationalism and division. This will impact Singapore, a global hub, that heavily relies on the movement of investment and trade, and on cross-border finance and services.

Singapore has continued its commitment to openness and integration in the face of challenges. In the immediate response to the pandemic, the country has provided assistance and medical supplies to its neighbours and continued to be a strong proponent of free trade by keeping production lines open, especially for medical essentials such as surgical masks.

Significantly, Singapore and New Zealand agreed to a trade pact to ensure the continued flow of essential items through seas and airports.

Seven other countries followed, including Brunei, Laos and Myanmar from ASEAN, and pledged their commitment to keep supply chains for essential products working. This comes on top of a similar statement by the trade ministers of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (seven ASEAN member states are also APEC members). Bilateral efforts between the like-minded can broaden and serve as starting points for regional cooperation.

For Singapore to continue to have relevance as a hub, the flow of goods, people and services is essential.

Singapore will therefore negotiate more quarantine-free travel bubbles or green lanes with economic partners who have managed to keep the outbreak under control, so as to facilitate essential business.

A green lane arrangement is already in place with six provinces in China with discussions for similar arrangements are ongoing with others, both within ASEAN and in the wider region.

Economically, Singapore will reposition itself to recover quickly as countries reopen and global trade picks up pace, building on the country’s political stability, cost-competitiveness, efficiency, strong regard for the rule of law, and connections with markets within and beyond ASEAN.

Singapore’s Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA) with Chile and New Zealand was formalised in June, and similar agreements are in discussions. This can set the stage for other regional digital partnerships.

Singapore has responded well, but not perfectly, to the pandemic. It will continue to address the situation with enhanced capacities in its health system and with a stable government, newly returned to power, and strong financial reserves.

And crucially, the country is preparing for the recovery of the global economy by honing new capabilities, retraining its people, and seeking new opportunities that are emerging from the turbulence of the pandemic.


Source: Asia Media Centre