Can Singapore’s Response To Covid-19 Still Be An Example For The World?

On 3 April 2020, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed the nation in English, Mandarin Chinese, and Malay, through a livestream on his social media platforms. In his address, Prime Minister Lee commended Singaporeans for their calm and responsible behaviour thus far, but also expressed concern regarding the escalation of imported and local cases in the last few weeks. Having consulted with the nation’s Multi-Ministry Taskforce, Prime Minister Lee announced the decision to implement a ‘circuit breaker,’ constituting ‘significantly stricter measures’ in an effort to contain the spread. These measures crucially include the closure of non-essential workplaces, and the shift of all schooling, including that of Institutes of Higher Education, to home-based learning from 8 April 2020. Essential services that remain open include food (for takeaways and deliveries only), transport and storage, health, banking and finance, information and communications, and selected hotels. These measures will last until 4 May 2020. Prime Minister Lee also announced the government’s plan to distribute reusable masks to all households. This initiative is a response to the recent increase of community spread, and the evidence that asymptomatic cases can spread the disease to others. Singapore’s confirmed cases now total 1,309, with a death toll of six as of 5 April 2020.

In the weeks and months prior, Singapore’s containment strategy and meticulous implementation has been consistently commended on the international stage. In early February, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Tedros Adhanom Bhebreyesus, commented that they were ‘very impressed with the efforts [made] to find every case, follow up with contacts and stop transmission… leaving no stone unturned.’ A study by Harvard University’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics identified ‘strong disease surveillance and fastidious contact tracing’ as key factors enabling Singapore’s detection of nearly triple the number of cases compared to the global average. Others have attributed Singapore’s apparent success to its past experiences of SARS in 2003, and H1N1 in 2009, with Adam Rogers of Wired asserting that ‘Singapore was ready for Covid-19.’ There are similar arguments for Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. The Guardian suggested that all four have had ‘some success in battling the spread of Covid-19.’ And as recently as 30 March 2020, an article in Forbes upheld Singapore as the ‘Gold Standard’ for responding to Covid-19.

But as the rate of community infection increases, with 120 new confirmed cases reported on 5 April 2020, Singapore’s measures and strategies are being put to the test. Whilst contract tracers and quarantine enforcers are already working around the clock to track down contacts of infected cases, and call up those serving Stay Home Notices (SHN), longer-term social and economic needs are becoming an increasing concern. The Government announced its third support package, the Solidarity budget, on 6 April 2020. This follows the SGD 6.4 billion Unity Budget announced in February, and the historic SGD 48 billion Resilience Budget in March. Thus far, the Budgets have contained Job Support Schemes, cash grants for employers and low- or middle-income households, and job creation plans. Technology has also been integrated to innovate containment efforts amongst the public. The app, Trace Together, promotes community-driven contact tracing through Bluetooth connection, identification and tracking. The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), launched its platform Space Out, on 5 April. This virtual map uses a colour-coded system to indicate the crowd levels at malls throughout the day, with the aim of ‘help[ing] the public make informed choices.’

Whether the upcoming budget or technological initiatives will prove effective in the weeks to come, only time can tell. But the rise in Singapore’s cases and the challenge they pose to the Government’s containment strategy will bring into question their hitherto acclaimed reputation. Whilst commitments of large budgets and the utilization of technology may indicate Singapore’s efforts to innovate their approach, as the virus spreads, other indicators of a robust containment strategy must be considered. Particularly as longer-term economic impacts set in with the closure of businesses and loss of work for many, Singapore’s treatment of its most vulnerable and marginalized communities amidst the virus outbreak will determine the nation’s ability to manage Covid-19 holistically and equitably.

As the virus continues to spread, the national, regional and global consequences will only continue to compound. Moving forward, the measure of a successful Covid-19 strategy in any nation must not be the numbers of tests or the size of the budget alone, but the degree to which testing and financial support are offered to those who need it most. Only then can we as a global community be proud of our fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Naomi K L Wang