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Singapore bucks up in Covid-19 fight

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By Suresh Somu

Jakarta. 29 June 2020. Singapore now knows it has to seriously buck up in the prolonged fight against the coronavirus pandemic, once praised as a shining example of how to handle the new virus as the World Health Organization (WHO) pointed out that Singapore’s aggressive contact tracing allowed it to quickly identify and isolate any new cases. It quickly shut down clusters of cases and kept most of its economy and its schools open.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat
Courtesy : Straits Times

Through the beginning of April, Singapore had recorded fewer than 600 cases. But within four weeks, they felt an unexpected tsunami-like shift as the case count exceeded 17,000. And not only is all of Singapore now under a strict lockdown, but, rather alarmingly, it has one of the most coronavirus cases in South-east Asia.

The vast majority of these cases are in the overcrowded dormitories that house more than 300,000 of Singapore’s roughly one million foreign workers and the number of cases is expected to continue to rise in the coming weeks. “We have started our testing with the dormitories where there were a high number of cases detected,” says Singapore Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

Rather desperate, Singapore ordered a lockdown on April 7 in response to an uptick in cases in the general population and then began to find a significant number of cases in the dorms.

LACK OF GLOBAL LEADERSHIP

Now the latest norm is to bring society together to cope with a period of massive change is the “really critical issue” facing Singapore beyond the upcoming elections, says Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat. He realises that the ongoing pandemic has “shocked the system significantly” and across many fronts, including healthcare, the economy and geopolitics. The minister said he was “rather concerned” over a lack of global leadership in dealing with these issues.

Multilateral organisations – such as the World Health Organization and the International Monetary Fund, as well as regional banks such as the Asian Development Bank – may have to “rethink their roles and see what they can do in order to bring parties together”, says Mr Heng. “What we are seeing now is like-minded countries coming together to say, let’s band together and pursue our agenda.”

Describing the Covid-19 pandemic as a “test of the generation”, Mr Heng said the next five to 10 years will be a test of how this generation overcomes the current crisis to emerge stronger. “I would say that beyond party politics and elections, I hope that Singaporeans will focus on this one issue: How do we stay together as one people?”

“There is a time and place to look back and see what can be done, but right now, you are in the midst of a major battle on many fronts, and all our people and all our leaders in every segment of our society must first and foremost look forward to what is ahead of us,” he said. “What are the dangers in front of us? What are the opportunities in front of us? Let us focus our minds on the coming days and months and the future.”

WORKING OVERTIME

Now the authorities and agencies are working overtime. Multiple inter-agency task force have been mobilised. Workers were moved and housed in floating accommodation facilities, military camps, hotels, sports hall, vacant halls and government flats. This is an attempt to separate the healthy ones and further reduce the overcrowding in the dormitories. Deployment of medical teams at the dormitories and medical support were ramped up.

This has minimised the load on public health facilities. Prioritised worker welfare by catered meals and also to ensure no cooking, a bid to reduce further cluster. All workers were given free WiFi and their needs and remuneration were truly well taken care of. For remittance, there is a western union in the dormitory too. All efforts centred in ensuring the foreign workers needs are well taken care of.

DORM OPERATORS

The pandemic has created a lot of uncertainties for the dormitories’ operators, citing a game changer is almost inevitable. On hindsight, smaller companies housing workers are bleeding and could potentially default payments to dormitories operators and eventually shut down. While the government is taking full responsibility of the workers welfare, this is another area for deliberation too.

Mr Heng says every country has its own unique problems. South Korea had an explosion of cases arising from a secretive church group. China was the first to face the new virus, but its strict lockdown of Hubei province allowed it to contain the outbreak. Italy and Spain were caught off guard, resulting in healthcare systems that were overwhelmed. Britain and the United States were slow to react and have large numbers of infections and deaths.

Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said that in dealing with the pandemic, countries have to consider the impact on their healthcare systems and on the economy, protecting the vulnerable and the wider community, and preserving the livelihoods of their populations.

The difference in performance of different countries is due partly to speed of response, and partly to different priorities. To successfully beat the pandemic, countries need to keep deaths low while ensuring that the economic fallout does not ruin the nation.

HIGH MORTALITY RATES

Those who had “over-reacted” in the early phase are the least affected. Countries in Europe whose healthcare systems were overwhelmed, such as Italy and Spain, have chalked up high mortality rates. Their older populations raised the rate of mortality even further as older people are at higher risk of more severe illness.

But countries like Sweden and the US were unwilling to take extreme measures to prevent infections and deaths. By keeping their economies going during the pandemic, they may be poised for a better recovery. Other countries, especially those in Asia, hope that taking steps to reduce the infections and deaths now would result in better long-term outcomes as it gives researchers time to come up with a vaccine or treatment that could reduce the severity of illness or risk of death.

Which countries have made the better choices in the face of the pandemic that is not going away any time soon – only time will tell. Each faces different circumstances and has a different population profile.

For some countries, the choices are limited. A lockdown means no work for the majority, and for some populations, not working means no food for the people and this jeopardises not just the economy, but also their survival. Against that is the fear that a large number of people infected could push their healthcare systems over the brink.

Each country has to assess its resources and the trade-offs it is willing, or is forced by circumstances, to undertake to save both lives and livelihoods. In the final analysis, it is not a competition where a winner emerges. It is surviving as best as possible till the end of the race. And Singapore is seriously stepping up the gears towards this end.

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