TL;DR – The COVID-19 pandemic is the ultimate test of state governance and resilience. So how have we fared?
The COVID-19 pandemic is the ultimate test of state governance and resilience. However, as the global containment in the world appears to be impossible, a different strategy is required to manage the crisis.
Assessment of COVID-19
COVID-19 took the world by storm in January 2020. Human-to-human transmission was first detected in Wuhan, China in late December 2019. Community spread in China resulted in widespread transmission in East Asia due to the cultural proximity of Chinese in territories such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. And yes, it got to Singapore too.
Managing COVID-19 in a Globalisation-Dependent Region
The initial strategy of managing COVID-19 was to contain the virus and maintain international confidence. Since the region depends on the globalisation to survive, governments must:
- Identify, isolate and treat all cases of COVID-19,
- Retain investor confidence in the country, and
- Maintain social cohesion while achieving the above objectives.
The idea was to manage the situation by preventing community spread while staying relevant to the international community. All governments would agree that it is meaningless to get out of the COVID-19 pandemic with a destroyed economy and society. As such, since there was no evidence of community spread, borders remained largely open in the beginning, and people were advised to maintain status quo.
Preventing Community Transmission
This pandemic is the ultimate test of governance as there are many factors to consider. Primary policy tools employed were aimed at identifying, isolating, and treating people who are infected. Measures such as government-sanctioned quarantine orders, stay-home notices, and contact tracing are some measures taken to isolate the infected while maintaining social cohesion. Singapore continues to be a step ahead as the government continues to be transparent about the number of infected cases through daily press releases. Additional proactive measures were enacted to detect transmission clusters and community spread.
In response to the economic downturn, the Singapore government has put in place targeted packages to increase the cashflow of businesses with the main objective of retaining employees. The retention of workers continues to be important as excessive unemployment will result in social hazard and community panic.
The COVID-19 economic lull was also viewed as an opportunity for industrial transformation and workforce upgrading. Further economic incentives targeted at upgrading was in place to stimulate economic growth after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Availability of Essential Goods
The dynamic and constantly evolving regional developments led to panic buying in every country, potentially leading to a market failure through over-consumption. Initially, the hoarding of masks and hand sanitisers were critical. As the Minister of Trade and Industry, Chan Chun Sing, explained, masks should be dedicated to healthcare workers and no production capacities could meet the demands of hoarders.
The first round of panic buying occurred in convenience stalls on 7 February 2020 immediately after DORSCON Orange was announced . The government of Singapore went address the panic through by assuring the public that the national stockpile is sufficient, efficient restocking of depleted products, and implementation of purchase limits.
Second round of not-as-panic buying happened on 16 March 2020 after Malaysia announced its national lockdown. Here, the government once again reassured that the national stockpile remains robust and supply lines are not cut. Ultimately, highlighting the importance of diversifying the production and import of essential products.
Through a litany of measures, governments in East Asia were generally able to contain the disease while maintaining social cohesion and relative economic stability. This can be attributed to the 2003 SARS experience which prompted the region to increase their healthcare capacities since.
Covid-19 as a Global Pandemic
The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a global pandemic on 11 March 2020. COVID-19 became a significant problem for the West due to their high-contact culture which facilitated the spread of the virus. This is due to the high rate of transmission as asymptomatic disease carriers having unknowingly transmitted the virus. Scientists recommended social distancing measures to “flatten the curve”. The logic behind the strategy is to spread the consumption of healthcare services over time so as to not overwhelm them.
Social Distancing and its Limitations
However, many countries had to take social distancing to the extreme and have implemented temporary lockdowns to curb the spread of the virus. Lockdowns itself do not solve the COVID-19 issue. It only works if the authorities are able to identify every individual infected with the virus and further isolate them. However, there is a global shortage of COVID-19 test kits and hence there is no way to identify virus carriers. As such, temporary lockdowns will only defer the transmission of the disease.
The most accurate explanation of the objective of a lockdown is articulated by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. She explained the policy as a measure to “buy-time” (1) to minimise the strain on health system, and (2) for scientists to develop and mass produce a vaccine. Ultimately, containment is no longer possible and moving forward, COVID-19 has to be dealt with like a common flu.
Global Economic Impact
Extreme measures enacted globally has severe social and economic ramifications. Firstly, social distancing has reduced international cashflows significantly despite economic stimulus to strategic sectors. Economists speculated the global GDP growth to be between -2% to 2.7% (as compared to 3.6% in 2019) and has declared that we are undergoing a global economic recession. The global economic failure as a result of COVID-19 signals the inevitable decline of the local economy.
Secondly, the global surge in demand of essential products due to panic would lead to a temporary inflation of global food prices. COVID-19 has no impact on the global food supply; suppliers continue to produce at regular pace and maritime and air freight continues to operate. However, the artificially induced surge in demand due to hoarding behaviour would shock the market temporarily and exhaust the stockpile of many countries. This is unlikely to affect Singapore due to the national stockpile of essential products.
Altering Singapore’s Response
As the threat evolved into a global pandemic, Singapore must adopt a different strategy to manage the threat. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has hinted for the need to adopt “new social norms” to manage the increasingly deadly disease. Hence, Singapore has imposed its version of social distancing while retaining an adequate level of social and economic activity.
Preventing Community Spread
A common fear is the transmission of COVID-19 in Singapore due to the congestion at public transport spaces. However, the way to reduce congestion is not to increase capacity as it will only result in higher operating costs and more wasted capacity.
Hence, the government must, instead, flatten the spike in demand of public transport.
Workplace measures have been implemented to reduce congestion. Firstly, work-from-home arrangements are imposed to reduce the overall demand for public transport. Next, if work-from home arrangements are not feasible, staggering working hours would flatten the demand of public transport.
Theoretically, the effect on public transport congestion should be as reflected from the graph above. This principle could be applied to other community activities to minimise contact. However, the real impact of the regulation will only be seen the day after.
TraceTogether Mobile App
Additionally, GovTech launched a Bluetooth enabled mobile application to facilitate contact tracing, TraceTogether. This application exchanges, records and encrypts the contact details of individuals within the Bluetooth proximity into the mobile device. This allows healthcare professionals to retrieve the encrypted contact information of every individual in close proximity with the patient.
The Travel Ban
The Singapore travel ban on all short-term visitors primarily to reserve healthcare facilities for Singaporeans. This was implemented at a time when East Asia began containing the COVID-19 infection while there is an outbreak globally. Drastic measures such as a blanket travel ban must be implemented with the principle of proportionality to avoid community panic and fear.
The travel ban is implemented under the backdrop of a global lockdown. As such, having minimal consequence to the economic recovery of Singapore after the COVID-19 pandemic phases out. This is due to the significant reduction of travelling before the travel ban which already impacted specific industries in Singapore.
The travel ban is implemented to reserve Singapore healthcare resources for Singaporeans. This is to discourage medical tourism which takes up the limited national healthcare resources. In the initial phases of COVID-19 in Singapore, imported cases are primarily Singaporeans returning from travels and hence, there was no need to implement such measures. Singaporeans have since been advised to defer all non-essential travels to minimise contact with people.
On 18 March 2020, the Gov.sg WhatsApp group declared that 70% of the cases are imported; most of which are Singaporeans returning from travels. While the raw number of foreigners entering Singapore for medical tourism remains almost negligible, the first two deaths in Singapore includes an Indonesia seeking treatment in Singapore.
Overall, the travel ban is implemented primarily to reserve national healthcare resources for Singaporeans. It is only implemented now because the future economic impact to Singapore is minimal and the number of foreign imported cases were minimal. Essentially, adopting the principle of proportionality to avoid unnecessary community panic.
No one knows how long this pandemic would persist. As such, we must continue to live life as though the COVID-19 issue is here to stay for the long haul. Hence, it is important to:
- Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly!
- Do not discriminate our frontline healthcare workers. They have sacrificed much for the country and are probably the cleanest people in the community.
- Begin and continue skills upgrading to prepare for new economic opportunities after the crisis.
- Stay calm and do not panic buy with every new information about COVID-19.
- Practice workplace and social distancing to reduce the potential for community transmission.
- Download the TraceTogether application to facilitate nationwide contact tracing.
- Defer all non-essential travels to avoid unnecessary contact.
The 4G leadership has proven their mettle during this crisis and it’s now our duty to support Singapore’s fight against COVID-19. We can overcome the COVID-19 pandemic If we are socially responsible collectively. Stay strong and we will prevail.
As Stephanie Sun explains, “… … We will stand together,
together hand in hand, as one united people for Singapore, (our) homeland.”
(Featured image via ST)