Balancing lives and livelihoods has never been this tricky

By April 29, 2020Current

TL;DR – Thankfully in Singapore, we have a war-chest of reserves to protect our livelihoods as we save lives.

We’re living in very unusual times, no thanks to coronavirus. Cities are being locked down, businesses shut down, and people are either out of job, out of work or out of money. The world over.

The scariest parts of this? One, we’ve no idea how and when this will end, and whether we’re even at the mid-point of the pandemic. Two, with everything shut down, people will run out of money soon, so how much and for how long can the governments of the world hold out for?

Balancing lives and livelihoods has never been this tricky

And some people are asking, living is not just about staying alive, it’s also about having a life. And to have a life, we need livelihoods. So you tell me, for how long can we close an economy? Especially one like ours. We rely on international trade for everything, including food and water and necessities that we need to survive.

In the US, real unemployment rate has soared past 20%, and the country has reportedly lost 26.5 million jobs. At the highest of levels of unemployment following the 2008 financial crisis, there were 15.3 million jobless Americans. But in the past five weeks a staggering 26.5 million workers have already filed jobless claims. Analysts have even gloomier forecasts for the coming months.

Closer to home, we have also been reading about the poor in Thailand killing themselves as they reach breaking point. Some 24 million people have applied for the government’s relief aid. Business groups have also estimated that 10 million people, or 26 per cent of the country’s workforce, will have been out of work if the outbreak drags.

Across the Causeway in Malaysia, Bank Negara Malaysia – our equivalent of MAS – released a forecast of 4% unemployment rate for 2020. But analysts and businessmen opined that this is overly optimistic. More than 500,000 locals have already lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and it seems more probable that the unemployment rate would soar to 10% or even 15%, and some two million Malaysians might be laid off eventually.

So the world over, the debate about the trade-off and balance between saving lives and protecting livelihoods continues to rage on. The longer we lock down a country or shut the economy, the safer people’s lives, but the more precarious their livelihoods.

The starry-eyed or some shameless politicians will loudly shout, “NO! We mustn’t have to choose between lives and livelihoods!” OK, so then what do you propose? Got better, brighter idea?

I get it that both lives and livelihoods are important. But there will be instances when you have to make a decision that sacrifice one of them. Or at least prioritise so that we can fix one of the two things first. So we’ll probably go with saving lives first.

What is the point of having a job, an income if we cannot even stay alive, right?

So at this juncture, countries can only pray that they have enough resources available and authorities at all levels smart enough to ensure that they have enough resources to support lives because livelihoods will get lost when there are lockdowns.

What about Singapore? How do we fare in protecting lives?

Thankfully in Singapore, we have always been very prudent and practise good governance. This has allowed us to save for rainy days like this. Our good governance provides for capabilities and abilities to mobilise resources to work on protecting lives.

Did you read about Minister Lawrence Wong’s Facebook post on the latest medical strategy?

While most of us are sleeping, baking, exercising or criticising and dishing out advice online as though we’re experts in infectious diseases, logistics and policymaking, the Multi-Ministerial Task Force (MMTF) has worked ahead and planned out the tiered facilities.

For some perspective, the world now has 3,116,398 cases and 217,153 deaths, so fatality rate of 6.97%.

The US has 1.03 million cases and 58,955 deaths, so fatality rate of 5.72%.

Thailand has 2,938 cases and 54 deaths, so fatality rate of 1.83%.

Malaysia has 5,851 cases and 100 deaths, so fatality rate of 1.71%.

Singapore has a lot of cases due to aggressive testing being carried out and also because we’re testing in targeted communities with infected cases, for instance, the foreign worker clusters. We’ve now tested 1 in every 15 foreign workers and still going. Testing capacity has been ramped up from 2-3,000 in the earlier stage to the current 8,000 tests a day. There is hope that we can achieve 40,000 tests a day by the end of June.

As at 28 April, we have 14,951 cases and 14 deaths, so fatality rate of 0.09%. Mind you, despite the large base of infected cases, our fatality rate is not even 0.1%.

So I think we should not get unduly alarmed by the high number of infected cases every day.

In fact, we’re actually doing a little better than the world average in terms of fatality rate. Not gloating because we’re in absolutely no position to. But just want to make sure we’re seeing things with balanced perspective.

Let’s keep our eyes on whether we’ve been able to protect by monitoring the fatality and ICU numbers, and number of recovered/discharged cases.

What about protecting Singaporeans’ livelihoods?

It’s tough to balance protecting lives and livelihoods. The recent uproar about home-based businesses is one clear example.

With the no-no on delivery of home-baked and home-cooked stuff, many home-based businesses have found themselves at wit’s end. This is particularly so for the Malay Muslim community since many were banking on their customers’ orders for Raya festivities.

Noting the impact of the regulations on home-based businesses, Minister for Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli appealed for the public to unite in the country’s fight against COVID-19,


“I would like to thank the many parties who have come together to calm the situation and extended help to the HBBf operators. I am happy to know many HBBf operators themselves understand the rationale and the need for these painful measures.”

“We hope that the situation improves soon, so that HBBs can resume your operations while adhering to safe distancing measures. As my colleague, Minister Lawrence Wong has shared, the restrictions on HBBs may be eased if the community transmission numbers are brought down. If we all cooperate and stay calm, it will be in time for the Hari Raya orders. We are making progress, but we need to stay the course. Let’s continue to work together to beat COVID-19.”

So while we protect Singaporeans’ lives, what recourse do they have, then, if their home-based businesses have been affected due to the circuit breaker measures? Minister Masagos has some useful suggestions and tips in his post.

It’s clear from the three stimulus packages of $60 billion announced in two months that the Government is committed to supporting the livelihoods and protecting the working Singaporeans.

There are many different assistance schemes from the Unity, Resilience and Solidarity budgets to support SMEs, families, workers including freelancers and self-employed persons like home-based bakers, etc.

For employees

For people who are currently in a job, the Government is helping to support businesses to keep their workers through the Job Support Scheme (JSS) where they will pay 75% for the first $4,600 of monthly wages for every local worker in employment. This will greatly motivate businesses to keep their workers.

The Government has announced the extension of the JSS for another month through May since the circuit breaker has been extended till 1st June.

For self-employed persons (SEPs)

For the folks in home-based businesses, who are technically self-employed persons (SEPs), they can consider support initiatives, such as the Temporary Relief Fund (TRF) and the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS).

In fact, not just the Government, NTUC too is ready to step in and help.

Minister Lawrence Wong, co-chair for COVID-19 Multi-Ministerial Task Force (MMTF) said,

“There will be some sacrifices, not easy but we call on everyone to hunker down until May 4 at least, because we want to bring community numbers down decisively.

Sounds like there is hope that there might be some relaxation when the Government review in early May. Gotta watch the local community numbers closely. We cannot take the risk on Singaporeans’ lives.

When things get sufficiently better, we can be assured that MOH or the MMTF will consider lifting some of the restrictions. Perhaps then they will allow our barbers and home-based businesses to go back to do their business.

But this can only happen when we all work together #SGUnited

Saving lives or livelihoods: A false dilemma?

We can be reasonably certain of two things: If we do not stop the virus, many people will die. But if in our attempt to save lives, we lockdown the country for so long that it severely damages our economy, then many people will also die. From the loss of livelihoods.

At face value, there appears to be a trade-off to make: either save lives or protect livelihoods. But if you think about it, it’s a false dilemma, isn’t it? I’m of the view that getting the virus under control is a prerequisite to saving livelihoods.

At this point, I’m so grateful that we have a strong war-chest of national reserves, so that during this period of practically shutting down the economy to protect lives, the reserves are our resources. Resources to support lives in terms of operating the healthcare system, implementing the tiered medical plans, and hence, yes, to support livelihoods for Singaporeans by way of the various assistance schemes like JSS and SIRS.

To solve the conundrum of how to save lives without killing our livelihoods, we must find ways to make lockdowns and circuit breakers effective, such that we can contain the virus ASAP. The effectiveness of lockdowns and circuit breakers will be measured in their ability to control the spread of COVID-19.

So from now till 1st June, please do your part and stay home so that we can quickly move to the next phase of “We’ve protected lives, so let’s now protect livelihoods” and work on reviving the economy.


(Featured image via)


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Qiqi Wong

Author Qiqi Wong

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