Singapore's long game against Covid

Professor Simon Tay, a leading lawyer and academic based in Singapore, takes a closer look at the island nation's Covid situation and where the population of more than 5 million now stands in the fight against the pandemic.

As the government is easing some social distancing and workplace restrictions, some may ask about the management of the situation more generally.

Some seem to flout rules and should be stopped. Others may be anxious and keep indoors as much as possible. I think there is good reason for both caution but also confidence when we consider how Singapore is managing.

Few people seem willing to sum up where Singapore is right now in terms of managing the pandemic. This is probably a reaction to the earlier snafu when -- after being declared a “gold standard” – numbers increased among the community from returning Singaporeans and exploded among the foreign workers in the dormitories. People are cautious of seeming over-confident and puffed up about what has been done – pride goes before a fall is the proverb’s wisdom.

PM Lee Hsien Loong has acknowledged that the government might have done some things differently if more had been known about Covid-19 at the time. He said: “We must learn from these errors and do better the next time".

Indeed, Singapore today has done better. In the months since the numbers rose, Singapore has strengthened our capabilities to manage and respond. The facts and figures are not neatly from one source, but these are some facts that are worth summation:

 (1)   Testing: Capacity in Singapore is now above 30,000 laboratory tests a day. The present practice is to pool four specimens for testing, enabling around 90,000 tests per day. There are also efforts to develop a simpler saliva test. At present, Singapore has swab tested more than 1,000,000 people. This amounts to more than 18 percent of our resident population — one of the highest per capita rates globally.

(2)   Hospitalization: Singapore has more than doubled our ICU capacity. The holding capacity has also been increased by gearing up non-hospital facilities (e.g. Changi Expo) to cater to those with milder symptoms.

(3)   Tracing: Contact tracing was at first largely done manually but now the use of technology and devices make the process more efficient with safe-entry, Trace Together and now a “dongle”.

(4)   Vaccine: Singapore has joined with a number of different international coalitions. This aims to make sure we are early in the queues to secure supplies of possible vaccines. Singapore is also co-chairing a global initiative (The Covid-19 Vaccine Global Access (Covax) Facility) to secure Covid-19 vaccine doses for the world

(5)   Fatalities: Singapore has the lowest coronavirus case fatality count per capita in the world.

Reported cases in the community have been low. On 30 August, eight cases were reported. Since then it has been from zero to five. At the time of publication, Singapore has zero Covid-19 patients in intensive care, with 35 in a stable condition in hospital and a further 81 in community facilities.

Among those coming into the country, the enforcement of quarantine is now stricter. For the workers’ dorms, the situation requires constant watching -- some dorms that tested clean have reported new cases. But the large numbers that were suffered initially have come sharply down and rounds of testing have been completed.

Assessing the Current Situation

Based on the above information, how do we assess things? I acknowledge that each of us is entitled to our own opinion (but not our own facts). Based on the above summary of facts, here are some of my views about where Singapore is currently.

There is no solution at present, without a vaccine. But overall, the situation is being managed; not permanently solved but managed. Singapore at present has not suffered the second and third wave spikes seen in other some countries and cities that were initially successful in containing the virus.

Yes, I know saying this aloud may seem to risk hubris and a change of luck. To those who believe, take this as a blessing or else good fortune. But the point is not that the current numbers per se.

Consider when the pandemic first hit the foreign worker dormitories and spiked our national number of cases. I was on regional and international TV and the SIIA think tank I chair was also asked to report on the situation for the New York-based Council of Foreign Relations. Even then, amidst the uncertainty, I expressed confidence that with effort and resolve, our government agencies would respond to address the situation and that different agencies including relevant citizen groups, would pull together.

Rather than being worn down in these first long and intense months of the pandemic, Singapore’s capacity, experience, and capabilities to manage the situation have been sharpened and increased.

Today, in each of the key aspects -- testing, hospitalization, tracing, and efforts to obtain the vaccine and avoid fatalities – there has been an improvement. Taken together, our system to respond and manage the pandemic is stronger today. This is a point that is worth noting.

From this, I wonder why few seem to acknowledge this. One reason might, as I mentioned, be the fear of hubris or that a statement might jinx the situation. That’s quite understandable to me.

Another reason might be to deny credit to the government that the situation has not only been recovered but improved. Such a reason is, to me, less acceptable – especially when we think not only of our political leadership but of the hard work and dedication put in by front line workers.

What has been accomplished at this stage is not foolproof of course. All efforts must continue – not only at the frontline and by the government but in how we each act in our daily lives. A common acknowledgement of the situation can assist. At present, people seem to be reacting in very different ways.

Some are feckless as if social distancing rules no longer apply. Others may seem overanxious, hardly leaving the house.

Coming to a common understanding of the current situation can centre our responses and actions – even if each of us may have a different appetite for risk, the range of divergence can narrow.

In a world of uncertainty, caution is needed.

Yet looking at the facts above, while exercising caution, we who are in Singapore should have a sufficient measure of confidence.

- Asia Media Centre