Analysing Singapore’s response to COVID-19

Moderator Dr Gillian Koh (far left) and panel experts (from left) Assoc Prof Vernon Lee, Mr Barnabas Gan, Dr Carol Soon and Dr Shashi Jayakumar

How has Singapore rallied to the fight against COVID-19? A forum examined the impact of the coronavirus on the nation and how it responded, summing up the good, the bad and the ugly.

The forum, by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS, went live on the Institute’s Facebook on 25 Feb. Moderator Dr Gillian Koh, IPS Deputy Director (Research), recapped the chain of key events starting from 3 Jan when China reported its first cases and Singapore responded with temperature screening for travellers from Wuhan where the novel virus originated. This was followed by screening for all China visitors from 22 Jan. On 7 Feb, Singapore raised its alert level from yellow to orange.

The forum, which included an open discussion with questions from the public, was manned by a panel of experts comprising:

  • Adjunct Associate Professor Vernon Lee with the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health who is also Director (Communicable Diseases) with the Ministry of Health;
  • Mr Barnabas Gan, Vice President and Economist with United Overseas Bank;
  • Dr Carol Soon, IPS Senior Research Fellow; and
  • Dr Shashi Jayakumar, Senior Fellow and Head, Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Battling the virus

Assoc Prof Lee, a preventive medicine specialist who has previously worked on pandemic preparedness with the World Health Organization (WHO), discussed the medical impact.

“The amount of information we know about this virus in such a short period of time is unprecedented. But we need more time to understand how the virus transmits – its severity and so on,” he said.

Pinpointing the mortality rate would depend on the total number of deaths against the total number of people infected. The challenge was in detecting the milder cases which could turn out to be severe later, he said.

Though Singapore has a robust surveillance system, it will always be at risk of having more cases, being a global hub. “We have to work together as a global community as the disease does not have boundaries,” said Assoc Prof Lee.

Battling the slowdown and infodemic

Mr Gan, who has held research positions in the Prime Minister’s Office of Singapore where he performed risk assessments, commented on the impact on Singapore’s economy. Tourism will be directly hit, projected to suffer a loss of up to $8 billion. There will be knock-on effect on the aviation, retail, food and beverage, manufacturing and other sectors. Under Budget 2020, the government has rolled out $5.6 billion to cushion the slowdown. Mr Gan also noted that Singapore would have a remaining surplus of almost $8 billion to push out if needed.

Besides dealing with an epidemic, Singapore also wrestled with “infodemic” – an avalanche of information laced with a dose of falsehood, some xenophobic in nature, said Dr Soon who tracks trends on social media. The application of POFMA (the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act) to debunk such falsehoods was positive and key to stemming the spread swiftly, she added.

The public also grappled with “information gaps”, said Dr Soon. For example, what did mild and severe symptoms really mean, or terms like local and community transmission? Greater focus was given to the human side of the problem only within the last seven or 10 days, when the mainstream media carried stories on the patients’ experience in hospital, as well as explanations from health experts, she said.

Bouncing back

Discussing Singapore’s ability to bounce back from COVID-19, Dr Jayakumar described the threat as slow burning and debilitating. According to him, think tanks closely related to the government are increasingly working on such slow-burning issues. But bouncing back to what Singapore has been used to all this while – what he called “super normalcy” because of the nation’s high degree of security – may also be a slow process.

Rounding up the forum, panellists were on the same note that COVID-19 has at least brought out the good along with the bad and the ugly.

Dr Jayakumar recalled how he was on a Grab ride when someone knocked on the car window to offer a gift to the driver, thanking him for being on the frontline. Dr Koh gave the example of a national institution which implemented a salary freeze to raise fund for COVID-19 sufferers. Then there were also heartfelt notes cheering health workers on. Dr Soon also mentioned how people were making their own videos in different vernacular languages to reinforce messages by the Ministry of Health. “These are great initiatives. Moving forward, we hope to see more of these,” she said.

For those who missed the IPS forum live, a full recording is available on the IPS Facebook page.


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