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Letter from… Singapore

07 April 2020

By Bob Ong, Associate Director, Newgate Singapore

#SGUnited. It is not just a hashtag. It is the banner under which the community in Singapore is fighting the COVID-19 outbreak. It calls for everyone in Singapore to help one another through this difficult time.

The need for everyone to do their part is especially important here, as the country’s high population density has given rise to new challenges in a world where “social distancing” are the new watchwords. Singapore has a population density of around 7,900 people per sq km, compared, for example, to the City of London’s population density of less than 2,700 people per sq km. To suppress the spread of the virus, everyone needs to be civic-minded and responsible.

Singapore’s government has been preparing to deal with such a situation since the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak killed 33 people in the country. Over the past 17 years, it has further upgraded Singapore’s healthcare infrastructure and developed systems to trace the spread of infections.

These days, 20 teams of investigators conduct interviews and comb through CCTV footage to map out everything each COVID‑19 patient did over the two weeks prior to being diagnosed with the virus so as to identify and quarantine those who may have been infected by extension. The government has also developed and encouraged people to download a mobile application that leverages Bluetooth signals to detect users that come within close proximity of each other, enabling authorities to quickly and more accurately initiate contact tracing processes.

In addition, the country’s borders have been closed to all short-term visitors. Long-term pass holders require approval before they can re-enter and have to comply with a 14-day Stay-Home Notice (SHN) upon entry. Regular checks to ensure compliance with the SHNs are conducted through surprise house visits and phone calls, as well as web-based and mobile application surveillance solutions.

Nonetheless, the country reported its first COVID-19-related death two weeks ago, and local transmission of the virus increased over the past week. In the two and half months since the first COVID-19 case surfaced in Singapore, 1,481 people have contracted the virus and six have died from it.

The government therefore announced last week that after tightening control measures incrementally for around 10 weeks, it will be making a decisive move to pre-empt escalating infections by closing most workplaces, except for those used by essential services and key economic sectors, and fully transiting schools to home-based learning for an initial period of one month starting from today. Most people in Singapore are now working and studying from home.

Interestingly, while the latest measures are the most stringent till date, the scale of the ‘panic buying’ that ensued has been relatively subdued compared to the scale in early February, when fears about the virus first took root. Noting the government’s message that the country’s supply lines are intact and that hoarding will only put unnecessary strain on otherwise sufficient supplies, people are reassuring each other and encouraging graciousness. Ordering groceries online has also become more commonplace.

No one knows how long the pandemic will last and when better days will return, but we know that we are in this together. Daily government WhatsApp alerts with the latest updates of the situation in the country remind us too that “the health of all depends on each one of us”. We hold on to that and believe that united, we can overcome.