Home / Opinion / Views /  Covid lessons from a small island country

When I set out for Singapore in April due to a family emergency, I was leaving a country reeling under a devastating second wave of covid. That month, India saw a massive shortage in oxygen supply, panicked social media appeals for help, and a terrifying lack of policy direction. In stark contrast, life had returned to normal for Singaporeans—malls, food hawkers and offices were open and Singapore’s handling of the pandemic was lauded; reflecting some of the lowest death toll globally, and case-count magnitudes per-capita.

Last month, Singapore’s Prime Minister stated that covid would become endemic, much like the common flu or dengue, while stressing the importance of building resilience and adjusting to a new normal. This televised statement came at a time when the country was averaging just under 30 cases a day and had administered vaccinations to over a third of its population—a testament to the attitude and foresight of Singapore’s remarkable recovery. Meanwhile, even as states in India have started to reopen, the majority of the population is still not vaccinated. With talks of a third wave approaching (and health being a state subject), I couldn’t help but think about what lessons state governments in India could potentially learn from the ‘Little Red Dot’.

Building upon the four pillars of testing, tracing, isolation and vaccination, Singapore acted quickly to implement user-centric solutions using technology in each of these areas coupled with prompt communication and enforcement. I caught my first glimpse of this strategy when I de-boarded the Vande Bharat flight from Bangalore to Singapore, which surprisingly had only 20 other passengers. Since most of the new cases here are imported from India and Indonesia, I wasn’t surprised to see more staff in the airport than passengers. Three days later, I received a call from the ministry of health asking me to take a free covid test as someone on my flight had tested positive for covid.

There’s no denying the efficacy of Singapore’s measures; there’s been less than 30 cases outside quarantine in the past week and an overall death toll of 35 due to covid to date. When accounting for the population density, this lends itself to among the lowest mortality rates globally. Yet, complacency hasn’t set in. Even with almost half the population being vaccinated, the pandemic continues to make its presence felt in everyday life through stringent and swift government action. Whether or not it’s an overkill, one thing is certain—the government is leveraging and deploying resources based on data.

This wasn’t the first time they were grappling with an invisible killer. Singapore’s experience with the 2003 Sars and 2009 H1N1 outbreak had taught them some valuable lessons on preparing for a future pandemic, giving rise to the DORSCON framework that guided their covid response. Perhaps this explains why they were amongst the earliest to detect and mitigate covid at a time when the influx of Lunar New Year travel could have resulted in a catastrophe. This iterative mindset and willingness to learn from their past is further exemplified in their recent testing efforts of migrant workers, given the first wave outbreak occurred in worker dorms where the B.1.617.2 variant was found. While such solutions are expensive for a country like India, the economic activity lost because of the second wave is worse.

As countries grapple with the trade-off between saving lives and protecting the economy, Singapore instituted some innovative win-win solutions. For instance, the SHN (stay home notice) mandates all inbound travelers to quarantine themselves for 14 days, most frequently in hotels, at a subsidized fee. By isolating passengers, Singapore has been able to stop new variants from spreading while also supporting the hard-hit hospitality industry. Over 2,300 workers were employed last year to accommodate 160,000 guests serving SHN. Cabin crew were also deployed as safe distance ambassadors to ensure social distancing. As India’s hospitality industry suffers, public-private partnerships like this could give it a much needed push while improving labour employability. Travellers from high-risk countries can be mandated into quarantine in low-cost OYOs or high-end hotels with strict enforcement of quarantine rules. Isolating imported cases is critical for India to prevent further variants of the virus from spreading.

Singapore’s journey with the pandemic did not come without problems. Singapore’s contact-tracing app, TraceTogether, was launched early last year. From small grocery stores to large offices, citizens were mandated to scan a QR code at every entrance (eldery without smartphones could use a contactless token). Earlier this year, it was revealed that user data from TraceTogether could be obtained by Singaporean law enforcement for criminal investigations. The ensuing public outcry led to the government taking full responsibility, acknowledging their error and passing legislation restricting such use. Arogya Setu, the Indian version of such an app, is plagued by citizens’ concern over data protection and privacy, thereby affecting its usage. Ensuring transparency with the Arogya Setu app could do wonders to increase its use.

In many ways, my visit to Singapore has been eye-opening. A week before I arrived, I was stopped and fined for driving without a mask in Bangalore. As I paid the fine, I tried to reason with the police officer how being vaccinated and driving in a car alone with my windows rolled up (allowed in Singapore!) would not affect anyone. He replied, “There are thousands of cases, we must do all we can!". I thought back to the election rallies held that week that were swallowed up by massive crowds, and the packed pubs that seemingly didn’t close. When I inquired about the many crowded bars that were still open, the officer replied defensively, exclaiming how those establishments were owned and run by politicians and were hence untouchable. This was a reminder that perhaps some of our issues with the pandemic stem from a deeper societal issue of rules not applying equally to all. In Singapore, it appears that nobody is above the law. Those outlets breaking rules here are named and shamed in local media and subjected to hefty fines. This approach has allowed the government in Singapore to channel more of its energies on resolving the pandemic’s challenges.

When I asked a cab driver how Singaporeans lived through this new normal, he said, “It’s simple. We just follow the rules. All of us just do our bit". Singapore’s approach is not easily replicable and the country has undoubtedly benefited from a strong economy and a small yet disciplined population. Yet, Singapore’s effective governance is a north star for all countries, including India, especially as we take stock of the broken systems that have uncovered themselves during the covid crisis.

These are the author’s personal views.

Shubhojit Ghose holds an economics degree from Erasmus University and is a Schwarzman Scholar from Tsinghua University. Twitter: @ShubhojitGhose

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