Expert Speak Health Express
Published on Aug 04, 2020
Singapore hits 50,000 COVID19 cases, What’s next?

On 26 July 2020, COVID-19 cases in Singapore hit 50,000. For a country with a population of about 5.5 million, that brings the total cases close to 1% of the population. To put this number into context, Hong Kong with a population of 7.4 million has only about 3000 cases, which is approximately 0.05% of the total population.

Figure 1: Cumulative Confirmed Covid-19 Cases in Singapore

Source: Our World in Data

So, what is happening in Singapore? For the past two months (June-July), the average number of new cases per day has hovered around 300 in the island state. In the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) press briefings, these numbers are broken down into those within the “community” and those outside. The number of cases within the community is also broken into Singaporeans/PRs and others. Cases outside the “community”, which form the bulk of the new cases, are largely from the migrant worker dormitories.

And, young Singaporeans are not happy about this. They are not only dissatisfied with the government’s handling of the pandemic but are also raising questions about how deaths from COVID-19 are being recorded. In fact, the migrant worker issue along with other prominent topics (e.g. disadvantage to Singaporean workers in the job market) has significantly shaped the results of the 2020 general election. It was for the first time in the history of independent Singapore that the People’s Action Party (PAP) has lost 10 seats to the opposition (the Worker’s Party).

Recently, an online petition at change.org, demanded that Dr Paul Tambyah of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) be appointed as the head of the multi-ministry task force leading the fight against COVID-19 in Singapore. Dr Tambyah is the first Singaporean to head the US-based International Society for Infectious Diseases and it was argued that his expertise in this field makes him the most capable candidate.

The government, on the other hand, has been listening and responding. Between January and May, it has already announced four supplementary budgets amounting to about 90 billion SGD to provide cushion to both households and businesses. At the same time, it has ramped up its testing capacity, is clearing the migrant worker dormitories and creating protocols for the post-COVID-19 world.

The total number of deaths has been low for Singapore, standing at 27 as of 2 August 2020. The case fatality rate, which is the ratio of the number of confirmed deaths to the number of confirmed cases, has also remained below 0.1% since April. This is very likely the result of proactive measures taken by the government, especially to protect the vulnerable population, including prioritized testing of the staff and residents of elder care centers, regular wipe down schedules to sanitize schools and proactive management of erupting clusters of infection.

Figure 2 Case Fatality Rate in Singapore.

Source: Our World in Data

The government is also desperately trying to bring economic activity back on track. On 2 June, it implemented the Phase 1 reopening, which allowed some businesses to open with safe distancing measures in place. It also allowed house visits with a cap of two visitors per day and ensured that primary and secondary school students attend school daily in a safe environment. In less than three weeks, Phase 2 reopening was implemented on 18 June. This allowed many more businesses to reopen, public access to sports, parks and other facilities and resumption of other non-essential healthcare services.

Whether Singapore should have moved so quickly to resume economic activity is debatable. But one thing is clear, that the Singapore government, like many other governments in the world is running low in its appetite to keep economic activity closed for a longer period. It is clear that the virus is here to stay and that the sooner we change our practices and get accustomed to it, the better.

And Singapore too, is trying to adapt. On the health front, the government has created strict safe distancing protocols and is using technology like the SafeEntry app for contact tracing at all businesses. It has also implemented telecommuting, staggered work hours and online service provision in its departments to ensure that the public can receive important government services (e.g. renting social housing) safely.

It is also spending millions of dollars on re-skilling and training its workforce. The government’s flagship programs like SG United Skills program, Skills Future SG and SG United Traineeship programs have ramped up support. It now extends from fresh graduates to taxi drivers to prepare them for the post-COVID-19 world. Furthermore, the government is also incentivizing Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to go digital, especially focussing on customer-facing ones like food and retail.

However, one of the main challenges that Singapore faces is the creation of new jobs. The unemployment rate though low has reached a 10 year high, at 3.5% for Singaporeans. To tackle this, the government has launched the SG United Jobs initiative to create 40,000 jobs in the next year. Of this, 15,000 jobs will be created in the public sector. Furthermore, the government has also provided extensive job support which disincentivizes layoffs by employers, by covering some part of the wages. For a productivist state like Singapore, with a lean welfare system, job creation remains a priority.

While the ‘post-covid world’ has become a buzzword, there are only a few countries which have the bandwidth to tackle the pandemic and at the same time think about planning for the future. This requires not only a strong state with high policy capacity but also one which is agile and able to adapt as the virus throws in new opportunities and challenges. Singapore, it seems, is well-positioned to do that.

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Contributor

Mohnish Kedia

Mohnish Kedia

Mohnish is pursuing his PhD at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), National University of Singapore. He is theoretically interested in policy ...

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