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What Singapore’s Covid-19 review should look at

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong told Parliament earlier this month that the Government has commenced a review on its management of Covid-19 during the first phase of the outbreak to August 2021, where the focus was containing the spread of the virus.

What Singapore’s Covid-19 review should look at

The author said that one question the review should explore is whether Singapore could have done things differently to better support migrant workers’ mental well-being during the first phase of the outbreak.

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong told Parliament earlier this month that the Government has commenced a review on its management of Covid-19 during the first phase of the outbreak to August 2021, where the focus was containing the spread of the virus.

Differences in opinion over Singapore’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak essentially fall back to a central dilemma — to what extent should minimising public health risks take priority over the economic and social costs of virus containment measures?

To complicate matters, it is the senior population that is most at risk of severe illness, whereas the young and lower-income workers bear a disproportionate share of the costs.

While the economic fallout from strict Covid-19 controls has been cushioned by generous fiscal support, including through the Jobs Support Scheme, the emotional and mental health costs arising from prolonged isolation and uncertainty are harder to measure and mitigate.

The toll has been especially heavy on the 300,000 migrant workers who have largely been confined to their dormitories and worksites since April 2020.

DORMITORY CLUSTERS

One question that this review should explore is whether we could have done things differently to better support migrant workers’ mental well-being during the first phase of the outbreak.

If not, what were the key limitations that constrained our response, and can they be planned away? 

It is important to acknowledge how limited testing capacity and resource constraints prevented us from ramping up mass testing and rehousing workers in crowded dormitories to lower-density environments before the first dormitory cluster was identified on March 30, 2020.  

Since then, the Government has taken various steps to reduce the risk of future outbreaks in the dormitories.

In September 2021, the Manpower Ministry published new density standards that require upcoming dormitories to cap room occupancy at 12 residents, and provide one en-suite bathroom for every six residents.

The Government is currently building two new dormitories to lower the density in existing ones.

To provide better support for migrant workers with mental health issues, the Manpower Ministry is working more closely with non-governmental organisations, and has also created a new division to ensure a firm government presence in the dormitories. 

The review would be a good time for the Government to signal with more clarity what all these actions, taken together, mean for future pandemic protocols in the dormitories —  including which elements of the current protocols are provisional and which are here to stay.

Some migrant rights groups have voiced concerns that the new dormitory standards do not go far enough to improve the welfare of workers, while other Singaporeans maintain a "not in my backyard" (Nimby) mindset and are less enthusiastic about having new dormitories sited near their homes.

What kind of compromise are we as a society willing to accept for these workers?

PUBLIC MESSAGING

Public communications continues to be a major aspect of the Government’s Covid-19 response, and a challenging one.

Divisions in public opinion only widened as the pandemic dragged on. While some went so far as to petition for the August 2021 National Day Parade to be postponed, others were worn down by the protracted lockdown and questioned if the Government’s deliberate decision to roll back control measures gradually rather than suddenly was overly cautious. 

For the most part, timely and transparent communications from the Government as the Covid-19 situation evolved helped most people understand the rationale behind continuously changing protocols.

This gave the Government the flexibility to adapt and tweak measures as more information and data came in. 

This state of affairs cannot be taken for granted. There is a risk of complacency now that Singapore has firmly exited from the “zero-Covid” strategy with an enviably low fatality rate.

With the population vaccination rate plateauing at 92 per cent, it is not certain that all Singaporeans will be willing to accept the same movement controls that they endured back in 2020 if a new Covid-19 variant of concern or high consequence emerges.

The review should look at whether the adoption of phased restrictions to dining out and social gatherings can be further simplified into fewer phases. 

Where possible, rules should be made easier for Singaporeans to rationalise, so that they can be consistently applied. The simple-to-understand Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) framework is Singapore’s default crisis response plan for disease outbreaks but appears to have been overshadowed by the many Covid-19 rules. 

It is worth exploring how communication and operations protocols can be mapped into the Dorscon framework.

SPLITTING THE COSTS

A final question that the review should explore is whether we could have extracted more efficiency out of the whole system of measures that were implemented, to expedite our return to normalcy.

One major roadblock faced by Singapore on the path to normalcy was persistently low vaccination rates among the elderly.

This was a key factor behind the Government’s decision to walk back on economic reopening in July 2021 when community cases spiked.

Seniors aged 70 and above were the first group to be offered vaccination in January 2021, but had the lowest take-up rate at the time, around 70 per cent. 

Considerable effort was made to help seniors overcome vaccine hesitancy, including grassroots outreach and cash vouchers for those who successfully persuaded the elderly to get their jabs.

While seniors who were less educated and had less social contact were more likely to be holding off on the vaccine, many of them agreed to get the jab eventually.

Vaccination rates crept up after unvaccinated individuals were barred from entry to shopping malls on Oct 13, 2021, and when the Government announced on Nov 8 that it would stop footing the bills for Covid-19 patients who were unvaccinated by choice.

The review should consider to what extent these last two measures were instrumental to tipping more vaccine-hesitant people over the line.

If so, should these measures have been taken or signalled sooner, after allowing a reasonable amount of time to elapse from when the vaccination rollout was started?

Such an approach could go some way towards ensuring that the heavy cost of virus containment is more fairly distributed, especially when Singapore’s reopening plan is pegged to the level of vaccinations.

In summary, the Government’s promised review of its Covid-19 response is an important one. 

It is a time for us to reflect on the difficult trade-offs that have been made over the last two years, and to explore how government signalling and policy could be refined in our response to future scenarios. 

Having open conversations will also allow the Government to win the public buy-in that it needs to tackle deeper vulnerabilities at their root. 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 
Andrew Yeo is Asia Practice Lead and Head of Singapore for Global Counsel, a public policy advisory firm.

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