Could Singapore have anticipated and better prevented recent Covid-19 spike?
Singapore is in the grip of a Covid-19 outbreak and military lexicon may be used to explain the authorities’ response. There are two types of surprises: Fundamental and situational.
Singapore is in the grip of a Covid-19 outbreak and military lexicon may be used to explain the authorities’ response.
There are two types of surprises: Fundamental and situational.
A fundamental surprise is one where the authorities’ conceptual framework is irrelevant towards the issue at hand. Thus, they are unable to respond to the situation relevantly.
A situational surprise is one where the issue is within their conceptual framework.
They are nonetheless taken aback for a lack of information, inability to resolve conflicting demands, indecisiveness and other reasons.
With good leadership, however, the setback can be efficiently mitigated.
When the first Covid-19 cases were reported here, the authorities’ conceptual framework was based on their experience dealing with the severe acute respiratory syndrome.
This framework was by and large relevant. With more information, the Government took appropriate action.
This led to a heavy reliance on a medical-based scientific strategy.
The problem with such an approach is the lag in getting the accepted science needed for timely decision-making. Many countries that have had some success in fighting Covid-19 adopted a more risk-averse approach.
Both approaches are not mutually exclusive.
Last year, the authorities were aware of the potential for an exponential outbreak in dormitories housing migrant workers.
But why was it not better prevented in the initial stages?
Could this be attributed to factors such as the economic costs of work stoppages or the enormity of dispersing and housing hundreds of thousands of workers?
Tough decisions were eventually made, but at a high cost.
The present outbreak caused largely by the B1617 variant is not something that happened beyond the authorities’ conceptual framework.
Did they, for instance, consider banning flights from areas with escalating outbreaks in early April?
And did they look into possible measures to ringfence high-risk visitors at the airport in the early stages?
This was a situational surprise not caused by a lack of information or issues that constrained decision-making, but other factors on which we can only speculate.
One possible factor is the strong bias towards “livelihoods” as the cognitive anchor.
Statements such as “we cannot afford to close our borders completely” have the danger of inhibiting our thinking and action.
Could another factor have been a reliance on systems and protocols, rather than entrusting the best person with the resources and authority to get things done?
The pandemic has drawn into sharp focus the tensions between protecting lives and preserving livelihoods, which are both complementary and contradictory.
We are dependent on external labour sources. Yet we have not found creative solutions to resolve the tensions between protecting lives and preserving livelihoods.
Can we win against the coronavirus?
Winning means people feel safe, notwithstanding Covid-19’s presence.
This condition can come about if essential medical services and measures are available and constantly upgraded to stay a step ahead of mutations.
Until such a time, our strategies will have to harmonise the tensions between protecting lives and preserving livelihoods.
ABOUT THE WRITER:
Brigadier-General (Retired) Law Chwee Kiat served for 30 years in the Singapore Armed Forces. He retired from active service in 2000 and his last appointment was commander of the Training and Doctrine Command.
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