I read with alarm the news on Case 152 involving a 65-year-old Indonesian man who was tested positive on March 8, a day after arriving in Singapore and less than a week after he attempted to get treatment at a Jakarta hospital for COVID-19-like symptoms on March 2.
This case may herald the arrival of COVID-19 patients into Singapore from our region, if not worldwide, as they are attracted by Singapore’s enviable COVID-19 treatment record to date with no deaths yet, and by her healthcare infrastructure of high standard and quality.
I am of the view that such a development would be dangerous to Singapore’s COVID-19 defence.
The issue is not about foreigners wanting to be treated for COVID-19 in Singapore for free. In fact, there would be no shortage of foreigners who can afford and prefer to seek treatment for COVID-19 in Singapore as we have already witnessed the overloading, if not collapse, of a number of countries’ healthcare system due to the sudden spike in confirmed cases in their countries. Therefore, having access to medical treatment can no longer be taken for granted even for those who are not poor.
If Singapore should face an onslaught of medical tourists seeking COVID-19 treatment here, then at certain point it may result in locals having to compete with foreigners for isolation wards and life support machines, which are in limited supply in Singapore.
If such competition should occur, then it may not be limited to public hospitals but may occur in private hospitals which have even less isolation and ICU rooms as compared with public hospitals. Therefore, the impact of such competition may well be felt by the entire spectrum of Singapore society, especially if community transmissions become more common in Singapore.
Accordingly, it is important for the Government to develop a fair, transparent policy to address the issue before planes loaded with medical tourists start to arrive on our shore seeking COVID-19 treatment, especially given the exponential growth rate of confirmed cases once community transmission outbreaks occur.
I understand that it would be a tough decision for the Government to make, given the many other related issues to be resolved to make the implementation of any resulting policy practical and efficient.
But now is the time for politicians and bureaucrats to exercise foresight to urgently address the issue in a thoughtful, comprehensive manner. This is to avoid any chaos from happening given that the epidemic, if not pandemic, is likely to persist for at least the rest of 2020.
Being a magnet to medical tourists seeking COVID-19 treatment may also deter healthy travellers from coming to Singapore due to the risk of being infected by such medical tourists while travelling on the same plane.
If coming back to Singapore may be a health hazard, then it may well be a triple whammy for locals who need to make necessary trips overseas. This is in terms of first the risk of infection whilst overseas, second the exposure to infection whilst on the plane coming back, and third the risk of not being able to obtain COVID-19 upon returning to Singapore due to local healthcare resources having been consumed by such medical tourists.
Obviously, it would take more than a simplistic policy of denying COVID-19 medical tourists entry to Singapore or even punishing them for making such a trip to Singapore. But such a policy would simply encourage such medical tourists to take evasive measures like taking relevant medication to suppress the symptoms of COVID-19 for the duration of the journey to Singapore.
One possible solution may be for the Government to accredit suitable healthcare institutions to conduct rapid diagnosis of COVID-19, which would meet the standard of reliability acceptable to the Government so that foreigners transiting or travelling to Singapore must obtain a certificate of clearance before boarding their flight to Singapore.
Such a measure can also offer economic opportunities to healthcare companies in Singapore, turning crisis into opportunity to further develop the reputation and scale of local healthcare sector across the world.
Indeed, one would expect Singapore-developed innovations in rapid diagnostic testing of COVID-19 to achieve much lower unit cost once economy of scale is achieved through the de facto export of our relevant products. This would eventually benefit Singapore society through a reduction in government subsidy on COVID-19 tests.
By foreclosing a major potential source of inbound infection risk, Singapore will not only be a safer place in the face of a possible COVID-19 pandemic, but it will give foreigners who need to make necessary trips to Singapore a greater confidence in the safety of doing so. As such, it will help Singapore to maintain its status as an international travel, leisure, business and financial hub in the midst of this enormous challenge of our time.