In an interview with a newspaper down under called The Australian, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked about English news site The Economist labelling Singapore as the most successful country in dealing with the COVID-19.
In response, he said, “Well, we are flattered, but we are actually very deeply concerned for ourselves, as well as for the wider world we live in. It is a very difficult virus to eradicate. It is one which is dangerous enough to cause considerable human suffering and death, and even greater anxiety and fear. It has brought the whole economy to a halt in so many countries.”
He added that this problem is “going to catch fire in many countries, and is going to take a long time to burn out.”
In dealing with the outbreak, Singapore has implemented several strategies in hopes of curbing further the spread of COVID-19. PM Lee noted that in Singapore, as soon as the country received its first suspected case of COVID-19, all ministers sat together to respond to this case in a comprehensive manner. It is not only a problem for doctors and hospitals, but also for all parties, said the premier.
Besides that, social strategies were also implemented to reassure the public and maintain good communication on top of the national preparation for hoarding and ensuring that stocks are sufficient in Singapore. The country also has to make sure it can cooperate with other countries to keep the borders safe while not sacrificing essential trade.
PM Lee continued, “If I made an analogy – it is not that the tide has turned, it is that we put the dykes up. We are watching very carefully to see where water may leak in, and if you take your eyes off it for a moment, suddenly I have an outbreak.”
Trust and cooperation from all parties has helped Singapore curb the spread of COVID-19
When asked how Singapore has managed to successfully prevent the transmission within such a densely populated population, PM Lee responded, “I would not say we have successfully prevented. I think I would say so far we have reasonably successfully hindered the transmission.”
To hinder the spread of COVID-19, the government has encouraged people to take their own temperatures, said PM Lee. If they are sick, they are asked to see a doctor. In addition, PM Lee noted that the government has also set up a network of Public Health Preparedness Clinics (PHPC) – basically fever clinics to see and assess the people – which would allow for early detection and prevent an infected person from spreading the virus to others.
Another measure that has helped on this front is Singapore’s contact tracing method. PM Lee explained that once a case is detected, the relevant authorities work hard to contact trace.
“Who are the people you have met within the last two weeks, where have you been, what have you done, who may have been exposed to you. We make every effort to trace those people down as well, and to put the immediate contacts either on notice or on quarantine, depending on whether they have symptoms.”
He added that it is a labour intensive process, but it is helpful in preventing one single case from becoming many hundred cases, elaborating that the country has managed to contact trace several thousand of people already.
The third factor, said PM Lee, is that people are cooperative.
“When we tell people to introduce their Business Continuity Plans (BCP) and to go on to split shifts or to work at home, many companies are doing that. Many businesses have made these arrangements. People are working at home.”
He continued, “Times are hard for them but what to do, these are hard times and the government will do what it can to give some succour and help to the whole economy, and especially the most affected parts of the economy.”
PM Lee was also asked how many COVID-19 tests Singapore has carried out so far. He responded that while he didn’t have that information at hand, he knows that Singapore has the capacity to conduct a few thousand a day. He added, “We have been doing this now for two months, so it must be tens of thousands.”
On the subject of cooperation, the interviewer asked if the success PM Lee has had reflects on the social spirit of Singaporeans who seem to be more cooperative with their own government compared to people in other countries.
To this, PM Lee said, “Well, I think it is a great help for us that people listen to the government, they trust the mainstream media, they accept our explanations, and they appreciate the fact that we have gone to enormous lengths to be transparent and to explain to people in a timely way, what is happening, where they have to take precautions, what the prospects are going to be.”
He added that the daily press conferences held by the multi-ministerial task force charged with managing the outbreak as well as his televised broadcasts has served as reassurance to the people, which helps them understand just how serious the situation is.
“It helps to go into this with some social capital and some trust, but you have to build on that during the crisis. Because if you do not, and people start to doubt what they are told, or think that facts are being withheld, you will be in deep trouble very quickly,” he continued.
There is an enormous economic and human cost
The interviewer then asked PM Lee about Singapore’s border control measures.
Singapore first implemented a ban on travellers from Wuhan on 31 January, as announced by Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong. As of early March, travellers from Iran, South Korea, and northern Italy have also been banned from entering Singapore.
PM Lee said, when asked about strict travel restrictions for flights, “We have progressively tightened up. At first, arrivals from certain places were blocked, because these were places which had very high incidence of the infection, but now we have moved to the position where arrivals from all countries have to be quarantined when they arrive.”
“Effectively, it is almost a shutdown, except that our own people coming home from overseas are still able to come home, and we are bringing them back. Some of them are coming back infected, and we are tracking them closely and making sure they get identified and treated quickly.”
When asked about the nature of quarantine measures in Singapore, PM Lee replied, “It depends. In most cases, it is self-isolation, but we will check on you at random times and buzz you, and you have to prove that you are where you are supposed to be.”
The interviewer then asked the premier how long he thinks COVID-19 will last. PM Lee said, “I am not a specialist; I can only go by what I read and reasonable inferences from that. But looking at the behaviour of the disease and the way it is jumping from country to country, you can push it down within a country, but it has not disappeared worldwide, so I think this is going to be with us for quite some time.”
Again referring to China, he noted, “By dint of Herculean effort, they locked down drastically many of their cities, and brought their domestic cases to zero. But they are at risk now from imported cases from all over the world. So what do they do? Do they shut themselves off from the world, or do they carefully open up, knowing that this is going to let the virus back in?”
PM Lee also continued, “Their population is not immune to it yet, in very large numbers. Because even if a million Chinese have got the virus so far, that still leaves almost 1.4 billion who have not yet, and are still, in immunological terms, naive and at risk.”
He said that what can be hoped for is to control the spread of the disease, hold that position, and “hope and pray” that scientists come up with a vaccine or treatment within a year or two and in time for everyone to get out of this “without the doomsday scenario”.
“Either it is going to leave you with huge casualties or it is going to take forever, and to lock down forever,” he said, adding that he also thinks there is an enormous economic and human cost.
According to Gov.sg, Singapore has confirmed 23 new cases on 22 March which includes 18 imported cases that have travel history to Europe, North America, South America, and ASEAN. All except one were returning residents and Long Term Pass holders.
One person (Case 443) is linked to the cluster at boulder+ Gym, and two people are linked to previous cases (Case 442 is linked to Case 398; and Case 451 is linked to Case 404). Whereas, two (Cases 434 and 450) are currently unlinked.