Blaming the spike of COVID-19 cases on low-wage migrant workers is a “myopic” thing to do, said Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious disease specialist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital.
Dr Leong was one of the panellists in a webinar titled “The COVID-19 Crisis: Through Medical, Economic and Legal Lenses”.
The webinar was held by the Workers’ Party’s Youth Wing last Saturday (25 April) via video conferencing app Zoom.
While he acknowledged that employers are seeking to cut costs and bring up productivity, they should not only be protecting “white-collar” workers in business continuity plans, as the welfare of “blue-collar” workers need to be taken into account as well.
The COVID-19 outbreak, Dr Leong stressed, “literally tears” at every government and healthcare system, due to its unprecedented and invisible nature.
Even medical professionals are struggling to keep up with the ongoing influx of new information regarding how the virus develops.
Noting that the current understanding of COVID-19 is “very different” from virus outbreaks in the past, Dr Leong said that medical practitioners dealing with the virus are rapidly “changing our recommendations” according to the pace of knowledge obtained.
“As we gain knowledge, we change our tactic and cope with it,” he said. “The best analogy I can think of is that we are told to charge eastward … But the horse will be smarter than the rider. When it sees a cliff, the horse will stop, but the rider will jump forward.”
“As we see an obstacle, we realise we are making a mistake, and then make changes … But it makes things difficult for people on the ground, because we seem to be swaying and changing at our flight and fancy.
“We don’t seem to be on top of the situation, because we are discovering the behaviour of the viruses day by day,” Dr Leong explained.
He added that infectious disease doctors such as himself face a predicament where if they produce recommendations that are too strong, they will “end up strangulating the economy” for very mild illnesses.
“Look at WHO. 2009, H1N1 … They said, ‘Look, why did you call such simple flu a pandemic, and why did you strangulate all of us so much?’ Then, if we are too lax and there are too many cases, they will say we didn’t try hard enough to control the infection,” said Dr Leong.
“Either way, I know I would be crucified,” he quipped.
Echoing co-panellist Senior Counsel Harpreet Singh’s statement, Dr Leong said that every epidemic will change the world for the better as such crises pave the way for improvements
During the webinar’s Q&A session, a viewer raised the question of whether Singapore should adopt the “herd immunity” strategy in combating the COVID-19 outbreak.
In response, Dr Leong said: “No, herd immunity doesn’t play out, because in order for that to happen, 60 per cent to 80% of the people will need to be infected with the virus. We cannot afford this to happen.”
“The irony is the more cooperative and closely-knit a society is, the better it will fare in the crisis, because we do so by staying apart,” he stressed.
COVID-19 vaccine only ready in 12 months
When asked about Singapore’s progress in dealing with the virus, Dr Leong predicted that the country will come out of the COVID-19 crisis in late May or June.
As for the vaccine of the virus, Dr Leong hinted that the earliest for the vaccine to be ready is after 12 months.
“I know the Oxford Vaccine Group is trying to pre-make one vaccine with one million doses ready in September,” he stated.
However, Dr Leong stressed that the vaccine must go through the whole process of testing before being released to the public, as it is important to ensure that the vaccine is safe to be used.
“There are many vaccines and drugs that are being tested, which works well on a petri dish but when it comes to human beings testing, it ended up with more complications and side effects. We cannot recommend a vaccine that will harm, we need to make sure that it works,” said Dr Leong.
Nevertheless, he noted that the whole medical profession is improving as many doctors are exchanging information from different countries.
Social distancing ranked more effective than wearing a mask, according to evidence
Responding to a question from a viewer on lessons Singapore should learn from the outbreak, Dr Leong cited the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 which prompted the Government to start stockpiling equipment for medical staff.
The SARS outbreak, he said, was “a major blessing” for Singapore in terms of improving future crisis management, as it sprouted the establishment of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) and the present stockpile of PPE.
“If you think about it, these equipments have been stockpiled from 2004 to 2020. That’s 16 years of stockpiling, and these things are actually decaying with expiry dates,” he said, adding that Singapore has now learnt that COVID-19 is more transmissible than SARS.
In contrast, frontline healthcare workers in the United States — — are looking after people in the absence of protective gear, or while wearing protective equipment that barely lasts for a day or two, said Dr Leong.
Touching on another part of the viewer’s question — the issue of masks — Dr Leong noted that the doctors’ decision was based on the best evidence which indicated social distancing as the first level evidence that proved to be effective. The second level is washing hands regularly, and the third level – which is the lowest – is wearing a mask.
“Masks, scientifically in a large setting, actually work very well and this is why our healthcare workers are protected because we know how to use it and we use it properly,” he explained. “But if you give it to common people, a layperson who doesn’t wear it properly, you are effectively losing masks.”
Other countries that also underwent major outbreaks such as South Korea are also learning to adapt to and control the situation, said Dr Leong.
South Korea’s most prominent coronavirus expert told Asian Boss in an interview on 24 Mar — in response to a question on how the country is able to conduct rapid COVID-19 testing — that past experience with the H1N1 and MERS outbreaks have led to the prompt development of test kits.
Kim Woo-joo — a professor of infectious diseases at the Korea University Guro Hospital and the chief of South Korea’s rapid response team for the MERS outbreak — said that while it was not possible to quickly come up with a vaccine at the time, it was possible to make PCR kits for more accurate testing.
The South Korean government, added Professor Kim, has invested heavily in the research and development of PCR test kits following the H1N1 outbreak.
“More importantly, the companies making these test kits knew they could make a lot of money on this, so they started investing in R&D.
“This may be capitalism at its finest, but this becomes a competition between companies to get that profit,” he added.