In the fifth episode of the party’s “Ask Paul Anything”—an online by the Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) where its chairman takes questions from the public—members of the public sought Dr Paul Tambyah’s opinion on the COVID-19 situation in Singapore.
One viewer asked whether Singapore whether the World Health Organisation (WHO) has any guidelines on the easing of lock down measures and whether Singapore is “the first in the world” to adopt Phase 2 of its exit-strategy when there are still so many infections being reported in migrant worker dormitories.
Dr Tambyah who currently serves as a professor of Medicine at the National University of Singapore and Senior Consultant Infectious Diseases Physician at the National University Hospital, explained that other countries such as Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait with large outbreaks among migrant worker populations have also started easing social restrictions, adding that in medicine, “it’s going to be a trade-off between the risks versus the benefits.”
On the one hand, there is a risk of a resurgence of infections. On the other hand is the risk of keeping the whole country locked down. Dr Tambyah conceded that this is a “tough” call to make.
Though he did point to New Zealand as an example of a country that managed to keep locally transmitted cases low, thus allowing them to lift restrictions much sooner than other countries, and look out for occasional imported infections.
He said, “That would be the ideal. If we were able to get down to zero or one infections then then we wouldn’t have to have this question being asked.”
It will take weeks for infections at migrant worker dormitories to burn out
Another question relating to migrant worker dormitories was why the number of new infections within that population in Singapore is still very high each day. The viewer asked, “shouldn’t the virus have spread within all the infected dorms by now?”
Dr Tambyah responded by saying that it would probably take weeks for the infections to “burn out” in migrant worker dormitories. Echoing previous arguments about how migrant workers living in dormitories are unable to practice social distancing given the cramp living conditions, Dr Tambyah said it is therefore very easy for the virus to spread among them.
On top of that, the government had decided in March not to quarantine close contacts of infected migrant workers which is another factor behind the massive outbreak. He highlighted the government’s prompt action when the Seletar Aerospace cluster was identified where they quarantined close contacts of the five infected workers which helped effectively curb the outbreak there. The same wasn’t done for migrant worker dormitories.
“But unfortunately that wasn’t done in March and as a result of that, it was probably inevitable that the disease will continue to spread (among migrant workers in dormitories),” said Dr Tambyah.
He went on, “Worse than that, the Ministry of Manpower was on record as telling the employers that they should not send asymptomatic individuals for testing and (the MOM) threatened them with removal of privileges.”
“And that’s exactly the opposite thing of what you want to do during an outbreak,” stressed Dr Tambyah.
He later added, “It’s just a really, really difficult situation to deal with at this point in time. Of course, if it had been dealt with in March, you know, there’s a high chance we wouldn’t have had this kind of problem.”
Good hand hygiene and mask usage is critical
On the question of precautions against the virus, Dr Tambyah stressed the importance of good hand hygiene and mask use, especially in crowded places.
Comparing it to the SARS virus which affected more healthcare professionals, Dr Tambyah explained that SARS was infectious only after people were symptomatic and already hospitalised. Unfortunately, the current COVID-19 virus can be transmitted by asymptomatic carriers as well who might not even know they have it, which is why mask usage and good hand hygiene is critical, said the party chairman.
He also urged those who are unwell to seek medical attention. Acknowledging that people may feel afraid of being given a five-day medical leave by their doctors which they have to comply with or risk being jailed, Dr Tambyah’s advice was to just stay home and rest.
“If you’re not well, just take five days, have a good rest, get better and then go back to work. Don’t be a hero. Don’t go back to work and infect everybody else in the office and create problems,” he said.
Finally, Dr Tambyah also answered a question on preventing imported cases of COVID-19. He explained that right now, Singapore is employing a swab test and then placing people under quarantine at home or in government controlled facilities. He added that there’s a lot of pressure to relax these measures.
However, he said it would be challenging. He elaborated that the ideal situation would be to have a rapid test which could tell if someone is immune or a carrier. This is similar to the yellow fever vaccination certificate that people have to get when travelling to Brazil, South America and East Africa, said Dr Tambyah.
It was earlier reported that Dr Tambyah is set to commence his term as President of the International Society of Infectious Diseases (ISID) in 2022.