Ridiculous for Lawrence Wong to admonish locals to buck up on fight against COVID without acknowledging rise in imported cases

Minister for Education and Co-Chair of the Multi-Agency Taskforce for Covid-19, Lawrence Wong (Wong) has said on 18 January that the Government was considering whether additional measures were necessary to ensure the COVID-19 transmission remained under control amid the recent spike in community cases.

He made reference to the local cluster linked to a police para-vet while also seemingly chastising those behind the recent cases who had not sought medical treatment despite falling ill with flu-like symptoms.

While Wong’s concerns are understandable, one does wonder if he is barking up the wrong tree?

Let’s look at the figures for the past few days.

18 Jan2 local12 imported
19 Jan4 local26 imported
20 Jan4 local36 imported
21 Jan4 local34 imported

Now, let’s take a look at the numbers right before Phase 3.

From 22 Dec to 27 Dec, there were no local cases and on the 28th (the day Phase 3 kicked off), there was only one local case. The imported cases ranged from 4 to 29 per day during this period. In November 2020, there were no community cases for over 2 weeks.

When interviewed by Channel News Asia (CNA) in November 2020, Dean of Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, Teo Yik Ying (Teo) said that “it was important to secure imported cases and prevent infections from leaking into the community, similar to how the pandemic began here in February [2002].”

However, he added: “The reality is that we will never be able to know anyway, especially since we are not conducting repeated mass screening of the entire population – which is hugely inefficient and unnecessary for Singapore.”

Based on what Teo said, one has to wonder if mass testing really is unnecessary?

Would it be logical for the Government to perform greater testing on the population to weed out asymptomatic carriers of the virus? Not only will it give us a clearly picture of just how far the virus has spread within the community, but it might also be the best way to flesh out the degree of correlation between imported cases and local ones.

If you are trying to detect the source of the spread, you need to do the tests to track how the virus is spreading before you simplistically blame locals, as Wong as done.

By doing this, wouldn’t we be able to more clearly assess whether the virus is in fact spreading within the community? And by knowing that, wouldn’t be able to better enhance or tweak our safety measures to be more effective and therefore reduce community spread?

Yet it would appear that that Government is not keen to do this.

More concerning than that is why the Government isn’t keen on mass testing the population. Is the Government is worried that the real extent of infection within the community is much worse than initially reported?

After all, we have already seen this happen in the migrant worker population when it was revealed that the infection rate was far higher than earlier reports. The government did not reveal till much later that they had found a significant number of this subpopulation had already been infected by the virus, showing a wider spread than we initially thought and almost tripling the total number of cases.

If we find more community cases than initially reported, not only will authorities look bad, but it would also mean that the economy will have to slow down again due to stricter measures being implemented, including another round of border closures.

Is the Government avoiding greater testing because it wants to avoid more “bad news”?

Now let’s zoom in on the numbers showing that most of the recent daily cases are imported.

Currently, Singapore has introduced Safe Travel Lanes to permit students, work pass holders and the family members of Singaporeans and PRs to enter the country.

In Singapore, family members of Singaporeans and PRs include categories outside of minor children and spouses. Singapore has even introduced additional Safe Travel Lanes with Brunei, Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, China, Malaysia, Viet Nam, New Zealand and Taiwan to facilitate shorter-term entry into Singapore.

On 21 January, there were 34 imported cases in Singapore. Among those, 33 were played on stay at home notices upon arrival. However, one case is a Permanent Resident who arrived in Singapore for work. He tested negative on arrival and was on a controlled itinerary during his stay in the country. Unfortunately, he tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday.

This case also raises the question that if there is indeed a correlation between imported cases as local transmissions, should we still press ahead with hosting the World Economic Forum when some have called it reckless?

This case shows that there is a risk that incoming travellers might first test negative but end up testing positive later, after being cleared to moved around in the country based on their itinerary. Will the measures planned for the WEF be sufficient to address such possibilities and sufficiently prevent the virus from spreading into the local population?

Given the recent increase in local cases and a cursory look at the numbers in the graphs above, there does appear to be a prima facie link between imported cases and local ones.

Singaporeans have endured harsh measures imposed during the first phase of the circuit breaker to curb the spread of the virus. Everyone stayed at home, obeyed the rules and believed that if we all did our part, we would succeed in stopping the spread of this disease within our borders.

To a large extent, our collective efforts have paid off, with consistently low community cases for week and even two weeks of zero community cases. Ultimately, this is what permitted the Government to bring us into Phase 2 (18 June 2020) and now, Phase 3 (28 Dec 2020) with easing of safe distancing measures and protocols. It is clear that local efforts have worked.

The data implies that imported cases may be affecting our overall success, with most of the recent cases being imported cases, and the rise of imported cases coinciding with the easing of border controls.

In view of this, to hear Wong imply blame on Singaporeans is a slap on the face.

Before Wong laid blame on locals not taking enough care in adhering to safety measures, did he even look the possible correlation between community and imported cases?

If we really wanted to deal with the problem effectively, we have to first correctly identify the cause. It is simplistic to admonish locals for not taking better care while ignoring the apparent correlation between the daily imported cases and local ones.


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