Describing travel bans as a “blunt tool” to curb the spread of COVID-19, infectious diseases specialist Prof Prof Paul Ananth Tambyah said that this a difficult problem to contain.
In a live interview with Editor in Chief of TOC Terry Xu on Saturday (15 May), Prof Tambyah—who is also a Senior Consultant, Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Medicine, National University Hospital and Chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)—said that hindsight is 20-20 when asked about whether stricter border controls could have prevented the current rise in community cases.
Pointing out how Singapore reacted by banning travel from the United Kingdom and Brazil when variants popped up there, Prof Tambyah said that in that case, travellers still tried to circumvent the restriction by travelling into Singapore via a third country.
He conceded, “Unfortunately, banning travel is going to be reactive most of the time. So you don’t recognise that there’s a problem until it becomes too big a problem to contain. And I really am in two minds about that.”
Prof Tambyah went on to say that when there is a “very difficult to control problem”, you do what you can to buy time to track and trace close contacts and mitigate the spread of the virus, similar to how they do in Australia. He explained that this requires a lot of thought.
Still, he pointed out that even the World Health Organisation (WHO) actually does not recommend travel bans as a mitigating measure, but added that “nobody listens to them.”
“So it’s a very, sort of a blunt tool to use,” Prof Tambyah commented, stressing the need instead for more resources and collaboration within and outside of Singapore on testing the different strains in the region.
He went on to note in the interview that it is difficult for a globally connected city like Singapore to sustain a strict, long-term border closure like Australia or New Zealand who are less dependent on foreign labour.
Though he spoke throughout the interview mostly as an infectious diseases specialist, Prof Tambyah put on his political hat for a moment to comment on Singapore’s over-reliance on foreign investment and labour.
When asked if this was related to the current outbreak of community cases of COVID-19, Prof Tambyah responded: “Yes, and I think there’s no running away from it. SDP is not against foreigners coming into Singapore, but we think it needs to be calibrated.”
He pointed to the talent track system as used in Australia, which is a point system that evaluates a foreigners chance of entering the country as a possible option in recalibrating Singapore’s approach to importing foreign labour.
He noted that this could allow for borders to stay open while not exploiting foreigners. Additionally, he pointed out how the low wages paid to migrant workers and the huge levies imposed by the government tends to drive down the wages of these jobs, making them less attractive to Singaporeans.
He explained, “So I think it’s not that Singaporeans don’t want to do these jobs. It’s just that the conditions have been made so onerous and that’s been facilitated by a policy which allowed migrant workers to come in and underpays them.”
Prof Tambyah added that if the minimum wage is equalised across the board for Singaporeans and foreigners, there would be no incentive for companies to hire migrant workers.
He also noted that there is the issue of National Service being a reason why some companies may prefer hiring migrant workers. However, he explained that for National Service to make a different, then “MINDEF (Ministry of Defense) should make it worthwhile for the employer and the employee.”