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How Singapore has taken control of the virus and avoided panic

by Manfred Rist, Singapore Saturday, Mar. 14, 2020 at 11:30 AM

The city-state has learned a lot from the sars crisis and is not letting the coronavirus get it down. Not all recipes are transferable to other countries, but some are. And unusual measures are taken to ensure the cohesion of society.

How Singapore has taken control of the virus and avoided panic

The city-state has learned a lot from the sars crisis and is not letting the coronavirus get it down. Not all recipes are transferable to other countries, but some are. And unusual measures are being taken to ensure the cohesion of society.

by Manfred Rist, Singapore

[This article published on 3/9/2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, Singapur: Wie der Stadtstaat das Coronavirus in den Griff kriegt.]

Arriving passengers are checked for elevated body temperature by medical personnel at Singapore's Changi airport.

Scene City Hall in central Singapore at the end of last week: A networking event takes place in a popular restaurant of the Marché-Mövenpick chain. The place is packed, the atmosphere is good, nobody is wearing a respirator. Why should they? Even six weeks after the first case of infection, the number of people affected by the coronavirus is ultimately still small. There is no sign of panic, people have confidence in the measures taken by the government and - contrary to initial fears - there is no exponential increase in the number of infections.

Three findings after six weeks

The relevant diagrams for Covid-19 in the city-state rather show something rather calming: since 23 January, when the first case of infection was recorded, the virus has firstly not spread explosively but linearly and has infected 138 people by the weekend. Secondly, the line of patients recovered, which now stands at 90, runs parallel to the first, which means that the course of the disease has remained the same so far and is therefore predictable. In this context, the third finding: after an average of 12 days, a patient has usually overcome the infection.

In Singapore, a large proportion of those infected are healthy again

The government in this country is far from giving the all-clear in view of these facts. It is also aware and admits that new clusters may emerge. Sooner or later, there will be one or two deaths, the Ministry of Health says objectively. But confidence that the virus can be controlled without drastic cuts in public life has increased significantly in recent days. Singapore is therefore one of the countries whose defensive measures have so far been quite successful.

Rapid action and credible communication

The outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), which caused 33 deaths in Singapore seventeen years ago, has provided important experience in dealing with an epidemic. In particular, this includes the establishment of a contact tracing management system that allows the circle of potentially infected persons to be identified within hours. To stop the spread of the disease, a quarantine system has also been set up, ranging from self quarantine at home - as a preventive measure - to isolation rooms in hospitals and designated building complexes outside the city center. Violations are dealt with harshly; for example, at the end of February four foreigners with work permits were expelled from the country for breaking quarantine and immediately deported. "We want everyone to cooperate at this stage. People need to know that we will not hesitate to take tough measures," said Interior Minister Shanmugam.

One of the factors for success is rapid reaction. As early as January 3, three weeks before the first case of infection on domestic soil, people arriving at Changi airport from Wuhan were checked for their body temperature. As early as the end of January, paramedics were deployed for certain control tasks at the border and at the airport, as well as for distributing materials such as protective masks. Since the Sars crisis, there have also been stocks of other medical supplies that are part of the strategic reserves. The rapid response included the creation of a website of the Ministry of Health where all new developments, warnings, recommendations and expert opinions can be consulted.

As far as information policy is concerned, a look beyond Singapore's borders is instructive. In Indonesia, where the health system is far less developed, President Joko Widodo recently stated that the main problem is not the virus but the fear of it. This statement is probably related to the fact that this giant country has only officially recorded five cases of infection to date. However, the Singapore government never agreed to such a relativization of the danger, which could quickly take revenge. On the contrary: the virus was rather seen from the very beginning as an existential threat to society and the economy. Therefore, a decisive reaction was taken and crisis teams were set up. And because the authorities acted decisively and transparently, panic never spread.

Special conditions of a small state

In Singapore, there are special conditions in many respects, which is why comparisons with other countries are only conditionally admissible. One of these is its insularity, which allows traffic flows to be controlled and borders to be simply closed in an emergency. In addition, there is the influence of the authorities on the media: television, radio and the press are part of the information machinery and thus contribute to the rapid dissemination of facts, recommendations for conduct and decrees. For weeks now, all institutions have been publishing identical practical instructions to prevent the spread of the virus. The population's faith in the authorities and its civil obedience are particularly important in Singapore: But precisely because the government is considered reliable and proved itself as a crisis manager, especially during the Sars era, people believe it, heed its instructions and do not panic.

Horizontal and vertical cohesion of society

What is remarkable in this crisis is the cohesion of society. While in Switzerland, for example, generational conflicts are already being conjured up and particular concerns are being addressed, in this country everyone thinks they are all in the same boat for the time being. After all, it concerns everyone, and anyone can become a dangerous carrier or a victim of the virus - or both. This crisis has not yet been a really big test case for Singapore. Nevertheless, it can be said that in terms of social resilience, i.e. in terms of the resilience and sense of belonging among the population, the republic has done well so far.

The latter also applies vertically: the politicians have succeeded in demonstrating solidarity with the population and bridging the gap between above and below. For example, the President, the Prime Minister and all the other ministers and parliamentarians have announced that they will waive one month's salary because of the crisis. Health sector workers who come into contact with patients are now called "heroes at the front" and receive special bonuses. One or the other can be seen and trivialized as a symbolic move, but it has met with a positive response nationwide.

Even in large companies in which the state has a stake, such as Singapore Airlines or the large sovereign wealth funds, management has ordered wage cuts; there was nothing like this even during the sars crisis. In return, financial government support was offered for sectors directly affected by the emerging economic crisis, such as the retail trade and tourism industry. The government has also arranged for doctors' consultations and hospital stays to become much cheaper. The feeling that this time the upper classes are really looking after the lower classes is reinforced by direct payments to low-income households. This does not kill viruses. But the feeling of solidarity is not diminishing either.

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