GE SPECIAL: 6 ISSUES ON DAY 6

Pandemic: Handling the virus outbreak

A swab test being conducted at a Regional Screening Centre set up in the Old Police Academy on June 9, 2020.
A swab test being conducted at a Regional Screening Centre set up in the Old Police Academy on June 9, 2020.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Insight looks at six issues that have surfaced as the campaign for GE2020 enters Day 6 today

The Covid-19 pandemic has plunged Singapore, and the world, into its worst crisis in a generation, and the country's response has set the backdrop for the ongoing general election campaign.

The People's Action Party (PAP) has made safeguarding lives a top priority, by taking measures to keep people safe and preventing the healthcare system from being overwhelmed.

It has also sought to protect and create jobs, rolling out four Budgets and putting $93 billion on the table to focus on keeping companies afloat and Singaporeans employed.

While these moves have kept fatality rates here relatively low - one of the lowest in the world - the economic fallout has been considerable. The surge of cases in the foreign workers' dormitories also seemed to have caught the authorities off guard, forcing a rushed and relentless effort to get on top of the situation.

Opposition parties have hit out at the PAP's handling of the crisis. Progress Singapore Party (PSP) chief Tan Cheng Bock, for instance, has charged that the PAP government has missed the forest for the trees in its handling of the ongoing medical crisis.

He argued that the priority should be putting a lid on new Covid-19 cases and protecting lives.

With Singapore still reporting hundreds of new cases every day, other countries would be very wary of re-establishing travel and investment links with the Republic, he said on Thursday. "The important thing is the virus must be stopped, because once the virus is stopped then people will say the numbers are small, they can open the borders to us, the planes can come and bring all the tourists," he told reporters during a walkabout at Marymount SMC.

The PAP's focus on jobs does not get to the root of the problem, added Dr Tan, whose party political broadcast urged Singaporeans to send opposition MPs to Parliament to check how the Government spends the reserves on post-Covid-19 recovery measures in the next five years.

"Speaking as a doctor, are we treating the symptoms, or are we treating the disease?" he asked. "I fear that we're treating the symptoms only - we are pouring money here, pouring money there, but that is treating the symptoms."

Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chairman Paul Tambyah also questioned on Friday if the multi-ministry task force (MTF) handling the pandemic "lost their focus" earlier this year, amid talk of an early election.

Speaking at a pre-election forum at the National University of Singapore Society, Professor Tambyah, an infectious diseases expert, said he praised Singapore's initial handling of the pandemic, but that "all hell broke loose" in March as the Government contended with both returning Singaporeans and outbreaks in the foreign worker dormitories.

 
 
 
 

"That was around the time they started talking about an early election, and you wonder whether the ministerial committee lost their focus on public health and started thinking about the election," he said.

The Workers' Party (WP) has also questioned the Government's handling of Covid-19, including whether its early advice for people not to wear masks unless they were feeling unwell was driven more by concerns of a mask shortage.

"Ten weeks after the first Covid-19 case was recorded in Singapore, the Government abruptly changed its position and announced the distribution of reusable masks to all residents," the WP said in its manifesto.

"Would many infections have been prevented if the advice had been given earlier to wear masks to cut down the risk of infection, as advised by some doctors from the beginning?"

Among the Covid-19-related policies the WP is advocating is to form an independent medical advisory board to provide alternative perspectives and advice to that of government doctors, and to make recommendations to the Government's medical team.

It is also calling for more widespread and pre-emptive testing of the coronavirus within the community to curb the virus' spread, and for the Government to make the Covid-19 vaccine free to all Singapore residents when it becomes available and approved.

At its first Hammer Show, WP candidate Gerald Giam said Covid-19 has also seen Singapore "going from gold standard to cautionary tale in just a matter of weeks", alluding to criticism that the Government failed to anticipate the outbreak of cases in foreign workers' dormitories here.

 
 

FOCUS ON GROWTH

The pandemic has thus spotlighted how Singapore has, in the last two decades, been too focused on growing gross domestic product through low-wage foreign labour, at the expense of real productivity growth, said Mr Giam, a former Non-Constituency MP.

"Unfortunately, productivity growth has been an aspect which has been a millstone on our economy in the last 20 years," said Mr Giam, a point also made by other WP candidates.

Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing yesterday disputed Prof Tambyah's characterisation of how the Government has handled the pandemic, and said the task force had, from the start, been focused on handling each wave of infections.

Despite the election having been called, work continues on the critical issues, whether that is jobs or tackling Covid-19, Mr Chan told reporters.

"If you notice, Minister Gan Kim Yong and Minister Lawrence Wong, the co-chairs of the MTF, they are actively managing this situation, and that is why you don't see them campaigning, like some other people in the usual ways," he said.

"All these are ongoing work, and I can touch my heart and say that at no point in time have we ever neglected the lives, livelihoods and lifelines of our people," he added.

Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has also said that as countries emerge from Covid-19, the measure by which they will be judged on how well they have tackled the virus is in the death rate.

"People look a lot at what happens when you test people, what the infection rates are, and so on, but a year from now, two years from now, people are going to stare at the fatality rates," he said in an episode of Straight Talk with the PAP on Thursday.

Singapore is one of four places in the world which has managed to keep its per capita fatality rate "extraordinarily low", said Mr Tharman.

The others are New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan.

"Even Germany, which has done relatively well compared to most European countries, (its) fatality rate is about 25 times more than Singapore," he said.

Whether a country is able to keep its people safe will be a mark of its reliability and trustworthiness in a post-Covid-19 world, said Mr Tharman, alongside the ability to transform one's economy without allowing large divides to emerge - such as between those poised to take advantage of accelerating digitalisation, and those who are not.

Singapore also needs to do even more to be connected to the rest of the world at a time when global supply chains are being threatened, he added, because connectivity is critical to a small and open city-state.

"If we can do those three things well - retain trust and reliability (and) take care of our people well; second, transform without becoming a more divided economy and society; and thirdly, find new connections internationally to create new markets for ourselves - Singapore will have a bright future, even in a very difficult world," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 05, 2020, with the headline '2. Pandemic: Handling the virus outbreak'. Print Edition | Subscribe