Coronavirus: An unprecedented Singapore border closure, in unprecedented times

Singapore shut its doors to tourists and short-term visitors from today. The lockdown is necessary to stem imported infections and may prevent the need for a full shutdown of the local economy.

At the stroke of midnight on Monday, Singapore did something it has never done before - close its borders to tourists and short-term visitors.

The stakes have never been higher. The move came a day after Singapore confirmed its first two coronavirus-related deaths, a 75-year-old Singaporean woman and a 64-year-old Indonesian man. The number infected here with Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, now number over 500, the bulk of them imported cases.

To limit the spread of Covid-19, short-term visitors can no longer enter or transit through Singapore, while work pass holders and their dependants are allowed to return to Singapore only if they work in essential service sectors such as healthcare and transport, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said in a statement on Sunday.

Such a move is unprecedented. The Republic did not turn away visitors even at the height of the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic.

The decision to close Singapore, a highly connected air hub, could not have been easy, but an inflexion point was reached. Steps had to be taken to safeguard Singaporeans' interests.

First, empirical evidence points to imported cases as the cause of the recent sharp spike in numbers.

Second, no one knows how long the global pandemic will last. In earlier crises, from the 1997 Asian financial crisis to Sars in 2003 to the 2009 global financial crisis, Singapore's economy recovered fairly quickly because conditions elsewhere improved. It helped that only certain sectors or regions were badly hit.

But Covid-19 is not sparing any country, causing healthcare systems to be overwhelmed as tens of thousands fall sick. As countries close shops and restaurants to stop the spread, the world is heading into recession. Experts expect the outbreak to last a year or more.

With a protracted battle ahead, resources must be conserved so the healthcare system can focus on Singaporeans.

Before the ban, short-term visitors from all but a handful of countries were allowed to enter Singapore, but were issued a 14-day stay-home notice (SHN) upon arrival.

MOH explained on Sunday that this meant resources were being expended to serve and enforce SHNs on them and, if they fell ill, to provide them with medical treatment. As of last Saturday, there were still 533 short-term visitors arriving here.

Banning short-term visitors from entry allows Singapore to focus its resources on helping Singapore citizens and permanent residents, including those returning from studies or work overseas.

TIGHTENING OF BORDER CONTROLS

The move to shut borders may be drastic, but it comes after a series of calibrated measures to manage the outbreak.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan told The Straits Times: "As the measures are being calibrated upwards, those who are potentially carrying the virus as a result of their travels will have to be denied entry. This is not a time, put bluntly, to be travelling at will."


An almost deserted Changi Airport Terminal 4 last Friday, after a large number of flights were cancelled. Border controls in Singapore have been progressively tightened not only in response to infection spread globally, but also when there was community spread domestically, and when the number of imported cases here went up.  ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Singapore was swift to introduce temperature screening in January for incoming flights. It was among the first countries to ban visitors from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak in China.

Its border controls have been surgical and responsive to infection spread in other cities. Travellers from areas with some transmission were put on 14-day SHNs to sieve out those who had caught the virus.

As the virus spread widely in places like Iran, Italy and certain regions in South Korea, the controls were tightened to outright bans for travellers from those areas.

Through it all, and even now, Singapore's doors remain open to welcome back its citizens and permanent residents.

 
 
 
 

Border controls were progressively tightened not only in response to infection spread globally, but also when there was community spread domestically, and when the number of imported cases here went up.

This risk-based approach to control imported infections meant Singapore remained open for business domestically through the outbreak.

NO FULL LOCKDOWN

Even with the latest move, Singapore has stopped short of the more severe steps taken by other countries. There is no full-scale lockdown within the country. Schools have reopened after a one-week holiday, with stricter measures in place to limit activities and keep students apart.

Restaurants, cinemas and other businesses remain open but are expected to follow stricter social distancing guidelines. Working from home is now de rigueur, but not mandated.

Lockdown orders - requiring residents to stay at home - have been issued in China, Italy, some American cities, New Zealand and others.

Closer to home, Malaysia announced a two-week lockdown, closing its borders as well as schools and businesses, prompting employers in Singapore to scramble to secure temporary lodging for stranded workers.

In closing borders yet keeping the city open for business internally, the Government is walking a tightrope between preserving public health and keeping the economy afloat, analysts say.

 
 

"The economic downsides are glaringly obvious, yet the speed of transmission is so rapid that if we lose two or three days, it may mean the difference between life and death for many people," says Dr Jeremy Lim, partner for health and life sciences at consultancy firm Oliver Wyman.

"It needs to be very carefully calibrated. Since the task force meets every day, there is the ability to review decisions and the Government can mobilise very quickly."

ECONOMIC IMPACT

With tourists barred from entering, the tourism sector, which had slowed to a trickle, will dry up. Singapore Airlines is already slashing 96 per cent of its capacity.

With all ticketed cultural, sports and entertainment events with 250 participants or more deferred or cancelled, companies in vulnerable sectors such as meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (Mice) are going into the red. DBS Bank economist Irvin Seah has projected that Singapore's economy may contract 0.5 per cent for the full year.

But how long will the ban on short-term visitors last before the economy shrivels up?

Australia's border closure will last six months, but New Zealand's is for one month, at least for now.

 
 
 

Analysts say three broad things need to happen for the country to be out of the woods.

First, the total number of infected cases must go down.

Second, the number of unlinked cases here - a sign of community spread - must not go up, otherwise it would mean that social distancing measures have not been successful.

Third, and critically for affected workers and businesses, is government stimulus measures. "It is very difficult to tell food and beverage outlets not to operate if there is no lifeline. If they can get cash into people's hands quickly enough, that would help make the pain of closing businesses a lot easier to manage," says Dr Lim.

All eyes are thus on Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who will present a supplementary Budget on Thursday, in addition to the $4 billion Stabilisation and Support Package rolled out last month.

"This is the first time that we are introducing a supplementary Budget so soon after the main Budget, reflecting how fast the situation has deteriorated over the past weeks," Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, wrote in a Facebook post yesterday.

 
 

The pandemic is both a public health and an economic emergency. Infection numbers are rising so exponentially, with attendant costs on human health, healthcare resources and the economy, that swift action is needed.

Sealing Singapore's borders from external visitors is an extreme step sure to impose social and economic hardship on many Singaporeans.

But if it manages to rein in infection numbers - and Singapore is able to prevent re-infections from overseas - then it will be able to recover better.

In that sense then, a partial shutdown - closing borders - may be a way to avert a total shutdown of closing all domestic businesses, which will have an even harsher impact.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2020, with the headline 'An unprecedented border closure, in unprecedented times'. Print Edition | Subscribe