Thinking Aloud

Covid-19: How soon and how fast to reopen economy?

Explain thinking behind virus curbs more fully so people can understand, be better prepared for consequences

Did the Government just announce that the circuit breaker will end on June 1?

For many Singaporeans, it did not look like it, as nothing much would have changed for them.

Still no eating out at hawker centres, no shopping in malls, going out with friends and relatives, outdoor sports, and no public worship at churches, temples and mosques.

Going by the details of the three phases announced last week, the authorities here have taken a much more cautious and conservative approach compared with many other countries.

Most European nations have eased restrictions, allowing dining-in and outdoor activities.

In Germany, all shops have reopened and any number of members of two households can meet.

Announcing the relaxation, its leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, said: "We can afford a bit of courage."

Her decision was based on the finding of the German Robert Koch Institute that the reproduction rate of the virus in the country has been below one for some time, meaning that an infected person infects fewer than one other person.

Australia also announced a three-phase reopening, but its first round includes retail shops, restaurants, libraries, playgrounds and community centres, and public gatherings of up to 10 persons are allowed.

Every country deliberating how to resume life after the lockdown takes into account the same considerations: How to do so safely so as to minimise the possibility of an outbreak of new cases, to prevent fatalities, and at the same time enable people to get back their life as much as possible.

No country wants to put the health of its people at unnecessary risk.

What explains then the different approaches to lifting restrictions? Is it due to a difference in how leaders view the risks involved in opening up? Or a difference in how they assess the trade-offs between economic and healthcare costs?


Or are there scientific explanations for the differences, to do with the number of infections and deaths, and the rate of transmission in the different countries?

But if we look at the data, it would seem that Singapore is in a better position than most countries to reopen, going by the number of infected cases within the community and leaving aside the number of infected foreign workers in dormitories who account for the majority of the cases.

Singapore looks even more successful if you look at the number of deaths per infected persons, which is 0.08 per cent here compared with 2.3 in South Korea, 6.0 in the US and 4.6 in Germany.

What then explains the Government's more careful and deliberate approach?

The main concern, going by what has been said, is that it does not want to see an uncontrolled surge in the number of new cases which will force it to reimpose the lockdown, thus negating all the effort and sacrifices made so far.

It is a reasonable position.

All countries that dial back their lockdown restrictions face this risk, and several have had to deal with localised outbreaks.

What is critical is to have in place a system to quickly do contact tracing, isolate those who have been in contact with the infected cases, and quarantine and treat accordingly.

Conversely, you should reopen or ease restrictions only if you have those capabilities.

South Korea is a good example of this in action. When it allowed bars to reopen on May 6, a large cluster of cases emerged, linked to clubs in a popular nightspot, raising fears of a second wave.

But it had a plan to deal with it, with aggressive testing and advanced contact tracing technology using mobile phone location and credit card transaction data.

As a result, the outbreak appears now to have been contained.

Does Singapore have as good a plan which will allow it to reopen with greater confidence?

One assumes it has, as its contact tracing ability has been hailed by the World Health Organisation as a gold standard for others to emulate.

If it has such a capability but decided to move with extra caution, does it mean it is less willing to risk a second wave of infections than governments elsewhere?

I think the Government should explain its thinking more fully so Singaporeans understand the approach taken and will be better prepared for the consequences.

This is important because the fallout from a prolonged lockdown will be severe.

According to the Federation of Merchants' Association Singapore, 20 per cent to 30 per cent of mom-and-pop shops mainly in the heartland will not survive another four to six weeks' closure.

A survey of 150 restaurants by the online platform Chope found that 42 per cent would not be able to operate beyond two more months of the current restrictions, and 81 per cent said they would have to close shop if it lasted six months.

You can imagine similar numbers for bars, retail shops, gyms and many other businesses.

That's quite a decimation of the domestic economy despite the best efforts of the Government.

There are also hidden social and emotional costs from long periods of isolation which, just like the virus, will hit hardest those with underlying psychological problems.

How does the Government assess these issues and weigh the trade-offs between the fear of a second virus wave against the economic fallout of a delayed reopening?

It is still early days to say if the approach is right or wrong.

Indeed, it may be proven right if the much feared second wave returns with a vengeance in countries that have eased restrictions to a greater extent.

I hope, though, that in making its decision, it has taken full account of what is happening on the ground, how the measures are affecting lives and livelihoods, and how people feel about the situation.

It requires boots on the ground with open eyes and willing ears to feel the nation's pulse and read its temperature.

One other point about decision-making apart from getting unvarnished feedback: It also helps to have as diverse a group as possible able to see the issues from different perspectives and question conventional thinking.

Groupthink is to be avoided like the virus.

• The writer is also senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 24, 2020, with the headline Covid-19: How soon and how fast to reopen economy?. Subscribe