COVID-19 SPECIAL

What Kazakhstan learnt from Singapore about crisis management

When the coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan late last year, officials in Kazakhstan began preparing for the inevitability that the disease would spread to their country.

After all, Kazakhstan shares one of the longest land borders in the world with China, and is often used as a transit point for China-bound flights from Central Asia.

Yet, the virus was so new, and so much of it was shrouded in mystery - it did not even have a name then. Furthermore, Kazakhstan has not had to confront outbreaks of coronaviruses in modern times.

Similarly, Singapore stood ready to tackle the disease head-on - it knew it was vulnerable to the virus, given the high volume of traffic in and out of the city-state.

Though the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic was 17 years ago, it was clear the disease, which killed 33 in Singapore, has shaped much of the country's approach in managing health crises.

Back then, the nation-state was caught unawares and scrambled to deal with Sars. But its response to Covid-19, as the new disease is now known, showed it has clearly upped its preparedness plans.

Kazakhstan has learnt much from watching Singapore fight this global pandemic.

PREPAREDNESS IS KEY

Even before the first case of Covid-19 reached its shores, Singapore had set up a multi-ministerial task force to prepare itself for when the first case hit. For Singaporeans, this was a reassuring first step as it showed that the Government was prepared and committed to deal with the virus when it came.

Though the Ministry of Health leads the task force, it comprises other ministries such as Manpower, Finance and Education.

This whole-of-government approach showed that Singapore was ready to tackle this multifaceted challenge, and rightly so. Though Covid-19 is, first and foremost, a health crisis, the pandemic has hit all areas of life - it has hurt the economy, disrupted businesses, and forced day-to-day operations and routines in schools, workplaces and social settings to come to a halt.

 
 

With the task force in place and personnel deployed to it, Singapore was able to mount a quick response. This is crucial, as China's experience has shown that the virus spreads rapidly and requires fast and flexible responses, depending on the developments.

In Kazakhstan, the government in January set up an inter-departmental commission to manage and prevent the emergence and outbreak of the virus, also adopting a whole-of-government approach that involved heads of healthcare, foreign affairs, internal affairs and infrastructure and development.

Though the virus had yet to reach Kazakhstan then, the country moved quickly to strengthen border controls and limit travel to China. It also suspended 72-hour visa-free stays in Kazakhstan for passengers travelling from China.

SPARE NO EFFORT WITH CONTACT TRACING

Contact tracing is key to containing Covid-19, and absolutely essential to minimise the risk of widespread transmission in the community. In this regard, Singapore has developed a robust disease surveillance system.

Its contact tracing process starts from the hospital, where officers interview patients and map out a detailed minute-by-minute plan of where they had been, and who they had seen and interacted with in close contact in the past 14 days. This plan includes not just their personal contacts, but also transient contact points such as taxi drivers, food deliverymen and even people who had visited the same clinics as them.

This is perhaps a key factor as to why Singapore has been able to group different patients into the same cluster, and work out how they might have passed the virus to other people, who in turn formed separate clusters.

The first three cases of Covid-19 in Kazakhstan were detected on March 13. Two of the patients had returned to Kazakhstan from Germany, while the last case arrived from Milan through Moscow.

Kazakhstan then began tracing other passengers on the plane and issuing quarantine orders on them, in an effort to stem the spread of the virus. Emergency provisions kicked in as well. Schools were ordered to close, and public gatherings were banned. Prior to that, the government had also introduced a 14-day quarantine period for people entering Kazakhstan from affected places.

OPEN AND TRANSPARENT COMMUNICATION

Singapore has also emphasised public health communication. The task force holds regular press conferences to update the public. The Ministry of Health puts out a press statement every night notifying the public of any new cases. It also has a running tally of the number of people who are hospitalised, in intensive care, as well as those who have been discharged. The country's Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, has addressed the nation directly.

In times of chaos and confusion, clear, open and transparent communication is of utmost importance. It helps to build public trust in the government and prevent widespread irrational fear and anxiety, which can easily turn the situation on the ground into chaos.

The Kazakhstan Health Ministry has taken to Facebook to update the public of the daily developments. It details the new cases detected, and provides the public with timely and up-to-date information on measures taken by the state.

Singapore is offering tangible support to Kazakhstan in this time of crisis too. Temasek Foundation is working to send medical supplies, such as diagnostic test kits, to Kazakhstan.

Officers in Kazakhstan are also in the process of planning meetings with their Singaporean counterparts via video-conferencing to discuss and share best practices to manage the virus.

 
 

Scientists here are working on a clinical trial for a Covid-19 vaccine. A new swab test developed in Singapore that can accurately determine if a person has been infected with the coronavirus in just three hours, compared with seven hours typically, is already being used at checkpoints here.

These are valuable contributions that may help push the world nearer to a turning point in the crisis.

While every infectious disease outbreak is different, the world has to expect that moving forward, epidemics will quickly develop into full-blown pandemics, given how interconnected we are.

This has serious repercussions for healthcare, as well as for the global economy and trade. But Singapore's management of this crisis has provided Kazakhstan - and countries around the world - with many learning points.

One thing is for sure - the faster we learn to manage large-scale outbreaks, the more we can reduce the impact to our countries and our people.

Arken Arystanov is Kazakhstan's Ambassador to Singapore.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2020, with the headline 'What Kazakhstan learnt from Singapore about crisis management'. Subscribe