Coronavirus: Repeated circuit breakers may be needed until vaccine is developed, warn experts

The month-long circuit breaker could lead to lower community transmission within the next one to two weeks.
The month-long circuit breaker could lead to lower community transmission within the next one to two weeks.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - While Singapore is making strenuous efforts to contain Covid-19, a realistic long-term strategy could entail imposing a circuit breaker every few months until a vaccine is developed, said experts.

The country is fighting Covid-19 on two distinct fronts: in the community and foreign worker dormitories, said Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, on Tuesday (April 14).

In a webinar organised by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), as part of a series examining public health lessons from the pandemic, Prof Teo said the month-long circuit breaker that has shuttered businesses and schools could lead to lower community transmission within the next one to two weeks.

What is more worrying is that clusters have formed in foreign worker dormitories, he said, explaining that this is why the Government has designated a few as isolation areas and sent dedicated clinical teams to treat the infected workers, while moving healthy ones to separate locations with lower human density.

He added that there will likely have to be a circuit breaker "every three to four months to allow the healthcare system to recuperate".

Echoing Prof Teo, LKYSPP visiting professor Tikki Pangestu said there remain many unknowns surrounding the transmissibility and true mortality rate of the coronavirus.

Different standards of governance and the lack of global coordination also make it difficult to predict when the pandemic will end, he said.

"Other countries in East Asia may not have (Singapore's) level of resources, social capital and governance structures like the multi-ministry task force," he added.

Prof Teo said that because countries around the world have made unilateral decisions on when to close and reopen their borders, some, like China, are now seeing a second wave of infections. This means that border restrictions around the world have to remain in place for some time, he said.


The panellists acknowledged that a stop-and-start strategy of repeated circuit breakers could pose economic challenges. Compounding this is the psychological fatigue that sets in when people are forced to endure a lengthy lockdown, said Associate Professor Joanne Yoong, senior economist and director of the Center for Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California.

Prof Teo cautioned against short-term solutions such as "immunity passports", or documents that allow those declared virus-free to go back to work. "The economic driver becomes extremely powerful for people to start coming up with fake certificates," he said.

To lead in such a climate of uncertainty, it is important that governments plan for the long term, establish trust and communicate clearly and simply, said Prof Yoong. "Expressions of empathy are going to be part of the new normal of policy communications. Social compacts which are based on heavy-handed government intervention are no longer sustainable.

"It's not just going to be a marathon, but a series of repeated sprints - we need to have that mentality going forward," she added.