Insight

Covid-19 pandemic report card: Did Singapore pass?

The review of the Government's response to the pandemic is ongoing. Insight takes its own look at how well Singapore fared in saving lives and livelihoods.

How well did Singapore fare in saving lives and livelihoods during the Covid-19 pandemic?

At some points, Singapore was held up around the world as the gold standard in its handling of the pandemic. At other points, the bouquets turned to brickbats as some commentators cited the country as a cautionary tale about how best-laid plans can be scuttled by the coronavirus.

Such ups and downs could be chalked up to a virus that often did not act as expected, but sprang surprises along the way.

What Singapore got right, said experts, were the strict quarantine and isolation protocols, swift vaccination roll-out and the ability to maintain a largely uninterrupted supply of essential goods.

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Fighting an unknown virus in the early days

For most of the last two years, Covid-19 was a smouldering fire that Singapore struggled to put out.

To prevent stray embers - that is, unlinked cases - from reigniting the blaze, infected people were taken to designated recovery facilities and their contacts ordered to stay home and test themselves regularly.

Mask-wearing was initially recommended only for people who were already ill, but later became compulsory in April 2020.

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Living with the virus

When Singapore changed its approach to Covid-19 in the second half of last year from stemming all transmissions to living with the virus, it moved from trying to isolate every patient and ring-fence each cluster towards getting more people to recover at home.

Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang, vice-dean of global health at the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said the home recovery scheme was "operationally challenging" in the early days.

As virus cases surged in September during the Delta wave, frustrated patients complained of not being able to contact the Health Ministry for official advice or not getting promised support.

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Handling the situation in migrant worker dorms

Migrant worker dormitories were badly hit by Covid-19 early on, reporting hundreds of cases daily before the virus had made inroads into the wider community.

While the authorities' response was speedy in some ways - such as setting up Forward Assurance and Support Teams to manage worker welfare - those involved said other aspects could have been handled better.

Dormitory residents and operators, as well as employers, could have been kept more up to date on what was going on.

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Getting the message across

With virus restrictions changing throughout the pandemic and misinformation widespread on social media, good communication was necessary to make sure the right message got across.

In Singapore, this included daily updates on new cases and hospitalisation figures, and regular press conferences by the multi-ministry task force tackling the pandemic.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also made televised speeches designed to mark key turning points, reassure the population and foster public confidence in the nation's virus strategy.

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Care for the vulnerable

Children and seniors were considered high-risk groups before vaccines were available and it became clear that children generally have milder cases of Covid-19.

Caregivers who contracted the virus were often caught in a dilemma: they had to continue looking after their loved ones - often because alternatives were not readily available - but also feared passing the virus on to them, said Mr Kavin Seow, senior director of Touch Elderly Group at Touch Community Services.

Singapore could have done more to support such families.

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Voting in a pandemic

Singapore's last General Election, held in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, was a defining moment for the nation that demonstrated how it could react when all was not business as usual, said political analysts.

Associate Professor Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University said the election turned out to be about how Singapore rose to the challenge in a time of crisis. "Our national response to the pandemic, or other black swan events over an extended period, will define and change our society," he said.

Voters and political parties in the election were subject to a host of restrictions designed to keep the virus at bay.

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Helping businesses to navigate tumultuous times

With the Covid-19 pandemic springing frequent surprises amid already imperfect information about the rapidly changing global situation, difficult decisions had to be made about the industries that would get more help and how businesses could navigate the tumultuous times.

Policymakers were decisive and made tough calls when it came to protecting the public and ensuring key businesses would be able to continue operating, for instance by providing the necessary financial support to ensure that jobs would be preserved, businesses and experts said.

While there were some hiccups in how categorisations were made and changes in guidelines were communicated and received, it was clear that refinements and improvements were made as the pandemic wore on.

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Preserving jobs, salaries of local workers

Support to help companies with the costs of local workers' salaries, tiered according to sectors and level of impact suffered during the pandemic, was one of the key pillars of aid for businesses through the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Jobs Support Scheme, introduced in Budget 2020 and extended for several rounds, was intended not just for cash flow support but crucially, to help businesses retain local workers.

More than $28 billion has been disbursed under it since February 2020.

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Finding ways to grow human capital amid crisis

With the pandemic weighing on Singapore's economy, a slew of schemes were introduced to create jobs and training opportunities, so as to preserve and grow Singapore's human capital amid the crisis.

While these helped to support hiring at a time when business sentiments were weak, there is room to refine how such schemes are implemented and assessed so that the right kind of help gets to firms that truly need it, observers said.

Among schemes to create employment and training opportunities were the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package and the Jobs Growth Incentive.

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Providing financial relief and liquidity for firms

As businesses saw their operations disrupted and halted during the pandemic, the slew of measures introduced to provide financial relief and liquidity for businesses came in handy.

This included a myriad of financing schemes to ensure credit access despite the uncertainty, loan moratoriums and legislation to provide relief for contracts and those facing financial distress.

Small and medium-sized enterprises, in particular, pointed to the importance of rental relief measures.

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Shoring up supply lines and self-sufficiency

The vulnerabilities of global supply chains became apparent in the early days of the pandemic.

As countries and territories began to engage in panic buying or protectionist behaviour, imposing restrictions to protect their own citizens’ interests, some found themselves struggling to fulfil their needs for raw materials or finished products. 

Logistics and connectivity also fractured as a result of manpower shortages and border restrictions.

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Changing work habits

With safe distancing mandated during the height of the pandemic, businesses were forced to adapt and make the changes necessary for their employees to work from home if their job functions allowed it.

In fact, remote working became the default from the early stages, with then Manpower Minister Josephine Teo stressing in March 2020 that telecommuting was a critical part of safe distancing, particularly in workplaces.

But remote work, while made with public health concerns in mind, also had its downsides, as the blurred lines between personal and professional took its toll on workers.

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