A year of Covid-19: Singapore gears up for next stage in virus war

Mr Ben Ng, who spent 13 days in the ICU at Alexandra Hospital in March because of Covid-19, with nurse clinician Maryana Mohamed (left) and senior staff nurse Ong Chia Yee. PHOTO: ST

He knows the suffering that Covid-19 can inflict and wants to ensure that others do not have to go through it.

This is why Mr Ben Ng, a former coronavirus patient, has taken it upon himself to remind others to observe social distancing.

"I don't care who it is, but if the Government says eight (people can gather in a group), then we cannot have more than eight. It says we can have two tables next to each other and I say... no intermingling," he said in an interview last week.

His friends have nicknamed him "social distancing officer".

"They say I am troublesome, but why would you want to do otherwise and get caught?"

The argument belies his real motivation. The 56-year-old was so sick in March last year that he ended up in the intensive care unit (ICU) at Alexandra Hospital fighting for his life.

He told The Straits Times after his discharge that he had hallucinations and was unable to escape the various scenes in his mind.

When ST next caught up with him in July, he said he had flashbacks of his ICU stay.

"I still have them, but they are not as bad as before," he said. The intense fear of being stuck in another world is more than enough to make him want to avoid falling ill with Covid-19 again.

It has been a year since Singapore confirmed its first case of Covid-19 - a 66-year-old man from Wuhan, China, who was visiting with his family.

Several other cases of the mysterious "Wuhan virus", as it was first called, soon surfaced, all Chinese nationals who had travelled from Wuhan, where the outbreak then grew so quickly that an unprecedented lockdown was imposed on the city of 11 million residents.

Singapore prepared to face the threat. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed the nation directly on Feb 8, saying: "Having overcome Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) once, we know that we can pull through this too."

He would go on to address the nation directly on the Covid-19 situation on several more occasions via social media, television and radio.

At the same time, a multi-ministry task force co-chaired by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and then National Development Minister and now Education Minister Lawrence Wong worked tirelessly to control the outbreak and give regular updates on the situation.

The contact tracers got busy and healthcare workers psyched themselves up as best as possible.

New cases were also springing up in the region and in Europe.

SPH Brightcove Video
After Singapore went into circuit breaker mode on April 7 to stem the spread of Covid-19, traffic cleared and crowds disappeared. Flying a drone over the city, photojournalists Benjamin Seetor and Mark Cheong captured the surreal sights from above.

In early February, Singapore had moved its disease outbreak response up a level, from yellow to orange, as the outbreak was deemed to have moderate to high public health impact.

People panicked and made a beeline for not just canned food, rice or pasta, but also rolls and rolls of toilet paper. In no time, even the pricier toilet rolls had sold out.

This was a situation seen elsewhere too, as people sought to maintain some control in their lives in the face of growing danger.

The panic buying also pointed to a real concern: food. Singapore imports more than 90 per cent of its food and had been diversifying its food sources over the years. These plans went into overdrive when the pandemic grounded planes and upended global supply chains.

People queueing up to buy essential items after Singapore raised its alert level to orange, on Feb 7, 2020. PHOTO: ST FILE

Mr Seah Kian Peng, chief executive officer of the FairPrice Group, said it expanded its sources of common food items like eggs and inked agreements with local farms and overseas ones - in countries including Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Australia - to buy produce in advance at pre-agreed prices.

Commenting on Singapore's Covid-19 strategy, Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang, vice-dean of global health and programme leader of infectious diseases at the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said: "The whole-of-government approach to major epidemics adopted post-Sars meant that in addition to healthcare needs, other socio-economic issues were addressed early and even pre-empted, such as sourcing essentials and providing financial support for workers and companies, especially those most severely affected by the pandemic."

The World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 12, when there had been more than 120,000 cases and around 4,300 deaths in 114 countries. At that point, Singapore had 178 cases, 96 of which had been discharged, and no one had died from the disease.

By the time the circuit breaker to stem the spread of the disease took effect in early April, Singapore had more than 1,000 cases and six deaths. The circuit breaker would last until June 1.

With schools, libraries and attractions closed and dining in at eateries disallowed, residents huddled at home, while healthcare workers marched into battle zones.

SPH Brightcove Video
Since circuit breaker measures kicked in on April 7, the hustle and bustle of everyday life has given way to a newfound tranquility. The Straits Times traversed the island to capture the sights and sounds of a city under shutdown.

April was when the number of new cases started to explode after the virus slipped into migrant worker dormitories. For a while, a few hundred cases a day became the norm, and community care facilities were set up for those who had mild symptoms, or none.

Last month, the Government said that about 47 per cent of the 323,000 migrant workers living in dormitories had tested positive for Covid-19 as at Dec 13, based on polymerase chain reaction and serology tests (which check for a past infection) done over the course of the year.

Prof Hsu said: "The enormous outbreak in the migrant worker dormitories... is a stain on our record that we should never attempt to whitewash away, lest the lessons be lost in the future."

He added that clear-eyed policies and measures must be implemented to prevent a repeat, in any future pandemic, of such a fallout affecting foreign workers living on the margins of our society.

HPB staff taking swab samples from migrant workers at the Cochrane Recreation Centre in Sembawang on Oct 8, 2020. PHOTO: ST FILE

Today, Sars-CoV-2 - the virus that causes Covid-19 - has infected more than 97 million people worldwide and killed over two million of them.

Singapore has had almost 60,000 confirmed cases and 29 deaths.

By last September, when Singapore announced an average of 40 new cases a day, the majority of which were asymptomatic, the news did not appear to generate much interest. Most of the cases were imported and isolated ones.

Fatigue set in, so much so that some forgot about social distancing rules, though the wearing of face masks has become second nature.

Fighting back

Safe-distancing ambassadors patrolling Bugis Junction on Dec 19, 2020. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Nevertheless, some people have taken it upon themselves to ensure that their friends and family adhere to social distancing rules.

Mr Ng, for example, is keen to be a safe distancing ambassador. "I want to go and tell people but I cannot. They will think: 'Who are you to tell me?' But if you wear a social distancing officer T-shirt, you can," he said.

Meanwhile, logistics players have made plans to transport, store and distribute Covid-19 vaccines.

Last month, Singapore Airlines transported Asia's first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine into the country, before ground handler Sats moved the vaccines to its cold chain facility. DHL, which had picked up the vaccines from the manufacturing site in Belgium, then delivered them to designated locations.

Singapore has greater ambitions. As a global aviation hub, it is gearing up to handle large volumes of vaccine shipments into and through Singapore, to help win the global fight against Covid-19, said PM Lee.

The first shipment of Covid-19 vaccine arriving in Singapore on Dec 21, 2020. PHOTO: ST FILE

Covid-19 has made the world a smaller place and accelerated the change in mindset needed to get more things done online.

Working from home has become the norm, as people allow technology to take them into strangers' rooms during online meetings and consultations.

And though it may have seemed impossible for scientists to come up with a safe and effective vaccine in less than a year, let alone reach the stage where it is approved and used, this has happened.

Today, people crowd malls, MRT stations and restaurants as they regain some pre-Covid normalcy. With groups of up to eight people allowed to gather socially, up from the previous limit of five, and few community cases, some people have yet to decide if they want to get the vaccine.

But outside Singapore, strict measures have been reimposed in some places while others continue to fight fire as cases rise.

At the start of this year, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a lockdown to fight a new virus variant that is less deadly but more transmissible.

Not long after, Malaysia entered a state of emergency that it said will last until early August.

In a recent interview with ST, Professor Benjamin Seet, deputy group chief executive for education and research at the National Healthcare Group, said: "This is probably the best time to get vaccinated because Singapore is fortunately in a lull phase of the outbreak.

"We have seen that some other countries like South Korea and Japan that controlled the virus extremely well are now dealing with second, third waves of infection. The last thing we want to do is to start vaccinating very aggressively only after an outbreak."

Prof Seet said it is safer to get the Covid-19 vaccine than the disease itself. "So, if you're worried about the safety of a vaccine, I'll be really a lot more worried about getting Covid."

It has been a year since Singapore confirmed its first case of Covid-19 on Jan 23, but there is no letting up. The number of new community and unlinked cases has edged up in recent weeks, and new clusters have emerged.

We are all soldiers in this war. Now that our ammunition has arrived, the onus is on every single one of us to equip ourselves with it in order to win the fight.

Mr Ng is all for it. When asked if he will take the vaccine, he replied: "Yes, of course!"

SPH Brightcove Video
One year on from Singapore's first case of Covid-19, these are some of the milestones in the nation’s response to the pandemic.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.