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  • Writer's pictureThe Convergence

A reflection of Singapore’s pandemic experience

By S Preethiba, Senior Editor

Photo: TimeOut Singapore

Stepping into a new year would often excite people into coming up with ‘new year resolutions’. These resolutions most seek to erase the unpleasant memories of the past year, and set goals to facilitate a fresh start in the new year.

While adopting such resolutions might be reassuring, 2021 is not the time to forget what happened in the previous year - not that the dread would fade from our minds anytime soon. Some might have wished that 2020 was just an aberration. However, this year seems like merely a continuation of the past year, with the pandemic showing no signs of abating.

Around the globe, the coronavirus continues to ravage across the UK, US and other countries in the West. Although some see hope in the form of vaccines, many remain wary of the new coronavirus variant making an appearance in several countries.

Here in Singapore, 2020 ended on a relatively positive note. Community cases have remained low, we have managed to import a substantial amount of vaccines, and have also resumed more activities, as part of Phase 3 of the country’s pathway to re-opening the economy.

Nonetheless, we still find ourselves stuck in the “new normal”. Air travel has not resumed for the most part, and many still continue to work from their homes. Safe distancing and the wearing of masks have also become second nature.

As we gradually become accustomed to life in our new reality, I reflected on Singapore’s experience with the pandemic last year, and identified a lesson that would hopefully help us be ready to face the uncertainties that lie ahead of us.

From SARS to COVID-19

In 2003, Singapore was afflicted by SARS, otherwise known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. By the time the SARS coronavirus was eradicated in the country, it had infected some 238 people and claimed the lives of 33 individuals [1]. It had also resulted in the closure of one of Singapore’s busiest hospitals, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, to the general public and cost the economy an estimated $1 billion [2].

Having been hit hard, the nation ramped up its efforts to enhance its pandemic preparedness response in the past two decades. For instance, following the SARS outbreak in 2003, it introduced the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) [3]. This framework has since served as the nation’s foundational response mechanism to any outbreak.

Another example is the enhancement of our public health infrastructure. This had included the construction of the 330-bed infectious diseases management facility - The National Center for Infectious Diseases (NCID), which replaced the Communicable Disease Centre that only held a capacity of 39 isolation beds [4]. Other efforts included the increase of stockpiles of personal protective equipment (PPE) and vaccines for up to 6 months [5].

These efforts paid off to a great extent when the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the nation in January last year. By then, the government had already set up a multi-ministry task force chaired by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

Even as the total number of infections began to rise and local transmissions emerged, the government responded in a systematic fashion and with composure - contact tracing teams were set up at the earliest, hospitals were put on alert, and the DOSCORN level was raised from Yellow to Orange as a means to coordinate a coherent national response.

After almost a year of fighting the pandemic, Singapore could be said today to be in a relatively ‘safe’ and stable position compared to other nations in the world. While not completely out of the woods, it has had low community cases and an efficient public health system able to deal with any sudden changes in the status quo.

On the economic front, although the country experienced its worst ever recession in history due to COVID-19’s impact on businesses, economy experts are positive about a rebound [6]. Moreover, it was recently reported that the country’s overall unemployment rate fell in November- from 3.6% to 3.3.%- for the first time in 2020 [7]. These are encouraging signs that we can take comfort in.

The Blind Spot

Of course, we should take pride in our resilient attitude in braving the pandemic together as a nation. Having gone through such a tumultuous period and faring better relative to most other nations, after all, does deserve some mention and recognition. However, coming this far should not distract us from our shortcomings in dealing with the pandemic; we should still reflect on where we went wrong.

Because, despite having taken great efforts to redress the flaws in our healthcare system or responses evident during the SARS period, Singapore recorded more than 58,000 COVID-19 cases in the past year, the bulk of which came from outbreaks across migrant worker dormitories.

Many in Singapore and around the world have criticised the government’s inaction with respect to the living conditions of migrant workers. Despite migrant worker groups lobbying for better living conditions for years, little had been done to improve the cramped living conditions of these workers, who live and sleep in rooms of 12 to 20 people [8].

Even when the non-profit group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) alerted the possibility of an outbreak occurring, more attention was given to Singaporeans returning from overseas, and the need to isolate them from the rest of the population to prevent local clusters from emerging. [9]

Before long, COVID-19 infections began to explode in foreign worker dormitories, and overnight, Singapore came to be referred to as a “cautionary tale” as the virus seemingly exposed the inequalities in the nation-state. Significantly, migrant workers were deeply affected by the pandemic - not just in terms of contracting the virus and the strict lockdowns they were placed under, but also uncertainties related to their jobs, loss of income, and fears about their loved ones at home.

One must not be quick, however, to be too critical of the government’s efforts as the state did strive to safeguard the migrant worker community. Through measures like rigorous testing and calling for greater tolerance and empathy for these workers, the government did its best to ensure that they were not neglected, and received adequate medical care.

The COVID lesson

The aforementioned problem is only one of many that had come to light as a result of the pandemic. Other issues, such as xenophobia and racism, and socio-economic inequalities between different groups, were also exposed during the course of 2020. Around the world, COVID-19 has also claimed more than a million lives, accelerated inequalities in many countries and battered their economies.

Besides, while we might recall 2020 as a year stricken by pandemic, it also witnessed a host of other challenges - from the Australian bushfires which killed or displaced nearly three billion animals [10] to the Black Lives Matter protests in the US and around the world.

All of these issues - from social inequalities, racism, to climate change - require concerted effort and cooperation of societies and their governments within a domestic context, and multilateral cooperation on a global level, to tackle, and also do not possess clear-cut solutions.

Given these, the lesson that I hope Singapore and Singaporeans glean from this pandemic and the other perils that have hit 2020, is to never rest on our laurels. Despite taking precautions and upgrading the public health system and infrastructure following SARS, we were still caught off guard by COVID-19 and its detrimental impacts on communities and businesses.

Although we have managed the pandemic relatively well thus far, this by no means suggests that we can let our guard down. For instance, in the short run, recovery in the labor market is likely to be protracted in 2021, and this might take until 2022 [11]. In the longer run, Singapore and the world will be inundated with more onerous problems like climate change.

In sum, the pandemic has certainly taught us that there are constant challenges awaiting us, and the only way to be prepared to face these uncertainties is to remain vigilant and anticipate the wide range of complex problems that may emerge in the future. We need not live in constant fear, but not fearing the unknown can be far more perilous.


[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.


Preethiba is a Year 3 Political Science and Economics student, and a Senior Editor at The Convergence. She has a keen interest in international relations and current affairs, and hopes that her writing will help to spark curiosity in current affairs in the larger NUS community and readers of The Convergence. When she is not pouring through her readings and trying to balance her crazy workload, she has her nose in books- anything from Singapore literature to memoirs and autobiographies. Apart from this, she is a massive fan of Harry Potter and Liverpool FC (YNWA!).


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