If you compare death and hospitalisation rates in Singapore to that of the rest of the world, one can argue that Singapore ranks at the top of the world in managing the pandemic. At no time were our hospitals and ICU overwhelmed. The secret to Singapore’s success is the trust between the government and the people by creating a partnership of give-and-take. Here is how it happened.
- The creation of a functional Multi Ministry Task Force(MTF) to manage the pandemic by incorporating all aspects of the government was the key to success. The nation can see through the MTF daily news conference and briefings that the team is united in its purpose and clearly working as a team. I am sure there are internal disagreements between ministers, but when they spoke, they spoke with one direction. The ministers do not normally waste time on trying to deflect blame or play politics. They devoted their efforts to tactical problem solving. During the height of the crisis when there is much fear and uncertainty, the benefit of a steady hand steering the ship cannot be overstated. Over time, trust is built through transparency and clear communications. Of course there were decisions that were incorrect in hindsight but it is good to see the team acknowledge them and move forward.
- Execution matters – in full view of the public or behind the scenes. When the first lockdown appeared imminent, there was palpable fear in the community that we would run out of food and essential supplies. There we social media posts of runs in the supermarkets all over the world. Yes, we may laugh about the run on toilet paper, instant noodles, rice and eggs but people were clearly scared. Luckily, it was brought under control quickly through very visible restocking of the shelves by our top supermarket chains. They stacked visibly towers of supplies in front of the stores to engender confidence. This put a quick end to the run. Another important program that helped is TraceTogether – and I do not mean just the smartphone app. The government had thought through all the logistical challenges including senior citizens who do not have smartphones. Within months, they rolled out the TraceTogether tokens and distributed them through the Community Centers free of charge and followed up with an ongoing service program to help replace tokens that have stopped working or run out of battery. Behind the scenes, the various teams should be commended for pulling all this off almost flawlessly.
- The leadership team followed the science. The HSA was left to do its work to study what vaccines to approve for Emergency Use Authorisation (EUA) that met its standards of safety and efficacy – and most importantly, had sufficient clinical trial data to back up all the claims. Turns out the mRNA vaccines that was approved continues to be highly protective when compared to other vaccines even against the new variants of concern. Transparency in reporting and explaining to the public potential side effects is also important to building confidence. While no vaccine is perfect and without side effects, the trust in the MOH is evident by Singapore achieving one of the highest vaccination rates in almost every age group (with the exception of >70).
- The government was quick to provide financial relief to Singaporeans. We know from the start that this pandemic impacts different parts of the community differently. Since the first Circuit Breaker, the finance ministry was quick to provide salary and wage relief to employers so that there would be no massive layoffs (like in the US). For those that are not directly in the salaried workforce or are retired, the government took care of them through direct cash transfers. The relief provided confidence in the public that the government had their backs.
- The government has a clear roadmap to getting us out of the pandemic. When WHO first declared this a global pandemic, the most important part of the government’s strategy is to protect the health of the population and prevent our healthcare resources from being overwhelmed. In hindsight, this is not an easy task because there was so much unknown. Singapore looked in horror what was happening to Italy, Brazil and USA at that time. But the game plan was clear that we needed to hold the fort until a vaccine came along. At that time, there were no guarantees that one would come along soon or ever. The government also made the right call to place bets by ordering vaccines even when they had not received EUA so that we would be first in line. Singapore was literally the first few countries in Asia to receive the vaccines when they available. The strategic foresight to make this purchase probably saved many lives. The third piece of the strategy is the pivot from a pandemic to endemic once Singapore has reached herd immunity. But there are still many unknowns including the possibility of new variants of concern that could evade our vaccine protection. Even then, the MTF has already planned for a potential booster shot, if needed.
We are almost 16 months into the pandemic and so much has happened that has tested our patience and resilience as a nation. If you look to our neighbors in the north and south, we should be thankful for where we are today. We should take nothing for granted. But we have earned the right to give ourselves a pat in the back. And a big thank you to the government leaders, backroom specialists and experts, contact tracer, social distancing ambassadors and all the front liners for getting us here – which is not a bad place. I believe we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel.