Over the past few weeks, COVID-19 has spread even further across the globe, with close to 100,000 cases reported in over 80 countries. In South Korea, a super-spreader from the city of Daegu who initially refused to test for the virus led to a massive surge in infections, while Italy now has the most recorded number of deaths from the virus outside of China.
As governments all over the world struggle to contain COVID-19, some are looking to Singapore for inspiration. While we were one of the earliest countries to report COVID-19 infections, we have so far been successful in limiting widespread infections in our communities and more importantly, many patients have recovered and been discharged.
But what exactly has Singapore done in response to the COVID-19 outbreak and why has it been working for us?
While watching news coverage about the virus, you probably heard about ‘contact tracing’, but have you ever wondered what it entails?
Singapore has a large team of contact tracers who are mobilized during times of outbreak. They are tasked with tracking and corroborating a patient’s movements and then identifying any potential close contacts. This process begins in the hospital, where patients are made to map out their movements across the past 14 days, which is then verified by the team of contact tracers.
If you think it sounds easy, don’t forget that we tend to not be very observant at times, so a contact tracer might be told that a patient took a cab but not know what kind. In such cases, they might have to contact the patient’s friend or even check CCTV camera footage to verify and identify close contacts.
Sometimes, contact tracers struggle to verify the information and have to tap onto additional resources, including the police. This is how they were able to find a link between two COVID-19 clusters despite there not being an overt connection.
But, obviously, it doesn’t just end with identifying who the patient has been in contact with. The contact tracer then has to make a decision on whether that contact is considered a close contact or not, and check to see if they are sick. Close contacts who are well are asked to complete a 14-day quarantine while those who are symptomatic are immediately hospitalised.
The government took measures to ensure that any potential infections had minimal contact with the community. This was done through the Quarantine Order (QO), Leave of Absence (LOA), and later, the Stay Home Notice (SHN).
Initially, travellers who were returning from mainland China were issued an LOA, which meant that they were strongly advised to stay at home but were allowed to go out for daily necessities or for important matters. However, some people flouted their LOA requirements by going back to work, leading to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) revoking work passes, repatriating foreign workers, and suspending the employers’ work pass privileges. An exchange student from the National University of Singapore (NUS) was also sent back home after she was found to have violated her LOA.
The LOA was later upgraded to the SHN, which has much stricter rules in place to even further limit any potential community spread of the virus. Anyone issued with the SHN is not allowed to leave their house under any circumstances or they might be persecuted under the Infectious Diseases Act.
The SHN now applies to not only those returning from mainland China but even those coming back from South Korea, northern Italy, and Iran.
Have you ever had a desire to track the number of COVID-19 cases across the world? This infographic has you covered. There is also a similar infographic that tracks clusters in Singapore with links to news articles to help you better understand the virus situation in the country. Our own Speedoc.com website itself hosts a page where the outbreak is visually represented on a map of Singapore.
But infographics aside, one of the key ways in which Singapore has been disseminating information about COVID-19 has been through the popular messaging app, Whatsapp. Since late January, Singaporeans who have signed up for the service has been receiving daily updates about the virus situation in Singapore. Most impressively, when signing up, they can choose whether they want to receive updates in English, Chinese, Malay, or Tamil.
The daily updates are not just crucial in updating the general populace, but it also helps in pushing back against fake news.
Similarly, after Singapore raised its alert level to DORSCON orange, people started hoarding items like instant noodles, rice, and toilet paper, leading to empty shelves in supermarkets across the island. In response, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong went on television to calm everyone down and highlight some of the precautionary measures Singapore was putting in place to curb the spread of the virus. His main message? Fear and panic can do more harm than COVID-19. It seemed to have worked because the next day, lines were shorter and people were no longer buying stockpiles of food.
While Singapore has done an admirable job in containing the spread of COVID-19, we should not rest on our laurels. After all, the number of cases is only increasing and it is continuing to spread to more countries.
Instead, we must continue to work with the government to ensure that there are no widespread community infections. This includes complying with any potential stay home notices, seeing a doctor if we are feeling unwell, and maintaining good and proper hygiene. Together, we can ensure that we tide over this outbreak even better than we did with SARS back in 2003.