“Selective” COVID-19 Reporting?

I thought the recent NYTimes and BBC reporting on Singapore’s COVID-19 situation was rather selective not to label their news article as an opinion piece, instead seemingly reporting it as “fact”, missing most of the broader points. I would like to write a few points to paint my thoughts on the COVID-19 response in Singapore, from a risk angle, a technology angle and some of the issues that we’re still grappling with.

Yes, I think in the initial stages of the pandemic, we were reactive. Indeed, the situation in the migrant worker dormitories was suboptimal. Today, the situation is still unequal, but at least, we have got the pandemic somewhat under control, and am on track to slowly reopen Singapore for business.

Let us now look at the COVID-19 situation around the world. First, from a public health perspective, can we track the progress of cases so that officials can effectively triage, isolate and manage COVID-19 cases? The answer in Singapore during the initial stages of COVID-19 was “not really”, but today this answer is likely to be “yes”. There are individual prices to pay for this; each of us in Singapore is told to sign up for a proximity-monitoring contact tracing solution called TraceTogether, each of us also needs to scan at locations of prolonged congregation with SafeEntry to monitor spaces we have been to and need to mask up wherever we need to go. Migrant workers, as this article alludes, still cannot wander out too much.

But let us ask ourselves. What are the first-order issues during COVID-19 crises? First, for the migrant workers, their choices are between returning to their home country and forgoing their job in Singapore, because they have no work-from-home privileges; and staying in Singapore with great uncertainty anyway. Therefore, the decision in Singapore was to pay migrant workers even during circuit breaker when they could not do work. There are at least two reasons why I would support that. Morally, it is only right to provide a living option for our migrant workers who have built our country. More pragmatically, it is also only right that we pay our migrant workers so that post-COVID, they can naturally return to work without having to further propagate the downstream impact on their livelihood to other innocent parties. In dealing with the first-order issues, we have done with; few have died and more importantly, we have saved the livelihoods of our migrant workers whenever we can with extremely limited resources during the first phase of COVID-19. The point in bold is important; hindsight on COVID-19 testing regimes is 20/20, but we need to think about the serious limitations there were on testing capabilities during the time Singapore encountered its COVID-19 case spike. These limitations meant that Singapore did not have the luxury to put workers through multiple rounds of COVID-19 testing with different methods of testing, unlike today’s testing options. While they will still feel the psychological uncertainty, the government has helped to reduce the economic uncertainty of their situation. In this respect, we have done better than many other countries that have similar demographic challenges, namely the Gulf countries.

The second-order issue is to re-integrate our migrant workers. But even within the local population, we are treated unequally due to the risk factors involved. For instance, even during Phase 3, there exists great restrictions on nightspot operators, and events with congregations are still not back to any semblance of full strength. The reasons are quite clear; the calibrated opening is to test the resiliency of our COVID-19 response systems against cases and clusters that might spark with increasing crowds should we still have asymptomatic case reservoirs in our local population. I tend to believe these exist. Unfortunately, since COVID-19 has exposed the issues behind the dormitories, one risk factor has not changed: the migrant worker dormitories are still not upgraded yet; even quick build dormitories are not instant. Hence, there still exists continued segregation between different groups of people, depending on the risk factors of their population groups.

Hence, the likelier prospect today is a gradual easing of measures, and I want to, at some point, see our migrant worker friends enjoy their picnics on our grass fields, and enjoy their days off performing their preferred past-times once more.

From the migrant worker lens, the trade-offs here are more stark. Dormitory standards today are not pandemic resistant, which explains the straightforward decision to improve them. But what is perhaps harder to appreciate is how migrant workers view their choices. Migrant workers came to Singapore in the hope of a better future in comparison to their home countries. For them, their choices are between staying in Singapore or returning home, since moving to a third country to work is likely not an option as long as restrictions continue to exist. What we can do as a country is to make sure, if they choose to stay in Singapore, they would not be short-changed on their ability to make ends meet.

Let’s now take a more strategic view of COVID-19. Will COVID-19 disappear? Increasingly, the answer seems to be “no”. We are likely to have to live with COVID-19 as endemic, and governments are trying to figure out how to return lives and livelihoods sustainably with such a forecast. Not everyone will revert to what they once did. So what’s the new normal like? Truth is, no one knows, and governments around the world are trying to experiment how a world with COVID-19 being endemic will be, balancing multiple contentions such as political cost, economic cost and mental health cost. Perhaps it will be like the seasonal flu with vaccinations as a mitigation. Perhaps we will all wear masks like how many people in Japan do so. Maybe we will live with more digital engagement and less physical engagement. Can we erect “business bubbles” properly for those who must meet over long distances, while simultaneously providing a source of customers to sustain our hospitality and retail sectors? I don’t know the answers to any of these. But maybe we will all wear out over time with all these measures. Because of these unknowns, governments are experimenting what can be done with increasing levels of risk, and should incidents happen, whether their current systems can effectively triage, isolate and treat/manage these incidents. This is why, despite the low case numbers, there is still great insistence on TraceTogether and SafeEntry in Singapore. I would go so far to say that care has been taken to balance against privacy concerns, which is why TraceTogether is a proximity tracking solution and not a location tracking one, unlike the apps we all make use of rather unquestionably like FourSquare, Waze, Google Location, Eatigo and more. From a technical angle, I tend to believe the Government did the right things largely from a strategic point of view.

Let us also take the time to explore more uncharted waters. Why is COVID-19 important to us as a learning lesson? Pandemics can and will happen. COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic despite the advances in medical science. But COVID-19 has shown the inadequacies in our worldwide response capabilities despite our advances in technology. COVID-19 gave some countries great opportunity to make use of technology, for the first time, to build up pandemic readiness infrastructure. COVID-19 is the first pandemic on such scale that made us all think about how we can make use of the extensive capabilities of the smartphone for public purposes as opposed to mostly commercial ones. And for those that have experimented with the technology, we see that it can deliver outcomes for the public good, such as the trust that the government is now on top of the pandemic and can contain incidents as they surface.

Let’s be fair when discussing about COVID-19. The core issues have always been about saving as many lives as we can, reducing the number of cases and likely clusters that could emerge, and also making sure that the people under the care of their respective governments can emerge from COVID-19 without too much economic fall-out.

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