Updated: Jul 13
By Zenia Pang
When COVID-19 hit our shores in January, we countered it with stringent temperature-taking, contact tracing, and quarantines. Not much was known about the virus at that point, so we took a leaf out of our SARS rulebook, using past experience to shape our policies towards an unknown adversary. In hindsight, COVID-19’s lower fatality rate could have meant that the initial measures were overly-rigorous. But though some might chafe at the idea of an inefficient allocation of resources, the fact remains that these precautionary measures worked. In the first 3 months, case numbers were kept low, eliciting praise from even Harvard University itself. Then the narrative shifted - a slight change in course to start, and then a seismic break.
When the cases in the dormitories exploded, many of us were shocked. But the spread has been festering for a while now, left unchecked and allowed to blossom amidst the densely packed rooms. A haven of hosts, all ripe for the picking - or infecting. The coronavirus went on a rampage, infecting more than 40,000 migrant workers by June 25. This unleashed a social uproar regarding the cramped living conditions of the workers. Coupled with the insidious nature of the virus’ incubation period, the workers’ physical proximity to each other worked like a spark to dry tinder.
But now we’re here, 3 weeks into Phase 2, and in the wake of a media-hogging General Election. Against the future of our nation, the urgency of containing the coronavirus has taken a backseat. Our newspapers are peppered with GE headlines, our social media flooded with information from a newly-born crop of ‘political experts’. It almost seems like the pandemic is over, for all the air-time it has received since campaigning started.
But it has not, and we would do well to remember that. Because while the GE is revelling in the attention we are foisting on it, the pandemic has not even stopped to take a breather. July 7 saw the Health Minister Gan Kim Yong placating fears that we might be experiencing a second wave, despite the uptick in cases. The fact that he felt the need to address the issue is a potential red flag, a sign that perhaps we should be even more cautious about our current social interaction habits. Masked by the downwards trend of the dormitory cases, the number of community cases have been steadily increasing, reaching 23 cases on July 6. The new cluster in Tampines serves as a stark reminder that COVID-19 has yet to leave. In this, it also crushes the idea of a gap between the dormitories and the community. Singapore will only heal when all of its residents are cleared of the virus.
The MOH’s meticulous cataloging of places visited by infected individuals makes it easier for others to take precautionary measures. If you’ve been to an identified place at a certain time, you’re urged to monitor your health closely for 14 days. This list also gives a glimpse into our post-CB habits. It’s not surprising that restaurants and cafes rank high on this list, along with supermarkets and malls. We’re foodies at heart, all of us, and during the circuit breaker, eating out was what we have missed the most. But here’s a food for thought: A JPMorgan study has drawn a link between restaurant spending and a faster spread of the coronavirus. A rise in spending in a state predicted a rise in new infection weeks 3 weeks later. Could our foodie culture lead to a rise in case numbers? This is compounded by the lack of social distancing in public transport, raising yet more questions: are the current public transportation advisories too relaxed? Should physical distancing be more stringently implemented, especially in these confined environments?
What it all boils down to is social responsibility. The it-is-legal-so-I-can attitude should be replaced with the I-should-be-doing-this-to-reduce-spread attitude. It’s only when we work together, as a cohesive unit dedicated to eradicating the virus that it can actually be chased out. It might be helpful to think of distancing requirements, gathering restrictions, and mandatory masks less as rules you need to obey, and more as preconditions for good health.
The multi-ministry task force has conceived an expanded toolkit to deal with the inevitable upsurge in cases. As before, the foundations of this strategy lie in identifying and rooting out possible clusters as soon as possible, through an expanded testing capacity and a more targeted and swifter action plan. While a return to Circuit Breaker days is not completely off the charts, the task force is determined to stay as far from that path as reasonably possible. In line with this, we need to accommodate physical distancing into our interactions and mobility habits for the long term, not just for a stipulated lockdown period. At least until a vaccine has been developed, we should always choose to err on the side of caution.
It’s only been 6 months, but they have been stuffed to the brim with lessons we should take to heart. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this is that unlike human nature, the virus does not discriminate. Singapore heals at a whole, or not at all. And underpinning all that is the need for a more socially responsible society, where every individual plays their role in making our homes and selves the most inhospitable vessels for the coronavirus to flourish. We now face COVID-19 a lot more prepared than we were at the start of the year. We’ve learnt to anticipate, to ring-fence, to root out potential cases. Unexpectedly, we've also grown comfortable in the flux of fear and uncertainty. Our next steps are crucial to prevent a second wave. Do not let hubris unravel all that we have worked for, or lay to waste all the sacrifices that have been made.
Stay up to date on COVID-19 in Singapore here, in easily digestible infographics.
If you are an employer concerned about how your employees travel, see how RushTrail can help provide safe transportation for them.
Zenia Pang is a fan of books, food, and happy endings. She is a writer for WiseOwl, and spends much of her time with coffee and The New York Times Crosswords. She loves laughing, and is very capable of talking the ears off a wall.