The Irish Times view on Singapore’s second wave of coronavirus: A cautionary tale

Its strategy did not sufficiently take account of Covid-19’s ‘silent’ transmission via asymptomatic carriers

The reversal is mainly down to a failure to focus sufficiently on the migrant workers who live in cramped communal housing. Photograph: Edgar Su/Reuters

The reversal is mainly down to a failure to focus sufficiently on the migrant workers who live in cramped communal housing. Photograph: Edgar Su/Reuters

 

In the early stages of the coronavirus crisis, Singapore stood out as a standard-bearer. Drawing on lessons it had learned during the Sars outbreak in 2003, the city-state of 5.8 million people responded quickly to a low-level outbreak in early February with an approach centred on rapid testing and sophisticated contact tracing. While other countries were shutting schools and putting their economies to sleep, Singapore contained that outbreak with minimal disruption.

Today, however, Singapore is more of a cautionary tale – one that Ireland and other countries must heed as they plan to reopen after stringent lockdowns while planning for the risks of a second infection wave. Singapore’s Covid-19 cases exceeded 10,000 yesterday, with the total having risen ten-fold since early April. Gentle restrictions on social movement and economic life have been replaced by a partial lockdown that will remain in place until June 1st at the earliest.

The city-state’s reversal is attributable chiefly to a failure to focus sufficiently on the society’s most marginalised people: the migrant workers who fill construction sites while living in cramped communal housing. More than three-quarters of cases now come from dormitories where workers, many of them from the Indian subcontinent, often live 10 to 20 people to one room.

While the Sars experience meant Singapore was quick to begin testing suspected cases and tracing their contacts, their strategy did not sufficiently take account of the ways in which Covid-19 was different to the earlier virus, particularly its “silent” transmission via asymptomatic carriers. Unlike South Korea and Hong Kong, it did not carry out community testing, which meant the disease was able to travel quietly through the dormitories before suddenly appearing as an explosion.

When Ireland and other countries begin to ease their lockdowns in the coming weeks, their success at averting a second wave will be determined in large part by their ability to test widely and to identify new cases quickly. In Singapore, we have an example that tells us the margins between success and failure are dangerously fine.

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