Singapore neglecting smart nation roots in COVID-19 fumble

Just weeks after championing its vision of an "endemic norm", Singapore takes a big step backwards reinstating COVID-19 restrictions amidst a current outbreak, when it should instead be tapping its technological gains to steer its population confidently forward.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

For years it has pushed an ambitious plan to lead the global stage with its unabashed adoption of technology, but Singapore now appears to have forgotten its smart nation roots amidst a current COVID-19 outbreak. In managing the spread, the government could have leveraged the strides it made in using data and technology--instead, it has chosen simply to revert to tighter restrictions that may erode public confidence and have long-term impact on local businesses. 

Just weeks before, Singapore had championed its vision of an "endemic norm" where COVID-19 could be managed as a less threatening disease much like influenza or chickenpox. 

"The bad news is that COVID-19 may never go away. The good news is that it is possible to live normally with it in our midst," the country's COVID-19 taskforce, comprising its health, finance, and trade ministers, wrote in an opinion piece published June 24 by local daily The Straits Times.

The team laid out a roadmap to get the nation towards this "new norm", which centred on vaccination, testing, treatment, and social responsibility. 

"History has shown that every pandemic will run its course," the ministers persuaded. "We must harness all our energy, resources and creativity to transit as quickly as we can to the desired end-state. Science and human ingenuity will eventually prevail over COVID-19."

However, it seems the virus continues to prevail as Singapore on July 22 reverts to restrictions from which it had just emerged a month ago, with F&B dine-in barred and social gatherings limited to two. Only days earlier, the government had said it would allow dine-in to continue for up to two in a group or five if everyone in the group were vaccinated. 

The latest lockdown came as two large clusters surfaced in the local community, pushing daily infections from single-digit figures less than two weeks ago to 182 on July 20 and 179 on July 21. 

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung last week said hospital capacity, specifically intensive care units (ICUs), was a key consideration in deciding Singapore's safety measures. If capacity was under pressure, measures would need to "tighten up" so capacity could be preserved and hospitals could function properly, Ong said. 

However, even with the spike in daily cases, the number of ICU patients had remained at one and patients needing oxygen supplementation also stagnant at five for the past five days. 

According to Ong, Singapore has an ICU capacity of some 1,000 beds for COVID-19 cases, which clearly is far from being under pressure at the current numbers.

The country also is on track to have two-thirds of the population fully vaccinated by August 9, up from 49% that currently are vaccinated or more than 2.7 million people. To date, more than 6.8 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered.

As further indication we're in a better shape today than we were 18 months ago, people I speak with today are less concerned about falling critically ill from catching COVID-19 than they are about the inconvenience of having to quarantine if they come in close contact with an infected individual.

So it's baffling why the government has deemed it necessary to reinstate restrictions now, so prematurely, and so soon after it preached the need for its population to accept living with a new endemic norm. 

The knee-jerk reaction suggests a sense of panic and risks eroding public confidence that this vision of a new norm can actualise.

Technology can facilitate new endemic norm  

More importantly, there are opportunities here for Singapore to better leverage its aggressive adoption of technology, especially in the past 18 months since the start of the pandemic.  

For one, it had invested significant efforts in developing and pushing the rollout of TraceTogether, its COVID-19 contact tracing platform. The adoption rate of the app and token has hit more than 90% of the local population

It is widely used alongside SafeEntry, a digital checkin tool that collects visitors' personal data when they enter venues such as supermarkets, restaurants, shopping malls, and workplaces. 

This can be integrated in the backend with HealthHub, a healthcare portal and mobile app that enables citizens to manage and view their medical information, including their vaccination status. 

Together, they could be used to facilitate, for instance, a mandate to provide entry only to vaccinated individuals at these locations and all other venues, such as hawker centres and food courts, the government identifies as essential in containing any potential outbreak. 

An integrated TraceTogether, SafeEntry, and HealthHub system should be set up to automatically pull only the visitor's vaccination status, so any data security risks can be mitigated and privacy concerns quelled. When the individual's vaccinated status is verified, the reader automatically beeps green, and the visitor is cleared to enter the venue. 

This will ease the burden of business owners and venue operators to manually check every visitor's vaccination status and minimise human error in carrying out such checks. 

Above all, mandating vaccinated-only entry will encourage recalcitrant individuals to get their shots and compel them to also exercise social responsibility along with the rest of the local population. In particular, the COVID-19 ministerial taskforce has highlighted the urgent need to push vaccination rates of elderly folks, of whom some 200,000 above 60 years remain unvaccinated. 

The health ministry also has collected at least a year's worth of data on COVID-19 cases and there is a corresponding timeline worth of contact tracing data, thanks to the early rollout of TraceTogether. Here, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) can be applied against geosocial data, so vulnerable groups such as the elderly can be quickly identified in emerging clusters and isolated. 

AI-powered forecasts can further help with healthcare resource management. In the UK, for instance, the NHS in February began trials of a machine-learning system to anticipate demand for equipment such as ICU beds and ventilators triggered by COVID-19.

Singapore already has earmarked AI as a critical technology that can create economic value and enhance citizen lives, investing significant resources in driving its development and adoption here. Hence, it shouldn't be a far reach to leverage this in its COVID-19 efforts. 

Given enough thought, I'm pretty sure there are several other ways technology can be better used to help Singapore navigate its way towards a new endemic norm. Ways that may prove more effective than simply rolling in and out restrictions whenever a cluster deemed big enough emerges. 

As it is, businesses have shuttered and others struggle to cope with the disruptions. Small F&B businesses, in particular well-loved hawkers, that are passed down over generations also risk folding under the COVID-19 curbs, taking with them decades-old recipes and heritage. 

There is a clear case study to be learnt here for business leaders. It is pointless having a strong vision and policy roadmap if you lack the gumption and stamina to see it through. And when there's panic at the top, it can trickle down to the rest of the organisation. It also suggests a lack of resilience and resolve amongst the leadership team, who really should be navigating the ship with conviction, rather than the lack of. 

Ironically, Singapore last September retained its pole position for the second year in a global smart city index, thanks partly to its use of technology in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. The IMD-SUTD Smart City Index, which is a collaboration between IMD and Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), defines a smart city as "an urban setting that applies technology to enhance the benefits and diminish the shortcomings of urbanisation for its citizens". 

Can it continue to do so as it attempts to shift towards a new endemic norm? With its smart nation strides, Singapore is in a good position to do so--if it harnesses all its "energy, resources, and creativity" so "science and human ingenuity" will eventually prevail. 


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