What can Europe learn from Singapore in managing the coronavirus pandemic?
Hello everyone! I hope that you are all safe, wherever you are in the world! I am currently based in Singapore for my semester abroad and I will use this article to provide an interesting reading during these boring days at home; this piece will be also an occasion for me to systematically organize my thoughts regarding the different responses that Asian and European countries have given in face of this crisis.
Where should we start? I guess from the moment most of us first heard about the infamous coronavirus spreading in China, which can be traced back to the middle of January, just a couple weeks after my arrival from Europe. Singapore started to spread awareness immediately as the Chinese New Year's celebrations were approaching. In fact, Singapore is a very diverse country in terms of ethnicities: 76% of the population is Chinese; they had therefore foreseen a huge movement across borders during that time. We were one of the first countries to implement travel bans to and from mainland China.
Asian countries have been fighting against the virus for two months now and it seems like they are finally getting out of it. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has been moving faster than the responses of the governments worldwide and has now reached the Western countries, which arrogantly often consider themselves immune to the events taking place on the Eastern side of the globe because they are perceived as too far. I will, therefore, list and explain some of the reasons why I believe Singapore has been able to contain the outbreak so far, while European countries have not.
Just to clarify the extent to which this threat has been underestimated I have included two tweets posted by the US president, one from March 9
and the other one from five days later:
There is just one caveat to be taken into account before starting: I am basing our analysis on the number of cases reported by the ASEAN countries to the WHO. There is, however, a very harsh debate regarding the reliability of this data. In fact, it could be the case that the health systems of these countries are simply not equipped to test people or that governments of these countries are actively trying to conceal the real numbers: a proof of this could be the fact that the number of deaths is very close to the number of cases, which most of the times are foreign nationals; therefore, these countries might be declaring just the ones for which they have no other option.
What did Singapore do differently?
First of all, a lot of people in Europe are not taking into account that Asian countries fought against a similar virus known as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) between November 2002 and July 2003. It presented itself in a quite similar way to the COVID-19 (they belong to the same family): it originated in China, in the Guangdong province, presumably in bats. It spread all over Asia, infecting 238 people in Singapore.
Due to this previous experience, the country had the chance not to replicate the same mistakes made back then and also to use the expertise it had developed to implement some precautionary measures. This is the reason why today, after more than two months of fighting the virus, Singapore has just 200 active cases.
This has been achieved thanks to the extreme measures put in place by Singapore along with the appearance of new cases. The Ministry of Health has issued an order forbidding all the events involving the participation of more than 50 people (as a reminder, most European countries used 1000 people as a benchmark). As a logical consequence, all the classes in universities with more than 50 students got moved online and almost all events nationwide got canceled or postponed. Moreover, the government placed temperature screening devices at the entrance of all buildings, including clubs, bars, supermarkets, and college campuses. Along with these, all students on campus are required to declare their body temperature on the university platform twice a day, taking pictures of the thermometer to avoid lies, and they are denied participation to classes if the system does now show their compliance with the norm.
The second element that I consider very relevant in containing the outbreak is the fact that (unfortunately) no such thing like the "Asian Union" or "Schengen agreement" exist in this region: borders among countries here are real borders with passport controls, which makes controlling people's movements a lot easier. Every airport can check the stamps on travelers' passports to make sure that they did not travel to the infected areas; otherwise, they are facing either the mandatory quarantine or the refusal of entry depending on the specific case. Moreover, all the borders (airports, harbors and land checkpoints) have implemented a temperature screening process to check travelers upon entry.
Another element is the fact that most of the South-East Asian countries are not governed by democratic regimes, which entails a very high degree of effectiveness when dealing with emergencies. In practice, this implies that, upon the issuance of directives, they enter into force within a couple of hours simply because there is no such thing as disagreement. Another effect of the situation is that the population follows very closely and immediately the directives given by the government, allowing a more rapid and effective containment of the virus. Coming from a country like Italy, the rigor present here is quite surprising: an unrelated example just to clarify the extent of this discipline, could be the ban on eating and drinking in the subway, obeyed by everyone without exception; moreover, there is a phone number under the signpost which people can use to report failures to comply with the rule, and it is also suggest to take pictures of the fact.
Finally, most of the countries here got very lucky because the virus spread into very defined clusters, allowing the states to contain it by curing the infected people and quarantining everyone who has had contact with them even in a second-degree stage. For example, Singapore had approximately 50 cases connected to one church, but the problem was immediately neutralized.
Learning from our mistakes
I am well aware that some of the measures implemented here and mentioned in the article could not be applied to most of the other countries, simply due to the differences in institutional setting, population and size; for example, Singapore is a sovereign state, but in terms of size it is smaller than Rome (719.1 km2 vs 1,285 km2).
Having said this, I would like to stress the importance of prompt action by the governments as soon as the first cases appear: I really hope that Italy will be a wake-up call for all other countries in the world. This virus is not a game and it is threatening the entire world right now, not just China.
My aim is only to provide a different perspective to this global crisis and suggest measures that could be taken into account for the future, so that if something like this is to happen again, we will be better prepared and the situation will not escalate, preventing disruptions and deaths.
In this series, our writers share their thoughts on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They rely on personal experiences and observations during this difficult time. The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect positions of European Generation.