The Covid Diaries are written by Xinova innovators from around the world, who are sharing their expert insights to help understand the global pandemic in all its sprawling complexity, and come up with ideas to solve it one problem at a time.
When Covid-19 came to the world’s attention in January, Singapore was one of the global leaders in moving fast to contain the spread. Singapore started early in January by asking residents to exercise caution, and it was one of the first to stop flights from parts of China. The government raised the risk assessment up a notch to Dorscon Orange on 6 February after it confirmed three new cases, up from the usually daily level of one or two.
For those of us living here, the shift to orange led to bemusement and precautions. Supermarkets in Singapore were some of the first in the world to face bare shelves and a run on toilet paper, provoking giggles and some concerns until the government assured residents that supplies were abundant. Precautions began to prevail, too, as companies started developing contingency plans and asking some staff to work at home. On a personal basis, even though there still seemed to be just 2-3 cases per day, I began working from home more and started holding meetings on Zoom more often.
Over the next several weeks, more companies started putting a Team A and Team B schedules in place, with teams working alternate weeks. Still, restaurants remained open and many people continued commuting to offices across the island.
As students and other Singaporeans living overseas gradually started returning to Singapore in early March after the number of cases increased in Europe and the US, however, the number of new infections gradually rose to about a dozen a day. Numbers continued to increase, and the number of infections hit a new height of 54 on 23 March, with 88 percent imported from other countries. Suddenly, people started taking the situation more seriously. Getting a delivery slot at online grocery stores became more difficult, more people started wearing facemasks and more offices started having workers stay at home.
The daughter of a neighbour who had returned from studies in the UK in mid-March, for example, was given a stay-at-home notice upon arrival. When she was diagnosed with Covid-19 four days later, she was taken to hospital and her family went under full quarantine. I was at a meeting with her father the day before she returned and felt thankful that I’d missed the window of time where I would have been quarantined too for close contact with one of her relatives.
The government continued to ratchet down the size of gatherings, going from a recommended maximum of 1,000 per event to 250. Given that Singapore still had many fewer cases than many other countries, it continued to be seen as a leader. An editorial writer in the Financial Times even opined that “If the US could Singaporise … we could be through the worst within a month.”
Despite the increasing number of cases, however, many residents still didn’t take the situation seriously enough. People congregated in bars, symphony concerts continued, and other places where close contacts were abundant were still open. Even after the number of people from overseas started dropping as people who wanted to come back made it home, then, the number of infections continued to rise.
On 26 March, the government finally took further action and closed bars as well as other entertainment spots such as cinemas. Gatherings were limited to just 10 people. I, and many others, scrambled to shift even more meetings to Zoom.
We watched as the number of cases continued to climb, though, hovering just below 100 for about a week and then reaching 120 on 5 April. The government apparently finally reached a tipping point on 3 April, when it announced that all non-essential businesses would need to close on 7 April and all schools would conduct classes online from 8 April.
Even that, though, didn’t seem to stop people from congregating. The number of cases rose to more than 200 per day, with large clusters in foreign worker dormitories that hold thousands of workers and with sources of infection being traced to popular supermarkets or other essential locations. The government then reacted even more strongly, prohibiting any group of non-family members of 2 people or more and then on 12 April imposing a fine of $300 if anyone was caught outdoors with a non-family member.
The shift from global leader to everyone staying at home, even if it is not formally called a lockdown, has been striking. What has also been striking is the lack of social responsibility. As one Singaporean friend commented in a social media message, “Sadly, Singaporeans tend to be complacent with the “other people not me” attitude. They seem to only understand when fines are imposed. Though we don’t like to be branded a “Fine” country by overseas media, unfortunately the government has no other recourse. Sad they have to resort to such authoritarian actions on some issues.”
So, like it or not, we’re in full stay-at home mode, just like many other parts of the world. “Singaporise” seems to have gone out of vogue.
Many of us, though, see the silver lining. Working from home eliminates the daily commute, meetings with clients at home and abroad work just fine on Zoom, happy hour continues online, church services and concerts have become virtual, and supermarkets are figuring out ways to deliver better. While many of us are looking forward to getting together with friends in person next month, we’re also hoping the advantages of this digital life can continue.
Bio: Richard Hartung has over 20 years of experience in the payments and consumer financial services industry with extensive experience in the Asia Pacific region. In May, 2002 Richard founded Transcarta, which focuses on assisting financial services companies with strategy, payments training programs, operations process enhancement, merchant acquiring, market entry research and other business practices. He is also a freelance writer for Today, gtnews, Challenge, The Asian Banker and OOSKAnews. Richard has a BA from Pomona College and an MBA from Stanford University. He is active in community organizations, including on the boards of the Metropolitan YMCA and the Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore).
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