How Singapore led the world in coronavirus containment – and the lessons Europe could still learn

Europe can learn from Singapore's ruthless efficiency in testing and tracing Covid-19 cases

A visitor wearing protective face mask walks past artworks at the Singapore Biennale in the National Gallery
A visitor wearing protective face mask walks past artworks at the Singapore Biennale in the National Gallery on Sunday Credit: HOW HWEE YOUNG/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Singapore, along with Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea, has emerged as a global leader in the fight against coronavirus and it is not too late for western countries to adopt some of their successful measures.

Despite its strong trade ties, proximity to China and function as a major airline transit hub, the city-state of 5.7 million has to date kept the coronavirus in check through aggressive testing measures and intensive tracing of carriers.

The use of sophisticated technology to track movements of infected Covid-19 carriers and clear public messaging have been highly effective in containing the disease.

Like others in the region, its deadly brush with Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) in 2003 meant that the country was well-prepared for the current pandemic.

When China first reported the mysterious Sars-like virus on December 31, Singapore within days had increased screening at its borders with ruthless efficiency.

At this point, very little was known about the virus but Singaporean laboratories immediately began to swing into action to bolster their mass testing capacity and develop their own test kits.

A common tactic in the countries which have kept death tolls low and infection rates from spiraling out of control has been the widespread use of testing to identify and isolate carriers, some of whom may be asymptomatic.

By doing so, this reduces the spread of Covid-19 and prevents hospitals and medical staff from being overwhelmed.

By March 20, densely populated Singapore had conducted 38,000 tests, or about 6,800 per million of its population.

Testing alone has not been enough. The Asian financial hub has also had the benefit of a dedicated 6,000-strong team who have meticulously tracked down the contacts of confirmed cases, ordering them to self-isolate until they have been tested and cleared.

The tracing team has used CCTV footage to find people. In recent days, a voluntary contact-tracing smartphone app – TraceTogether - has been launched to allow the local authorities to quickly track those who have been exposed.

The Government Technology Agency (GovTech) last week launched a new contact-tracing smartphone app Credit: CATHERINE LAI/AFP via Getty Images

The app uses wireless Bluetooth technology to identify anyone within 2 metres of a diagnosed case for at least 30 minutes.

Those in isolation are contacted several times a day and required to send photographic evidence of their exact location. Stiff fines or even jail terms await offenders.

The technological intrusion to locate and track carriers has raised privacy issues and concerns about its possible abuse in future.

However, Singaporeans also appear to be motivated by a strong sense of collective responsibility when their tiny territory is threatened, quickly adapting to hygiene and social distancing measures.

As a result, life has maintained a sense of semi-normality, with schools and businesses still running.

Travellers are issued with a 14-day Stay-Home Notice (SHN) on arrival Credit: AFP

Singapore’s ongoing success, however, has been dependent on western countries holding up their end of the bargain in pandemic response.

Asian countries fighting the virus since January are now seeing an uptick of imported cases from Europe and the US after they arguably failed to capitalise on their two-month ‘headstart’ to adequately prepare for the onslaught of the virus.

On Sunday, after another spike in cases imported from the UK and US, Singapore said it would no longer allow short-term visitors to enter or transit through its territory from Monday at midnight.

“These are very significant moves, especially for a small open economy like Singapore that has always been connected to the world,” said Lawrence Wong, the national development minister.

Western nations may have missed their chance to block the entry of the virus at their borders, but there is still much to emulate in Singapore’s robust approach.