Hailed for its early efforts to contain Covid-19, Singapore has recently seen a surge in new coronavirus cases. Still, daily life is surprisingly unaffected.
One morning last week, I woke up to see videos of my friends in New York City, France and Italy serving their voluntary and mandated coronavirus quarantines at home. Meanwhile, in Singapore, I watched my brother — someone suffering from kidney disease and diabetes — head out the door to work at a Nike retail store at Vivocity, one of the biggest shopping malls in Singapore.
I returned to Singapore from New York City on March 10, not to flee Covid-19, but only because I had the flight booked three months prior. This was before cities like New York plunged into lockdown as the first U.S. cases of the disease began spreading. Now I’m reading about panic shopping, eerily empty streets, mass unemployment, and grave fears about ill patients poised to overwhelm an unprepared American health care system.
In Singapore, I’ve been feeling like I’m living in an alternate reality from the rest of the world. On a recent grocery run, store aisles were full and it did not look like anyone was stockpiling, only buying what they need for the next couple of days. McDonalds was crowded with schoolchildren studying and playing with their phones. (Schools are not closed here.) Inside the mall, a Muji sale drew a large crowd and long lines. The trains were packed with workers in office attire. Outside, the hawker centers were full of elderly people drinking coffee and chit-chatting about their families or weather.
I asked my brother if he thought it was dangerous to go to work at the mall, or if he was scared of touching people’s feet all day and sizing them up for shoes. “No, not at all,” he told me. “At work we have to take our temperature twice a day, so it’s safe.”
“You can still have coronavirus even without a fever,” I said. He shrugged.
A friend asked me to go to a movie with him and a few other people last week. “Are you scared of coronavirus, or have you been going out as usual?” I asked, genuinely curious. “No,” he said. “The panic buying, stocking up on masks and toilet paper, all that, it’s over. We got through it in January. Life has to go on.” He’s been going out clubbing two or three times a week now. He showed me photos — the club was popping.
I wondered: Is this what the normalcy on the other side of the coronavirus crisis looks like?
Singapore was among the first places outside China to experience the outbreak: It recorded its first case of Covid-19 back in January 23, on the same day that Chinese authorities locked down the city of Wuhan. Singapore soon had the second-highest number of cases of Covid-19 after China, attributed in large part to travelers from China coming to Singapore over the Lunar New Year. But since then, this densely populated city-state of 5.8 million people has been able to keep its numbers down with some success while other countries — South Korea, Iran, and then Italy — surged ahead.
Singapore’s health system — aided by the city-state’s well-known regime of technological surveillance — responded swiftly and aggressively: Hospitals started redividing teams and had wards emptied out to make space for pneumonia cases, as well as for non-pneumonia patients with travel to China, in case they were infected as well. By testing all pneumonias as well as coughs and fevers, officials were able to pick up and track community transmissions quickly.
Temperature screening was rapidly rolled out at the airport, entrances to office buildings, schools and workplaces. Singapore also doggedly traced and tested suspected cases, put all close contacts of a confirmed case under home quarantine, plotted clusters of infection and then made this information transparent and accessible to the public. Confirmed cases have their age, gender, address and places they visited listed on the Ministry of Health’s website. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and a special ministerial task force focused on Covid-19 frequently share videos and social media updates about their interventions, explaining any new risks and reassuring people that they are prepared, that citizens do not have to stockpile or plan for a lockdown, and to only buy what they need.
Those measures have succeeded in keeping the rate of local transmission low — only between 5 to 15 cases each day are from contracting the virus locally — and Singapore’s aggressive response was praised by the World Health Organization for its “all of society, all-government approach.” And while Europe and the United States have clamped down borders, canceled events, and closed offices, restaurants and other public spaces, the Singapore government has managed to maintain a strong sense of normalcy amid the pandemic. Large gatherings, senior-centric activities and after-school events may be canceled and social-distancing regulations limiting seating are in effect, but people still go out to movies and restaurants. Some firms might ask their Singaporean employees to work from home, but many workers still go to their offices every day. The government has reminded us to only wear masks if we are unwell.
To my surprise, Singapore has managed to keep a lid on community transmission without relying on broad testing, as South Korea has done. Their approach was to focus on vulnerable populations and those who were ill, so that hospitals are not overwhelmed by suspected cases.
After arriving from New York, I called my neighborhood polyclinic — governmental community clinics — to ask if I could get swabbed just in case I was an asymptomatic carrier. I learned that polyclinics would send people with a history of travel to high-risk regions and respiratory symptoms to get tested. But the United States was not part of the list at that time, and I did not have respiratory symptoms, so I was told I would not be tested. (On March 19, the U.S. was added to that list of high-risk regions.)
But as the disease spreads in Europe and the U.S., Singapore is now looking at stricter approach. In the past several days, more new cases began emerging, including a new high of 54 on March 23. About 80% of these new Covid-19 infections were imported, largely from Singaporean residents and long-term pass holders returning from abroad. Singapore also reported its first two deaths attributed to the virus.
On March 18, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs a ministerial task force to tackle the virus, announced an expansion of the Stay-Home Notice, which mandates that travelers and returning residents must remain inside a local residence or hotel for 14 days. Once only for those coming from virus hotspots, it will now apply to all inbound passengers to Singapore, regardless of country of departure. Unlike the voluntary shelter-in-place requests issued by other U.S. states and countries, Singapore’s system is rigorously enforced with phone calls, random home visits, and technology. Those under Stay-Home Notice are texted several times a day, for example, so that they can check in via GPS to confirm their whereabouts.
Wong also said that the city was tightening its social distancing rules, putting a 250-person cap on large gatherings and mandating one-meter spaces between restaurant diners and event attendees. And as of Monday, March 23, all short term visitors will also not be allowed to enter or transit through Singapore. “We have to do more stringent measures,” he said in a press conference, “and it cannot just be business as usual.”
Meanwhile, neighboring Malaysia is enforcing a nationwide movement control order from March 18 to 31 to ban Malaysians from traveling abroad, halt mass gatherings, restrict foreigners coming in and shut down all schools. Manila is shutting down transportation links in and out of the city.
Still, the updated health regulations in Singapore don’t suggest everyone self-quarantine or stay indoors, the way that many cities in Europe, the United States and our neighboring countries are doing. And over the weekend after the new rules were announced, life seemed minimally affected. For now, at least, I still have my feet in two worlds; seeing friends in America and Europe put their daily lives on hold while outside my condominium window, families are swimming together, children are playing in the playground and office workers are returning home.
Have Singaporeans become a little too confident that they’re protected from the spread of the virus? When I asked Nur Atiqa Asri, a Singaporean urban planner currently residing in Brooklyn, about conditions here, she was shocked to see crowds of people walking around in Singapore. “I totally understand that Singapore has some of the best health care in the world, but Singaporeans are also some of the most mobile residents of the world,” she said. “So even if they’re not contracting the virus at home, there are others who are getting it elsewhere. I worry more about the older segments of the population, people who are around my parents’ age that are still warming up to the idea that they need to take extra precautions — definitely driven by complacency and overconfidence in Singapore’s systems.”
The difference was also jarring for Xi Jie Ng, a Singaporean artist in residence at UMass-Dartmouth who recently chose to return to Singapore. “Having just come from the U.S., where my community is taking this very seriously because their government has failed them, where my friends are self-quarantining and maintaining six-feet distance if out for walks, it feels dissonant for my currently high-alert system to see people out here,” said Ng. “Our cases are definitely going to rise, because people flying home to the comfort of ‘best-in-the-world’ Singapore are spreading it if they don’t home-quarantine first.”
Ng self-quarantined when she arrived, and overall, she still has a lot of confidence that Singapore can continue to suppress the outbreak. “Here the palm trees are swaying and the birds are chirping, a la tropical paradise — a paradise that can manage the coronavirus,” she said. “I guess if we can be a little more careful while being grateful for our health care system and fast-acting government, we’ll be all right.”