For years it has pushed an ambitious plan to lead the world stage with its shameless adoption of technology, but Singapore now appears to have forgotten its roots as a smart nation amid a current COVID-19 outbreak. To manage the spread, the government could have taken advantage of advances in the use of data and technology – instead, it simply chose to revert to tighter restrictions that could erode public trust and have long-term impact on local businesses.
A few weeks earlier, Singapore had defended its vision of an “endemic standard” where COVID-19 could be managed as a less threatening disease, much like the flu 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 among us,” wrote the country’s COVID-19 task force, made up of its ministers of Health, Finance and Commerce. in an opinion piece published on June 24 by local Daily The times of the straits.
The team laid out a roadmap to bring the nation to this “new normal”, which centers on immunization, testing, treatment and social responsibility.
“History has shown that every pandemic will take its course”, persuaded ministers. “We need to harness all of our energy, resources and creativity to move as quickly as possible to the desired end state. Science and human ingenuity will eventually trump COVID-19.”
However, it appears the virus continues to prevail as Singapore returns on July 22 to restrictions it had just emerged from a month ago, with F&B dinners banned and social gatherings limited to two. Days earlier, the government had said it would allow dinner to eat up to two in a group or five if everyone in the group was vaccinated.
The latest lockdown came as two large clusters surfaced in the local community, pushing daily infections from single digits less than two weeks ago to 182 on July 20 and 179 on July 21.
Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said last week that hospital capacity, especially intensive care units (ICUs), was a key factor in deciding Singapore’s security measures. If capacity was under pressure, measures would have to “tighten” so that capacity can be preserved and hospitals can function properly, Ong said.
However, even with the peak in daily cases, the number of ICU patients remained at one and patients requiring oxygen supplementation also stagnated at five in the past five days.
Singapore has an intensive care capacity of around 1,000 beds for COVID-19 cases, according to Ong, which is clearly far from under pressure with current figures.
The country is also on track for two-thirds of the population to be fully immunized by August 9, up from 49% currently 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 a further indication that we are in better shape today than 18 months ago, the people I speak with today are less concerned about getting seriously ill after catching COVID-19 than about the inconvenience. to have to quarantine if they come in contact with an infected person.
It is therefore bewildering why the government has found it necessary to reinstate restrictions now, so prematurely, and so soon after preaching the need for its people to come to terms with a new endemic standard.
The knee-jerk reaction suggests a sense of panic and risks eroding public confidence that this vision of a new standard can come to fruition.
Technology can facilitate a new endemic standard
More importantly, there are opportunities here for Singapore to better capitalize on its aggressive adoption of the technology, especially in the past 18 months since the start of the pandemic.
On the one hand, it had invested significant efforts in the development and deployment of TraceTogether, its COVID-19 contact tracing platform. The app and token adoption rate has reached over 90% of the local population.
It is widely used with SafeEntry, a digital registration tool that collects the personal data of visitors as they enter places such as supermarkets, restaurants, malls, and workplaces.
This can be integrated into the backend with HealthHub, a healthcare portal and mobile app that allows citizens to manage and view their medical information, including their immunization status.
Together, they could be used to facilitate, for example, a mandate to provide entry only to those vaccinated at these and all other places, such as hawking centers and food courts, which the government identifies as essential to contain any potential outbreak.
An integrated TraceTogether, SafeEntry and HealthHub system should be configured to automatically extract only the visitor’s vaccination status, so that any data security risks can be mitigated and privacy concerns resolved. When the person’s immunized status is verified, the reader automatically beeps green and the visitor is allowed to enter the site.
This will ease the burden on business owners and site operators to manually check the vaccination status of each visitor and minimize human error when performing these checks.
Importantly, making the entry of vaccines only compulsory will encourage recalcitrant individuals to get vaccinated and will force them to exercise social responsibility with the rest of the local population as well. In particular, the COVID-19 ministerial task force has underscored the urgent need to increase vaccination rates among the elderly, some 200,000 of whom over 60 are still unvaccinated.
The Department of Health has also collected at least a year of data on COVID-19 cases and there is a corresponding timeline of contact tracing data, thanks to the early deployment of TraceTogether. Here, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) can be applied to geosocial data, so that vulnerable groups such as the elderly can be quickly identified in emerging and isolated clusters.
AI-based forecasting can also help with health resource management. In the UK, for example, the NHS in February began testing a machine learning system to anticipate demand for equipment such as intensive care beds and ventilators triggered by COVID-19.
Singapore has already identified AI as an essential technology that can create economic value and improve the lives of citizens, investing significant resources to foster its development and adoption here. Therefore, it shouldn’t be very difficult to take advantage of this in your COVID-19 efforts.
With enough thought, I’m pretty sure there are several other ways that technology can be better utilized to help Singapore forge its way to a rampant new standard. Means that can be more effective than simply deploying and removing restrictions whenever a cluster deemed large enough emerges.
As it stands, businesses have closed and others are struggling to cope with disruption. Small restaurant businesses, especially the beloved hawkers, who are passed down from generation to generation are also at risk of retreating under the brakes of COVID-19, taking with them recipes and a decades-old legacy.
There is a clear case study for business leaders to learn here. There is no point having a strong political vision and roadmap if you don’t have the courage and stamina to make it happen. And when there is panic at the top, it can spill over into the rest of the organization. It also suggests a lack of resilience and determination within the management team, who should really sail the ship with conviction, rather than lack of conviction.
Ironically, Singapore retained its pole position for the second year in a global smart cities index last September, in part thanks to its use of technology in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The IMD-SUTD Smart City Index, which is a collaboration between IMD and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), defines a smart city as “an urban setting that applies technology to improve benefits and reduce the inconvenience of urbanization for its citizens. “.
Can he continue to do so as he tries to evolve to a new endemic standard? With its progress as a smart nation, Singapore is in a good position to do so – if it harnesses all of its “energy, resources and creativity” so that “science and human ingenuity” will eventually prevail.