Most of the countries have, to varying degrees, been behind the 8-ball when it comes to forming a country-wide response to COVID-19.
China, of course, was first and scrambled (fairly efficiently) to catch up. Countries like Iran and Italy are still struggling to resurface after finding themselves under water, and I don’t think we yet know how bad the pandemic is going to disrupt life in the U.K. or the U.S.
Some countries have done better than most, and Singapore is at the top of that list.
Singapore is no stranger to dealing with severe, viral respiratory diseases. In 2002 and 2003 they handled SARS as it spilled out of China, killing 33 people in Singapore and sparking essential revisions to their public health system.
They instituted new travel controls and health infrastructure before getting hit again in 2009, this time with swine flu. Martin Hibberd, an infectious disease researcher at the London School of Hygiene, said the country had to adapt a second time.
“Pandemic flu came from Mexico, an Americas event, and Singapore tried to put in place in 2009 what they learned with SARS.
But flu was much more difficult to contain than SARS was, and they realized what they thought they’d learned didn’t work. It was another lesson.”
When COVID-19 came calling, though, Singapore was ready. They (along with Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea) instituted strict travel controls and protocols for identifying sick individuals, as well as who they’d been in contact with.
The government posted details on how many people had been tested, the locations and nature of their social contacts, and pushed strict social distancing measures right from the start.
They currently have lower numbers of infected people and lower fatalities than either China or Italy and have successfully flattened the curve with their quick, aggressive response.
The rest of the world would do well to look toward their response as best practices if they want to see their own countries have fatality rates closer to South Korea’s .8% and not Italy’s staggering 6.6%.
A new article in The Lancet states that Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore all developed tests as soon as the virus’ genetic sequences were published, and made sure they were mass produced and ready for when the pandemic hit home. They also controlled immigration (against WHO recommendations), made sure the populace didn’t have to pay for tests or treatment, and combined their healthcare and immigration databases to generate alerts as to which travelers should be tested immediately.
In Taiwan, a Central Epidemic Command Center was set up after only a few cases were reported by China. The body put limits on the prices of personal protective equipment and ramped up manufacturing of those same goods at the same time.
As of January 20th, they had “44 million surgical masks, 1.9 million N95 masks, and 1100 negative pressure isolation rooms” ready to go.
Singapore makes sure reliable, timely information is available on their frequently updated government website and WhatsApp account and they’re taking people’s temperatures before they enter public buildings. Hibberd says it’s the new normal, and people are adapting.
“On every lift I ride, there’s a notice saying what I have to do. Everywhere you walk there’s information.
There’s a confidence in that information, in the government and what they’re saying, and there’s an expectation you should follow it.”
Also? They’re fining people who break the rules.
Granted, Singapore (and the other Asian countries) are both smaller and have social structures and traditions that make government “interference” in people’s lives more feasible than the attitudes in the United States.
That said, they’re not China, either, which means their middle path may be the ticket to winning.
As for places like the U.S., who are still struggling to get ahead of this thing, we would do well to take notice. Even if it’s too late for this particular virus, epidemiologists are certain it won’t be the last one.
We should build the infrastructure now, put the plans in place now, so when we get a whiff of what’s coming next we can just activate an existing system, the way Singapore did, instead of building it from the ground up while people are dying.