SINGAPORE (Apr 5): While a “circuit breaker” that takes effect on Monday midnight may well force people to curtail non-essential activities and throw a dampener on revenue figures for companies in Singapore, it is becoming increasingly obvious that this move was not a choice, but a necessity. 

The Ministry of Health confirmed a one-day record of 120 new Covid-19 cases on Sunday, bringing the state’s total number of cases to 1,309.

This comes shortly before the Republic’s move to implement a ‘circuit breaker’ in a move to pre-empt and prevent the curb the rising number of infections. 

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force battling the coronavirus, says that Singapore’s move is a clear signal to the world that the virus should not be taken lightly. 

“The message that’s clear to all countries is that we have to take Covid-19 seriously. It spreads quickly and there is no scope for anyone, any government organisation or individual to be complacent at all,” says Wong. 

“All of us have to act on the basis that anyone we meet could be infected with the virus. Anyone of us could be responsible for spawning any clusters down the road,” adds Wong. 

Certain construction sites may see a hit as 20,000 foreign workers from two big dormitories, where the number of confirmed cases had increased, have been served with a 14-day quarantine order mandating them to remain in their rooms. 

Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo says that two foreign worker dormitories, S11 Dormitory at Punggol and Westlite Dormitory in Toh Guan, have been gazetted as isolation areas in a bid to curb the spread of transmission. 

Teo adds that the government will be housing foreign workers in essential services separately. While the arrangements have yet to be finalised, Wong says options include vacant HDB blocks.

During the quarantine, workers will continue to be paid their salaries for the duration of the quarantine. Their period of absence from work is treated as paid hospitalisation leave as part of the worker’s leave eligibility. Their employers are can for the $100 daily quarantine allowance.

The workers will be provided with three meals a day and will also be given reusable masks, surgical masks, thermometers, hand sanitisers and other essentials. The government is also setting up onsite medical support services. 

Adverse impact

NUS Business School professor Lawrence Loh tells The Edge Singapore that keeping these workers away from work will likely cause a “huge adverse impact” on the Singapore economy. 

“The S-11 dormitory is one of the more economical ones in Singapore,” says Loh. “I suspect that the workers there are going to be more involved in areas such as construction.”

“The economy is going to be badly impacted by the fortnightly loss of 20,000 workers, regardless of which industry they are in,” adds Loh. 

Teo adds that further measures will be taken to reduce interactions between workers across all dormitories in Singapore, including steps being taken to prevent the intermingling of workers between different blocks and levels, as well as staggering both meal and recreation times which generally see a large number of workers gathered together. 

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Singapore has been lauded by foreign authorities for its efforts to contain the virus. 

In mid-February, World Health Organisation (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had commended the Republic’s efforts to find every case, follow up with contacts and stop transmission. Tedros has also added that other countries should follow Singapore’s example of handling and containing the outbreak. 

Come April, things took a turn for the worse for Singapore as the rising number of cases forced the country to embark on a series of measures such as social distancing and work from home (WFH) regulations. 

Even as countries such as Italy and Malaysia announced full-blown “lockdowns” as they scrambled to curtail the rapidly spreading virus, Singapore refused to do so. 

It’s latest move of a “circuit breaker” which will begin at midnight on April 7 has raised some eyebrows, with people tempted to term this an admission of defeat for the state. 

However, NUS’s Loh’s view is simple: Singapore is not admitting defeat, but is pledging its commitment to fight the virus head-on. 

“Singapore either had to let the outbreak escalate with cases rising on an exponential curve, or introduce a break,” he says.

“The four weeks timeframe is fair, because you’re not looking to just break one virus series. By this time, you have a few overlapping sets to break, which makes it more challenging,” says Loh. 

Healthcare sustainability

With more cases being discovered daily, Singapore’s healthcare system runs the risk of being overstretched. But according to Wong, the government is doing all it can to sustain its resources for the long haul. 

One example of this includes the state’s prudence in conducting Covid-19 tests. While other countries have been engaging in large-scale community testing, Singapore is focusing on individuals with symptoms, or high risk. 

Yet, Wong shares that Singapore’s tests have increased from about 2,000 tests per day, to about 2,800, translating to an estimated 7,000 tests per million Singaporeans.

“We had decided not to rush into community-based testing, but instead focus on testing individuals,” says Wong. “It’s not our practice to regularly test asymptomatic individuals.”

According to NUS’s Loh, the virus situation has reached a challenging one for Singapore as it grapples with difficulties in contact tracing with the rising number of cases. 

“There’s a high level of uncertainty today whether cases are linked, the numbers are still being tabulated,” says Loh. “We’ve reached a period of time where tracing itself is getting more challenging.”

“With the two dormitories being isolation areas, our economy can definitely expect to be impacted even further. We need to cross our fingers and pray that it’s not just the tip of the iceberg,” adds Loh.