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On Coronavirus, Singapore shows the way

Christina zur Nedden / DW No Comments Share:
Lee Hsien Loong takes part in an Extraordinary Virtual G20 Leaders’ Summit this evening. It was called by Saudi Arabia, holding the G20 Presidency this year, to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic. facebook/leehsienloong

Europe’s citizens are paying for their leaders’ late reaction to the Coronavirus outbreak with their personal freedom. Their governments could have learned from Singapore.

The Coronavirus outbreak has turned the world upside down. Democratic and “free” European countries such as Austria have locked up their citizens and consider tracking their phones while, paradoxically, citizens in “unfree” Asian states such as Singapore enjoy more freedom than in any Western European in the last few weeks.

Despite its economic and geographic links with China, Singapore has managed to keep virus numbers low and public life almost unaffected. Europe could have learned from that.

Although Singapore is vulnerable as a densely populated global hub, it has only 404 active Coronavirus cases and two deaths to date. Emerging just in time for Chinese Lunar Year, the Novel Coronavirus could have proved catastrophic to the tiny city-state. Yet, despite the risk of hurting economic relations with its third biggest trading partner, by Feb 1, Singapore had already imposed travel restrictions on passengers from China. This contravened the WHO’s advisory that travel bans were not necessary at that point.

Still, by mid-February, Singapore had recorded more than 80 COVID-19 cases, the highest number outside China. Singapore acted quickly by isolating sick people and testing everyone with flu symptoms and pneumonia. Sick people’s contacts were traced and then put into quarantine using a “contact tracing method” developed during the SARS epidemic in 2003. This involves meticulous recording of contact data when people enter buildings and interviewing those infected about their recent movements.

To summarise, Singapore’s success in managing the Coronavirus outbreak comes down to three basic ingredients and one big one: closing borders early, rigorous contact tracing, a lot of testing – and SARS acting as a macabre dress rehearsal. These measures allowed public life to go on as normal. All restaurants, malls, schools and offices remain open to date.

Hong Kong and Taiwan have similar success stories despite their proximity to China.

As gruesome as it sounds, it probably would have helped if Europe had experienced SARS. The failure to react early and effectively to the coming outbreak was a result of Eurocentric arrogance and uncoordinated efforts to protect local businesses.

Although European leaders knew about the virus in December, it was long underestimated and considered an “Asian problem.”

Everything that Singapore did right – closing borders early, testing widely and contact tracing – countries in Europe did wrong.

To take Austria as an example, flights from China, Iran and Italy were only stopped on March 9.

For a long time, fear of hurting the local economy with travel bans kept its government from implementing rigorous measures. DW

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