COVID-19 has caught the world by a mighty storm. As on 18 April, the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections worldwide is more than 2 million with nearly 150,000 deaths in more than 200 countries, while Singapore has nearly 6000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 11 fatalities. With the healthcare system under strain worldwide, many countries implement lockdowns to contain the transmission – shutting borders, closing schools and business, quarantining millions, this is taking a toll on economies and lives.
The Fight Against COVID-19
Singapore has her first confirmed patient, an imported COVID-19 on 23 January 2020. For a period until 8 March, the daily increase was single digit, reaching a total of 138 then. In this early period, when the cases were imported from overseas travellers, Singapore used the very rigorous method of detecting, testing, contact tracing, isolating and was able to contain infection rate and the spread to the community. The returns of many Singapore residents from Europe, USA and other affected countries, having responded to the calls of Singapore leaders to come home as the cases in these countries start to increase phenomenally, brought double digits increase in local transmission. In less than a month, in 5 April 2020, the number of confirmed cases had reached to 1189. Singapore is currently experiencing a wave of alarming exponential rise at 3 digits of confirmed cases in the migrant worker population where hundreds of thousands of men from poorer countries are employed in construction, shipping, and maintenance and in community transmission. This has necessitated a partial lockdown – “circuit breaker” – from 7 April to 4 May 2020 (further extended to 1 June) with high safe distancing measures to reduce the risk of further local transmission. All non-essential activities (including businesses) have been suspended during this period. Establishments providing essential services to support the living needs of the population for example eateries, supermarkets, markets, healthcare, government services, transport, utilities and key banking services can continue.
What is characteristically Singapore is the whole of government approach, having the multi-Ministry Task Force right from the start to tackle comprehensively the impact of COVID-19. Right from the start the two co-chairs, 2nd Minister of Finance who is also Minister of National Development and Minister for Health provide daily updates and advisories to the general public through the mainstream media. A Gov.sg WhatsApp pushes out daily updates on the situation in the four official languages. The subscribership to this media has reached 900,000. To ensure a greater reach, the government also launches a Gov.sg Telegram channel and Gov.sg Twitter. This ensures transparency, timely dissemination of information and provision of education to engage the public to fight COVID-19 jointly. For example, in early February, surgical masks are quickly snapped up whenever put on the shelves in pharmacies and supermarkets. The Government uses these various communication platforms to advise the use of masks only when one is not well and encourage other personal hygiene such as handwashing and safe distancing. A mass distribution of four surgical masks to each household through collection points across the country manned by grassroots volunteers also helped to prevent panic buying of surgical masks. The recipients are advised to use when they are not well. In early April, reusable masks were issued through the same grassroots channels to every resident when it became mandatory during the circuit breaker period to wear masks once one steps out of one’s home to buy food for example. This helps to ensure appropriate use of surgical masks and adequate supplies to all front liners in the COVID-19 battle.
These front liners include the health care workers (including hospital social workers), police officers to enforce isolation orders, border control officers to screen potential COVID-19 patients, military personnel to augment the law and order officers, Ministry of Manpower officers, safe distancing ambassadors, food delivery personnel, sanitation workers and many others are working round the clock, having their leave suspended to detect, contain and treat COVID-19 cases.
The Impact on the People & the Government Response
Worldwide the economies are badly hit. Productions have stopped, businesses close down, supply chains curtail, regional and international trade falls and reports of high job losses. The aviation, tourism and land transport industries are most hit.
The local residents
Given the scale at which COVID-19 is impacting individuals, families, corporations and societies, the Singapore government has been quick to respond and eschew the long held “moral hazards” of entitlement in social safety nets. The scale of welfarism and income transfers is unprecedented. Comprehensive fiscal rescue packages amounting to US$42 billion (12 per cent of GDP) are rolled out to help workers, families and businesses. For the workers, help is given to employers to stay in business to protect jobs so that the workers stay employed; cash top ups for lower-income workers and the self-employed; grants to workers who lose their jobs; traineeships and creation of new jobs for job seekers. The most recent casualty is McDonald which closes all 130 outlets from 19 April to 4 May 2020 after seven employees tested positive for COVID-19. It assured its 10,000 staff who has to stay at home for this period that their jobs are secure and that they will continue to receive their salaries.
Direct cash handouts, temporary relief funds, additional financial assistance, grocery vouchers, conservancy and goods and services tax rebates are given to individuals and families as well increased grants to self-help groups, social service agencies and local councils that support families in the community. The 24 government run Social Service Offices island wide remain open and accessible for any needy individuals and families throughout the circuit breaker period. Social Service Agencies that provide the social and personal services can apply through the National Council of Social Service to whitelist their organizations so that they can stay open during the circuit breaker period to serve the community. Many Social Service Agencies are also operating through on-line and video conferencing platform as most of the staff work from home. Schools are closed and children are receiving their education through home based learning. Children with special arrangement can return to schools to access the school computers for limited period with the home based learning.
Businesses are helped with property tax waivers, loans, rent waivers, support for their employee wages. They are to tap on government support, trim other costs and avoid pay cuts and retrenchment. The banks have also stepped in to help individuals and small medium enterprises with liquidity, lines of credit to protect jobs and markets. The government is also promoting tele-commuting to encourage corporations to make work from home arrangements and continue to place employees on full pay throughout the pandemic.
The foreign residents
Singapore’s migrant worker population where hundreds of thousands of men from poorer countries are employed in construction, shipping, maintenance, sanitation has seen the alarming exponential rise in infection rate since early April. Singapore is utterly dependent on these workers to keep its economy operating, but their jobs are such that make safe distancing impossible. In addition they are accommodated in crowded purpose built workers’ hostels /dormitories, in factory-converted dormitories, temporary quarters on construction sites and private residential premises such as shop houses. It is no wonder that they take a bigger hit in the infection rate in view of the living arrangements and their communal living lifestyle, including recreation and cooking in a shared space.
Over the past two weeks, the authorities have started to identify the emerging clusters of infection in the workers’ dormitories; ring fence their vulnerable or over crowded communities in the dormitories; minimise the interaction between anyone who has contact of the disease and other communities; provide onsite medical teams to test, isolate and send them to either newly set up community isolation facilities and hospitals if tested positive for COVID19 and move the healthy workers to alternative living areas such as military camps, floating hotels, sports halls and vacated public housing. Other pre-fabricated dormitories are being built to be ready soon. It is a multi-sectorial approach involving government bodies from public housing, health, military, police; the employers from the private sector as well as the community partners to address the mental health and religious concerns of these workers. For example apart from addressing the COVID-19 infection, through this collaboration, the workers are assured of their salaries to remit home, how they can continue to exercise their faith during the Muslim Ramadan period and access to counselling services.
This is the pledge that the Prime Minister made over national television in the four official languages.
“We are paying close attention to the welfare of the foreign workers. They came to Singapore to work hard for a living and provide for their families back home. They have played an important part building our HDB flats, Changi Airport, MRT lines. We have worked with their employers to make sure they will be paid their salaries, and can remit money home. We will provide them with the medical care and treatment that they need.
If any of their family members watch my video, let me say this to them : We appreciate the work and contributions of your sons, fathers, husbands in Singapore.
We feel responsible for their well-being. We will do our best to take care of their health , livelihood and welfare here, and to let them go home, safe and sound, to you”( Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong in The Straits Times, 3rd April 2020).
In another televised address on 21 April, PM Lee assured the workers “We will care for you, just like we care for Singaporeans”.
The Community and Social Work Profession
The community has been very responsive. Existing grassroots organizations mobilise volunteers at centers for masks and sanitizers for collection by residents. There is surge of volunteer activities to raise funds, packing and distribution of masks, sanitizers and food to migrant workers, low income families, elderly and disabled. Social entrepreneurs develop communication materials and tools to communicate with the dialect speaking elderly and migrant workers from the various countries. Social Service Agencies are using technology to work from home and provide services to the needy.
Social workers in hospitals are continuing in their work to ensure safe discharge and coordination of safe continuity of caré in the community; support to the COVID 19 patients and their families; peer support to fellow health caré workers (HCWs) and as volunteers for the 24/7 national mental health hotline. Many of the legislations arising from COVID-19 to contain transmission create a lot of challenging issues for patients with families living overseas or foreign paid help returning to Singapore; or when their regular center based services are stopped. Hospital social workers help to appeal to the relevant authorities if needed or seek out alternative forms of support to ensure safety and care for the vulnerable in the community. They are also exploring alternative forms such as phone and video conferencing to engage and support their patients and their families. Some social workers and their support staff are redeployed to help augment the screening teams in the hospitals. A few of them are collaborating in interdisciplinary and international research on COVID-19 related issues.
Looking to the Future
In Chinese language, the character “crisis” contains another word “opportunity”. Indeed the rise of tele-commuting creates new manpower supply of a group who otherwise are home-makers to enter into the job market. Working from home allows for a new form of work life balance, improved quality of life and human relationships at home and shared parenthood. The innovation and the use of technology in the personal and social services to adapt to the COVID-19 environment may be the engine of change in the service delivery models in this sector. The attention that is currently given to workers’ accommodation will lead to long term improvement in the infrastructure to enhance their welfare and wellbeing. The rich community spirit that is evidenced in this crisis will help Singapore bounces back quickly.
This crisis also surfaces some vulnerability, one, our dependence on foreign produces for our essentials and when our supplies chains are cut, our basic existence threatened. In fact, there was panic buying at the supermarkets when our overseas suppliers lock downed their countries. Singapore will need to look at increasing production in its farming industries and supplier networks. Secondly it is our dependence of foreign workers who form 1.4 million or 25% of the resident population. Do we need so many of them as some critics point out. Given unemployment post COVID-19 is expected to rise, estimated at around 200000, can jobs be redesigned, wages improved and / or creation of nobility of blue collar work as some suggested to make these jobs attractive to Singaporeans.
When you are in the mighty storm, you hope as the saying goes this too shall pass.