Sunday, 23 January 2022

In This Together: Singapore's COVID-19 Story

The Straits Times releases In This Together, a behind-the-scenes look at Singapore's COVID-19 story
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2022

A new book released on Thursday (Jan 20) has chronicled the first two years of Singapore's fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, through the telling of pivotal behind-the-scenes moments and exclusive interviews.

In This Together: Singapore's Covid-19 Story contains 13 chapters written by journalists from The Straits Times newsroom who have been in the thick of covering the crisis. It is edited by executive editor Sumiko Tan.

The writers spoke to more than 300 people including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, President Halimah Yacob, Cabinet ministers, government officials, corporate leaders, front-line workers, volunteers, foreign workers and survivors of the disease.

The 352-page book is divided into two parts: Saving lives, where the efforts of the Government, healthcare sector and scientific community are documented; and saving livelihoods, which expounds on the parallel economic battle to preserve jobs, businesses and Singapore's hub status.

The opening chapter, titled It Took A Village, illustrates how 24 healthcare workers - including doctors, nurses, therapists and housekeepers - worked in tandem to help save the life of retired tutor Irene Tan, 67, who had a severe Covid-19 infection in March 2020.

The next chapter, Inside The War Room, provides a detailed look at how Singapore's leaders - from PM Lee to the multi-ministry task force and the Civil Service's Homefront Crisis Executive Group - tackled the most critical test faced by the city-state in over a generation.

Other highlights include the inside stories of how Singapore procured masks amid frenzied global demand in the early days, the bets and risks involved in purchasing vaccines, and the concerted push by hospitals to step up capabilities while their overwhelmed staff endured struggles of their own.

The book, which is published by Straits Times Press, also examines efforts to stamp out the virus in dormitories occupied by more than 300,000 foreign workers, who made up 19 out of 20 infections in 2020.

Interspersed between chapters are profiles of pandemic front-liners, survivors and people who died from the virus.

Putting this human touch to Singapore's entire undertaking against Covid-19 was a primary reason cited by Ms Tan in coming up with the book, which comes almost exactly two years after Singapore's first Covid-19 case was detected on Jan 23, 2020.

She said the book aims to pay tribute to front-liners - healthcare workers, public servants, those in essential services - whom people often take for granted.

And while journalism did not entail front-line activities such as swabbing or managing crowds, Ms Tan said that what journalists could do was chronicle for future generations the events of the day, so this period of history would not be forgotten.

"If someone were to read this 20 years down the road, they would understand what the first years of the pandemic were like, how Singaporeans felt, and why we did what we did," she added.

Ms Tan said that from the onset, the team was clear that In This Together was going to be a chronicle of Singapore's fight, rather than an assessment.

One major challenge for the project, which started in August 2020, was the unfolding realisation that the pandemic "was not going to go away any time soon", she noted. Publication - originally scheduled for the middle of 2021 - was delayed thrice and stories had to be updated each time.

"The delay allowed us to tell a fuller story," she said. But a decision had to be made on where to end the book, and the new Omicron variant provided that milestone.

Case numbers are rising around the world but severe infections and hospitalisations are not, and some scientists believe this could suggest the coming end of the pandemic.

In an introduction to the book, Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez, who is also editor-in-chief of SPH Media Trust's English, Malay and Tamil Media Group, wrote: "The book is not meant to be triumphalist or self-laudatory, but an honest record of the most severe test Singapore has faced in over a generation, and which will continue for some time yet as the crisis is far from over."

Straits Times news editor Karamjit Kaur, who co-wrote a chapter on aviation, said the book was a tough project as it had to take in the morphing virus and Singapore's changing responses.

Associate news editor Chang Ai-Lien, who co-wrote a chapter on hospitals, added: "Work on the book shadowed the trajectory of the virus, with its numerous twists and turns. The story is far from over."

Ms Kaur and Ms Chang helm the newsroom's own task force on Covid-19 coverage.

Health correspondent Timothy Goh, who wrote several segments including Singapore's hunt for masks, said working on the book brought home to him how the pandemic has affected everyone - young, old, rich, poor, minister, migrant worker.

"I also witnessed a very human and personal side to the officials we see in the media," he said. "Seeing the tiredness in their faces and hearing about the various doubts that were kept private till now reminded me that regardless of our station in life, for the past two years, we've also just been human beings trying to figure out a way to get through this, together."

The book was supported by the Ministry of Communications and Information in the form of book purchases. The ministry also helped to arrange some of the interviews, but left the shape of the book and the telling of the stories to the writing team.

'I would rather overreact than underreact': Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on thinking behind COVID-19 circuit breaker in ST book
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 Jan 2022

On April 1, 2020, the Cabinet met and discussed whether to impose a circuit breaker, given the rising number of Covid-19 community cases.

There were differing views on whether to lock down the country or wait a little bit longer, recounted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in an interview for a new book chronicling Singapore's fight against the coronavirus.

"My view looking at the numbers and just eyeballing it was that it was clearly heading in a bad direction and we should move. There was no point waiting," he said.

"It was a very big decision. So I told the ministers: We sleep on this, we meet again tomorrow... If I'm going to act, I would rather overreact than underreact."

When the decision was made to go ahead, the announcement was for a four-week period of measures. "But we knew most likely we would have to extend that," said PM Lee in the book. The circuit breaker eventually lasted from April 7 till June 1.

Titled In This Together: Singapore's Covid-19 Story and published by Straits Times Press, the book contains essays by ST journalists who interviewed more than 300 people and pieced together critical moments over the two years since the virus first reached Singapore on Jan 23, 2020.

In chapters detailing the Government's responses to what PM Lee described as the "crisis of our generation", he also spoke candidly on the apparent U-turn on the mask-wearing policy in early months and shared how he personally coped with the pandemic.

At the beginning, as global news reports on what was then called the "Wuhan virus" filtered through, the Ministry of Health had, on Jan 2, asked Singaporeans to wear a mask only if they had symptoms such as a cough or runny nose - an advisory which progressed to the Government discouraging masking up if one was well.

On Feb 10, however, some doctors called for the opposite, asking people to keep a mask on when leaving their homes due to the possibility of asymptomatic transmission.

The Government finally changed tack in April and mandated masking up unless a person was exercising or below the age of two.

"In retrospect, I think we would have said right from the beginning, please don't scramble for the surgical masks, save those for the healthcare workers, but the rest of you, let's make our own masks," said PM Lee in the book.

"We should have changed our position earlier and encouraged people to use reusable masks, improvise."

He explained that the Government's initial stance was based on the World Health Organisation's (WHO) early advice that masks were not helpful and might provide a false sense of security. People were also scrambling for surgical masks and Singapore did not have enough for everyone at the time.

The WHO amended its advice only in June, to advocate mask-wearing in public.

"I think they may not always have been ahead of the curve in terms of advice. Advice on travel, for example, advice on how the virus is transmitted," said PM Lee. "Part of the difficulty is that they have to respond to multiple constituencies, and different countries push them in different directions. So the WHO has its limitations, but without them, we would be worse off."

He said Singapore could take information from the likes of the WHO as a reference point, but make its own scientific judgments based on its own capabilities. "We should have done that with masks."

Elsewhere in the book, he shared that keeping calm was his primary way of managing "ups and downs" of the crisis.

"You do your best, but you've got to maintain a certain detachment and equanimity and not let yourself be frazzled," he said, adding that he also started meditating and exercising daily while going on weekend walks and taking photographs to "keep the mind switched to a different wavelength".

PM Lee acknowledged that being unable to go out with his entire family to have a meal was one constraint brought about by Covid-19, though he had the "great joy" of a granddaughter living with him during the circuit breaker.

In a written foreword for the book, he said the pandemic has been a severe test for all Singaporeans - and if there were any questions over whether the younger generation have the courage, grit and resolve of their seniors, their response has been a reassuring and convincing one.

And as he concluded: "Many years from now, when our grandchildren or great-grandchildren ask you what you did in those awful years of the pandemic, we will be able to tell them, with quiet pride: 'I did my part.'"

How healthcare workers have 'carried the can' in Singapore's COVID-19 battle
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2022

In a new book about Singapore's fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung turns to a popular sport to explain why he prefers to call healthcare workers "the last line of defence" rather than "front-liners".

"There are games where everybody just attacks and you're the only one left, and at every counter-attack, you feel overwhelmed. I thought that must be what a healthcare worker felt at that time," said Mr Ong in a chapter titled "Battle in the hospitals", where he talked about October last year when the Covid-19 Delta variant led to over 3,000 virus cases daily and the death toll climbed.

"The rest of the society wants to move on but they were carrying the can."

Mr Ong's interview appears in the book In This Together: Singapore's Covid-19 Story published by Straits Times Press, which lays out in 13 chapters Singapore's multifaceted fight against the virus.

In the book launched on Thursday (Jan 20), the chapter "Battle in the hospitals" relates how the healthcare sector had to shoulder the lone, massive responsibility of treating and caring for the infected from the moment the virus arrived in January 2020 - at least until the home recovery scheme started late last year.

Healthcare workers such as nurses also share stories about managing anxious and distraught family members who were kept away from their loved ones, of being shunned by the public, and feeling helpless and overwhelmed when patients died.

When the Delta variant began wreaking havoc from August last year, there was no time to rest for healthcare staff like Singapore General Hospital assistant nurse clinician Chester Chow, 32.

He recalls in the book how he could be in a room with a critically ill patient for up to three hours, carrying out one procedure after another. And sometimes, family members would take out their frustrations on the staff.

"At different points in time, some of us wanted to give up," Mr Chow told journalists from The Straits Times. "But we talked, supported and encouraged one another."

Paranoia over healthcare workers being contaminated with the virus also spilled over at the initial stages of the pandemic, causing some to avoid wearing their uniforms while taking public transport.

National University Hospital senior staff nurse Nathanael Tan was in regular clothes when he hailed a taxi to work one day. Yet, he was quizzed by the driver on why he was going to the hospital's emergency department before the cabby eventually allowed him to board.

The cabby kept his windows down for the entire trip, said Mr Tan, 30.

The number of abuse or harassment cases reported by public healthcare workers rose from 1,200 in 2019, to 1,400 as at the end of November last year, while 1,500 workers resigned in the first half of 2021, compared with 2,000 annually before the pandemic.

But Singaporeans have by and large rallied behind healthcare workers, with recovered patients interviewed for the book expressing appreciation and recognition for them as heroes of the pandemic.

The private healthcare sector also chipped in to alleviate the burden on public institutions.

In January 2020, IHH Healthcare Singapore, the largest private group here, was called on to set up screening for travellers at 10 land and sea checkpoints within 24 hours.

The group tapped its pool of over 5,000 employees to man the checkpoints, with chief operating officer Noel Yeo doubling up as a temperature screener as well as a medical doctor assessing cases, he reveals in the book.

IHH's Mount Elizabeth Hospital also took in Covid-19 patients and provided manpower to take swab samples at worker dormitories, and staff the community care facility at Singapore Expo.

IHH and other private medical groups were also roped in for the national vaccination programme, and when infections rocketed last year, IHH provided laboratory testing services.

Once some teething problems were sorted out, the home recovery scheme also eased the strain on the healthcare system, and is now the default for most patients with no or only mild symptoms.

In the book, a social worker who gave her name as Charlyn recounted some of the "logistical acrobatics" behind recovering at home.

Throughout her 10-day isolation, the 35-year-old tried to stay in her bedroom as much as possible, to not put her parents, grandfather and domestic helper at risk.

She would step out to shower - and then disinfect the ceiling, walls and floor of the bathroom while nursing a fever and a splitting migraine.

"I would be panting and sweating when I reached my bedroom," she said.

Charlyn also used her grandfather's commode to relieve herself in her room, saying: "It was initially uncomfortable but I got used to it."

'Whatever we tell you is whatever we know': Gan Kim Yong on the COVID-19 task force's approach in ST's new book
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2022

He may come across as reserved and even media-shy at press conferences, but behind the scenes, Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong played a starring role in the formation of the multi-ministry task force (MTF) on Covid-19.

As health minister when a pandemic loomed, it was his idea to assemble a group which has become the face of Singapore's fight against the Covid-19 virus. It was also Mr Gan who nominated Finance Minister Lawrence Wong as someone he could work well with to be his fellow co-chair.

Together, they helmed Singapore's pandemic response until May last year, when the new health minister, Mr Ong Ye Kung, came on board.

"I'm the new one, the booster after the two primary doses," said Mr Ong.

Quips like this and other never before revealed details of how Singapore dealt with a still-unfolding crisis are in a new book published by Straits Times Press that chronicles the past two years.

Released on Thursday (Jan 20), In This Together: Singapore's Covid-19 Story goes behind the scenes to lift the curtain on, among other things, the origins of the task force and the dynamics of how ministers and civil servants worked together to tackle a formidable but invisible foe.

The government machinery swung into action as early as Jan 2, 2020, when news spread of an infectious disease of zoonotic origin occurring in Wuhan, China.

At the Ministry of Health (MOH), Singapore's director of medical services Kenneth Mak chaired a meeting where a decision was taken to ramp up the nation's surveillance and readiness.

An advisory was dispatched to all doctors to be on the watch for patients from Wuhan who had pneumonia. Temperature screening was set up for visitors arriving at Changi Airport, and Singaporeans, mostly still blissfully unaware, were urged to be vigilant and observe personal hygiene.

Singapore raised its disease outbreak response system condition, or DORSCON, from green to the more serious yellow on Jan 21.

The next day, Mr Gan went to Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean asking to form the MTF, with Mr Wong co-chairing it.

Both requests were approved by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, acting for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was then overseas.

At a press conference announcing the task force, the ministers were quizzed on whether it was a premature move.

"Why do we need to set up a task force? Are you overreacting to this virus?" one reporter asked.

"Famous last words, right?" said Mr Wong in an interview for the book. "I think it turned out it was right that we moved quickly and decisively to get the system going."

Singapore detected its first case of Covid-19 the next day, Jan 23.

At the same time that the task force was set up, the Homefront Crisis Executive Group (HCEG) was also convened. This is a grouping of senior civil servants that comes together in times of crisis.

Headed by Permanent Secretary for Home Affairs Pang Kin Keong, its role was to come up with proposals to the MTF, and put those accepted into operation. The MTF in turn reports to PM Lee and the Cabinet for major decisions.

The book notes that PM Lee had to be kept in the loop but left most operational matters to the ministers in charge, who knew their decisions had to align with his and the Cabinet's overall way of thinking.

PM Lee asked that the detailed daily reports received by the Cabinet be made public on the MOH website. "There's nothing secret about this," he said.

Transparency, as far as possible, was also part of the MTF's approach from the start, said Mr Gan.

"Whatever we tell you is whatever we know," he said. "We were prepared to be frank and upfront… If we didn't know, we said we didn't know and we'll go and find out."

Agree to disagree

Speaking at separate interviews for the book, Mr Gan and Mr Wong both used the same word - enjoyable - to describe what it was like to work together.

But political watchers sat up and took notice after a Cabinet reshuffle in May last year sent a third co-chair to the task force - Mr Ong, who had taken over the health portfolio from Mr Gan.

With Mr Ong and Mr Wong being bandied about in discussions about PM Lee's successor, would any rivalry extend to the handling of the pandemic?

Mr Wong dismissed any notion of competition.

"Ye Kung has been on my speed dial even before I joined politics. I have known him for years," he said, noting that he had taken over the role of principal private secretary to PM Lee from Mr Ong.

"We know each other very well. There is no issue working together at all."

The goal of the task force is ultimately to land on "some sensible consensus" over any disagreements and differing points of view, said Mr Ong.

"It doesn't need to be acrimonious," he added. "You don't have to strangle each other."

He and other ministers say in the book that any arguments were based on science, evidence, facts and data, rather than emotions, ideologies or political considerations. In any case, the Prime Minister had the final say.

Some of the most intense debates among the ministers and the HCEG revolved around border controls, the circuit breaker and migrant worker dormitories.

For instance, the civil service counselled that a lockdown be averted in view of its economic and social impact. "But I sensed the MTF, after a while, felt that it had to be done," said Mr Pang, chairman of the HCEG.

It was one of the rare recommendations from the HCEG that the ministers rejected.

In the book, PM Lee commends the civil service for a "remarkable" job and for trying its utmost, even if the outcomes were "not quite perfect".

Civil servants and ministers alike have received equal amounts of brickbats and plaudits throughout the pandemic.

As early as during the circuit breaker, PM Lee detected "considerable consternation" and diminished morale among those in charge, in the face of a virus seemingly capable of outfoxing them at every turn.

He recalled telling the ministers: "You don't know how things are going to turn out. Maybe for the better, maybe not. People may thank you for it. People may later scold you for it. But right now you have been elected, you're here to do a job and your duty is to keep Singaporeans safe.

"Just concentrate on that. Leave the rest and the consequences till later on. Just acquit yourself to your conscience and your responsibility.

"I think that was the right attitude to take, which, fortunately, they took."

Navigating the bumps in Singapore's road to living with COVID-19
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2022

A gradual realisation that too much confidence had been placed in the ability of vaccines to bring down infection numbers was one factor in Singapore's switch in approach from "zero-Covid" to "living with Covid-19".

At one low point last year amid this change of plans, the Government was also presented with a stark choice: Accept an uptick in infections as the country moved towards a situation in which the virus was endemic, or re-introduce restrictions to try to avoid a potential situation in which a number of elderly people would be hospitalised and dying of the virus.

The latter route was chosen - to "a collective national groan" - but Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the country's multi-ministry task force on Covid-19, believes it was the right call.

His and other insights into the Government's handling of the pandemic are in a new book chronicling Singapore's experience with the pandemic. In This Together: Singapore's Covid-19 Story went on sale on Thursday (Jan 20).

Interviews with Mr Wong and Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, also a co-chair of the task force, reveal how discussions on accepting and planning for Covid-19 as endemic started as early as in 2020.

The idea was raised with the public by Mr Wong only on May 28 last year. In that same month, Mr Ong discussed the matter at a closed-door seminar with clinicians and doctors. Their positive response prompted Mr Wong, Mr Ong and the third co-chair, Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong, to jointly write an op-ed to "signal a change in strategy".

Published in The Straits Times on June 24, it outlined a "new normal" of living with Covid-19 involving self-testing, home recovery and resumption of travel.

But a raging Delta variant had other ideas. About a fortnight after the op-ed, large infection clusters saw Singapore retreat to the tighter curbs it had loosened only in June, with eating out banned again and gathering sizes capped at two.

Mr Wong acknowledges in the book that many Singaporeans were "understandably" frustrated.

But the decision was not taken lightly. A major consideration was the vaccination rate of just 50 per cent at the time, with a significant proportion of seniors - about 200,000 - not inoculated. Many of these older people frequented hawker centres and wet markets where infections had spread from a cluster at Jurong Fishery Port.

"The concern was, look, if you just ride it through, you will end up potentially with more seniors in hospital and quite a number of them succumbing to the illness," said Mr Wong.

Asked if the authorities had "jumped the gun" with their earlier messaging on living with Covid-19 and raising hopes that the worst was over, Mr Wong acknowledged that they had counted on high vaccination rates to bring case numbers down and help Singaporeans "start to live more normal lives".

But this view shifted as more evidence pointed to breakthrough infections in vaccinated people, along with documented waning vaccine immunity. The task force realised expectations of vaccines had been too high, the book's writers said, noting "the harsh reality was that even if everyone were vaccinated, case numbers would rise as long as society continued to open up".

Recognising this meant accepting periodic controls to stop large surges of cases from leading to more hospitalisations and deaths, which could overwhelm the healthcare system, said Mr Wong. "That is why we realised we have to be very controlled in our reopening. We have to continue with some sensible measures."

Over the next few months, public discontent snowballed as tens of thousands caught Covid-19 and a home recovery scheme ran into serious logistical hiccups. Much angst was levelled at the task force, with some demanding to know why the authorities seemed to be falling back on strict measures, thereby abandoning the endemic scenario they had laid out.

It was left to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to step in to "steady the ship", according to the book.

In a speech in October, he reassured Singaporeans that the strategy remained to live with Covid-19, and predicted a runway of up to six months to reach a "new normal". This was a state where infection numbers would remain stable at perhaps hundreds a day, hospitals would go back to business as usual, some curbs would be eased, and people could resume activities while feeling comfortable in crowds.

Since then, headway has been made with the launch of several quarantine-free vaccinated travel lanes and relaxed social limits. But the Omicron variant now poses more uncertainty for the future - a future in which Disease X lurks, an as-yet-unknown virus that could be even deadlier.

In an interview for the book, Manpower Minister Tan See Leng, a medical doctor, noted that in the last 20 years, there have been five major epidemics or pandemics - Sars, H1N1, Ebola, Mers and now Covid-19.

The next one is a question of not if but when, he said. "This is a wake-up call for us to improve, to tighten and to constantly pivot to make sure (that) contingency plans are in place."

How Singapore tamed a COVID-19 outbreak at workers' dorms, avoiding a 'major disaster'
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2022

When Covid-19 rampaged through migrant workers' dormitories in 2020, at no point did the authorities consider letting it burn through - not even when there was widespread sentiment that the situation in those living quarters was Singapore's Achilles heel in the early months of the pandemic.

A new book on the city state's Covid-19 fight reveals that the idea of allowing infections to occur naturally to gain herd immunity among the population of workers "goes against the notion of us wanting to make sure we do our best for everyone", said Singapore's director of medical services Kenneth Mak in an interview for the book.

Released on Thursday (Jan 20), In This Together: Singapore's Covid-19 Story details, among other things, the Government's effort to bring the dorm outbreak under control and prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed.

Stemming transmissions and protecting workers was the mission of an inter-agency Joint Task Force (JTF) assembled by Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean at the request of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and comprising the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), health and manpower ministries, and the Home Team from the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Cases among workers living in dormitories had surged, alarmingly, from 31 in April 2020 to over 15,000 in May, before more than doubling to 33,000 in June.

For much of the year, they made up 19 in 20 cases, and by the end of last year, over 175,000 out of 323,000 dormitory residents had caught the virus.

In the book, PM Lee describes the dormitory situation as having "every prospect of becoming a major disaster".

"We were worried about the dorms. We knew that they were vulnerable, and we took precautions even from January (2020) onwards, but the precautions proved insufficient," he said.

That month, with news of an outbreak in Wuhan, China, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) had told dorm operators to be on the alert, and to prepare isolation and quarantine facilities.

Still, from March 30, clusters began to form at the larger purpose-built dorms (PBDs) - something advocacy groups had been warning about, given the crowded and unsanitary living conditions.

PBDs are large, communal facilities housing thousands of workers, with between 12 and 16 to a room packed with double-decker beds.

Ensuring that the situation would be well taken care of was a "critical" decision. PM Lee approached Mr Teo on April 4 to oversee the effort.

On April 5, two dorms were locked down and gazetted as isolation areas - a major operation that involved making sure the workers' health and basic needs would be met. Failing to do so could have led to a major public order problem, said Mr Teo.

The chain of command would see the JTF headed by Brigadier-General Seet Uei Lim, Chief Guards Officer in the SAF, reporting up to Permanent Secretary for Manpower Aubeck Kam, then Manpower Minister Josephine Teo and finally the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19.

Over the next three days, the situation unravelled rapidly, with at least nine dorms experiencing clusters. The JTF deployed officers to all 43 PBDs to set up medical facilities, bring in supplies and food, and ensure that there was Internet access and entertainment for the workers.

Doctors and nurses were also deployed from hospitals and polyclinics to each dorm.

By the end of the first week of the circuit breaker, which had begun on April 7, all the dorms had been locked down, with workers who tested positive moved to community facilities, and strict testing and isolation rules imposed.

With the help of JTF officers, teething issues around food, living conditions and workers' salaries were resolved.

It took over four months before all the dorms were pronounced cleared of the virus and that nine in 10 workers in the construction, maritime and process sectors could return to their jobs.

The JTF was stood down on Aug 22 and its operations handed over to a new MOM division called the Assurance, Care and Engagement Group.

PM Lee said Mr Teo's plan had worked very well, considering how the Government had to "just bludgeon its way to implement the big moves and deal with the situation at hand" at the initial stages of the dorm outbreak.

"What we could have done was to prepare everything sooner so that when we did need to lock down, we could have moved with greater expedition and all the pieces would be in place. We were prepared but not enough," said the Prime Minister. "We will henceforth have to manage the dorms in a different way from the way they have been handled."

Singapore's COVID-19 story: In the same storm, in different boats, but going the right way?
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2022

Wearing a mask does not just protect you from Covid-19 - it protects others from you if you have an asymptomatic infection.

In this vein, all safe distancing measures are "really about that sense of solidarity with others", says Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat.

He was explaining, in an interview for a new book, why Singapore's third fiscal package in 2020 - out of an unprecedented five, totalling $100 billion in pandemic support measures - was named the Solidarity Budget.

The book, In This Together: Singapore's Covid-19 Story, arrives as the city state reaches the two-year mark in its fight against Covid-19.

At first glance, Singaporeans have largely accepted Covid-19 restrictions for the greater good, exemplifying the solidarity that Mr Heng spoke about.

But as the pandemic nears what some believe to be its "season finale", with the hope that the latest, highly transmissible yet milder Omicron strain could herald the start of living with the virus as people do with the flu, some questions are worth asking.

What lessons in solidarity can Singapore glean from its Covid-19 experience, given the pandemic-induced divides and distrust seen in societies around the world? How vulnerable - or hardy - is our state of social cohesion? As we emerge on the other side of a generational crisis, how do we keep Singaporeans "in this together"?

Public health scientists, sociologists and governance experts say there is cause for optimism, pointing to how Singaporeans have pulled together and responded to the pandemic through ground-up movements and aid for the needy.

But they also note that Covid-19 has produced polarised attitudes on policies, such as around vaccines, and aggravated socio-economic fault lines along class, ethnicity and nationality.

"The saying 'we are all in the same storm but different boats' is worth reflecting upon as we commemorate the second anniversary of Covid-19 in Singapore," said Associate Professor Jeremy Lim from the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

"Clearly, the pandemic has been trying for everyone, but the intensity of struggle and the support provided - very different."

But he added: "We are moving in the right direction, in the sense that at least the harsh spotlight of inequalities has been shone, and the public and policymakers are aware of 'invisible populations' and 'digital divides'.

"What matters is how we translate these lessons into improving the lives of all residents, as well as give peace of mind that the country - as a government and as a people - will look out for the least among us."

Interdependent people

In February 2020, in his first of several speeches on Covid-19, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described the outbreak as a real test of Singapore's social cohesion and psychological resilience.

Globally, the pandemic has been a catalyst - and what it does to levels of cohesion hinges on a government's ability to fulfil its social contract with the people.

"Are policy decisions logical, evidence-informed, feasible, transparent, clearly explained? This has generally been the case in Singapore's Covid-19 response," said Associate Professor Natasha Howard, also from the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

Social cohesion is also a function of trust - in public and private sector leadership, and in information sources. And polls such as the Edelman Trust Barometer show that trust is diminishing globally, Adjunct Professor Lutfey Siddiqi from NUS' Risk Management Institute pointed out.

Singapore, however, has bucked the trend by recording strong levels of trust in the ethics and competence of both government and business institutions.

"Singapore has also outperformed many others in its economic response to Covid-19, with gross domestic product now exceeding pre-pandemic levels," added Prof Siddiqi. "From a social cohesion point of view, the macroeconomic backdrop in Singapore should (also) help create resilience, not resentment."

Some experts say the pandemic has amplified the importance of collectivism and solidarity, on top of the self-reliance that is a core part of Singapore's national ethos.

"There is stronger awareness that we are a nation with interdependent individuals and families, rather than a nebulous crowd of self-sufficient individuals," said NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser.

Associate Professor Andy Ho, who specialises in psychology and medicine at Nanyang Technological University, sees this in the numerous community efforts to help those most affected by the pandemic. He and the other experts cited initiatives to aid migrant workers, low-income households, seniors, students, hawkers and more.

Whither mutual trust?

By the time PM Lee delivered his National Day message in August last year, his assessment was that Singapore's social cohesion had "held", though this could not be taken for granted.

"Covid-19 has strained fault lines in our society, and brought up difficult issues that we need to deal with," he acknowledged.

An immediate pressure point is the lingering difficulty in achieving consensus on Singapore's overall Covid-19 strategy, said Associate Professor Alex Cook from the Saw Swee Hock School.

"With extremely high vaccination and booster rates... the disease is much less serious now," he noted. "Some people may see the remaining risk as being sufficiently high that we should keep the measures we currently have in place for the long term, while others - such as myself - see the risk as low enough that we should retire most or all of them and treat Covid-19 the same way we treat the flu."

Recent polls by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) showed divergent views on the issue, with just over half of respondents feeling positive about living with the virus as endemic - and agreeing with having vaccination-differentiated measures. Close to half backed unmasking when outdoors or in uncrowded areas, with a similar proportion expressing confidence in eating out.

Covid-19 measures have also hit small heartland businesses and food and beverage outlets harder than most, with many crumbling under a plethora of changing rules and the pressure of having to reinvent and transform, said Prof Lim.

He suggested this was driven by the Government's "underlying low trust in residents", even if the converse is untrue and people here have a high level of trust in the state.

"This signals in my mind that the Government's relationship with the governed is still somewhat infantile and immature," he said. "We still have some way to go to a partnership governed by mutual respect and mutual trust."

He also pointed to policies creating dichotomies within groups themselves, giving the example of the Business Travel Pass scheme, which allows senior executives based in Singapore and with regional or international roles to fly regularly. They can move in and out of the country with more ease than work pass holders, whose return is contingent on them obtaining entry approvals - a situation that has resulted in some families being separated for long periods.

The place of foreigners in Singapore's society, along with racial issues and the plight of lower-wage workers, make up the fault lines referred to by PM Lee in his National Day message. In his subsequent National Day Rally speech, he acknowledged that Covid-19 had intensified anti-foreigner sentiment and brought race relations under stress, leading to a glut of incidents over the last two years. He committed to tackling these issues through landmark measures like an upcoming law on racial harmony.

But Singapore ultimately also needs to work on new methods of creating understanding between people with different cultural compasses, said Dr Kalpana Vignehsa, a research fellow in IPS' governance and economy department.

"We should be exploring ways to connect with the messy nuance of one another's lived experiences," she said. "Because focusing on neat identity labels and passive learning about identity groups is unlikely to give us the momentum we want towards improved solidarity and cohesion."

She added that Singapore could further strengthen its social cohesion - which she believes to be already hardy and resilient - by continuing to openly negotiate fault lines from the ground up.

Speaking at an IPS conference on Jan 13, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung seemed to broach a loftier goal than cohesion.

As a nation's people undergo common trials and tribulations, "over time, this togetherness will forge common ideals that transcend primordial tribal instincts, and overcome forces that deepen social fault lines", he said.

"Then something mysterious emerges... like the soul of a nation."

Dr Vignehsa proposed that another route to forging "common ideals" was to ensure that all who choose to share in Singaporeans' space, whether in the long or short term, feel like they belong.

"Perhaps our 'soul' is tied up with feeling the warmth of Singapore's embrace, regardless of the groups we identify with," she said.

Prof Ho described the epitome of the "soul of a nation" as its people sharing "the same vision towards a greater good, with a joint conviction towards civic-mindedness and compassionate citizenry".

"(Such) collective consciousness... has immense potential to overcome differences," he said. "No matter how difficult they are."


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