Since December 2019, we have been watching the world deal with the novel coronavirus which first surfaced at a wet market in Wuhan, China. As an expat resident of Singapore, a country that has frequent visitors from all parts of China and Asia, we have had several containment and tracking measures put in place on this small island nation.
In times of uncertainty and somewhat unknown territory, people can feel left to make some of their own assumptions when information released is very controlled. There is a natural tendency to do things that defy logic. In our initial learnings about how this virus spreads and how many cases were in Singapore, some residents had similar initial reactions to those we are currently seeing in the Western culture countries, primarily in the United States, Canada and Australia, when clusters began popping up.
While the emotional reactions are natural, they do not help in a time when we need to be logical so that the safety of all citizens is the priority. Some residents were ones of mild hysteria such as toilet paper, noodle and egg hoarding. Thankfully these reactions have been short-lived and curbed as grocery stores started limiting the number of items that people could purchase at one time. Stores reassured people that supplies would not be affected as importing to the country would not be affected.
To understand where and how cases were moving about, the Singapore government put tracking measures in place very quickly to curb feelings of panic from the public and contain infected people. It was determined that the first two clusters reported were from Lunar New Year dinners at the end of January, and the second from a church congregation. Once these initial clusters were identified, all people were and still are required to provide information about travel and health to security guards upon entry to their places of work and school. This practice of tracking and tracing have proven to be effective in finding and notifying people who may have been in contact with those infected, getting people tested, and then either giving them official notice to quarantine or get them treatment.
The logical move to institute tracking measures when only a few cases started to pop in Singapore was an effective way to ensure the health and safety of citizens. The first measures have been in place nationwide since January and have been updated as changes in numbers of cases increases locally and globally. These measures have been helpful in identifying those who are/were unwell, who may show symptoms, where people have been and who they have been in contact with.
Here is what those measures look like:
- Identifying clusters. The Ministry of Health (MOH) were able to identify clusters of ill people based on large events attended, such as Chinese New Year dinners and church congregation activities.
- Signage. The MOH distributed signs about hygiene to posts in all public venues, from grocery stores to condo and apartment elevators.
- Mask distribution. The government made 5.2 million masks available for its citizens to pick up. Personally, I thought this may further push people into hysteria, however, I had to put my personal cultural upbringing and biases aside as you do as an expat because wearing masks in Asian countries is one of the normal precautions that people take during a regular flu season. We never picked ours up because there hasn’t been strong evidence supporting that wearing one will keep you virus-free. We are healthy individuals and opted to not pick up masks, assuming that masks not picked up would be sent to hospitals.
- Temperature readings. Upon entering schools and office buildings, all individuals get their temperatures read, and must do so twice daily. Presently, we reside in a temporary corporate apartment and each day we have a reading before going to breakfast. At the airport and now in many office building lobbies, there are scanners to read body temperatures as you walk past the monitor so there is no longer a need to stop and get checked, you merely keep walking.
- Notice of travel. All individuals must fill in Notice of Travel form at gyms, schools, offices, doctor’s offices, etc. Initially the questions asked if travel was taken to China but since those first weeks of this practice in January that list has grown to include Iran, Italy, most of Europe, South Korea, etc. Now those restrictions are tightening again as of March 27th, 2020. All locals returning must quarantine for the 14 day period following return to Singapore.
- Reduction of numbers at gatherings. Schools were required to take precautions right away by canceling all large assemblies and after-school events. Schools instituted rotating lunch schedules and play times and offices, have flexible schedules so employees can split into groups and occupy the office space in smaller numbers.
- Increase in sanitizing public spaces. Singapore is clean anyway but we are now even cleaner. Rails, doorknobs and buttons in elevators are cleaned frequently. Singapore is known for its clean public bathrooms and manicured public spaces which is one of the perks of living here. They are cleaned even more frequently now. My hope is that the increased hygienic practices become the norm everywhere.
- Tracking App. You can sign up with your identification number and log your movement for the government in the event that you show symptoms. This makes it very easy for the MOH to contact anyone you have been in contact with locally.
- Harsh penalties. Singapore is known for having some odd rules like making selling chewing gum illegal but they are also known for having a very safe society because people follow the rules. If people, business owners as well as individuals in public spaces, are caught not adhering to restrictions, you could receive a heavy fine (up to $10,000) and jail time. No joke there.
Because there have been so many measures in place, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has kept schools open, both local and international schools. While international schools operate independently of local schools, schools still adhere to what the MOE suggests. Local schools are currently back in session from their spring break. International schools are mostly on spring break now until the start of April. Do parents agree with the MOE, some yes, some no, but the MOE states that the best place for students to be is at school because of the low rate of contraction and transmission. The greater worry seems to be around the possibility of infected parents and helpers who bring students to school. There have been some cases in which parents exhibited symptoms which resulted in school closures for one day to do deep cleaning. Is this enough? It seems so since the incidence of cases in Singapore remains low.
All in all, Singapore has done a lot to contain community spread, and it seems to have been effective so far. And due to increased imported cases, border restrictions are now in place until April 30th. It is a model that countries can look to even if not all the same measures can be taken, many of the same can be. Stay safe everyone, and keep your distance for now.
Now, since writing the first draft of this article above, we have been given another set of restrictions, announced by Prime Minister Lee, as of Friday, April 3rd.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong announced Friday that the nation would institute a “circuit breaker” restriction to control the nation’s uptick virus spread. This uptick began in late March, however, now we are dealing with fewer imported cases as we had seen in mid-March, and more communal spread. New clusters have been reported around the island, many in highly congested dormitories where laborers have been housed, as well as more cases of infected staff at a local preschool franchise.
PM Lee stated that as of Monday, April 6th, all schools would be closed and full-time home-based learning would take place as of Wednesday, April 8th through to at least May 4th. Local schools had one day of home-based learning “transition” last week while many international schools would just be concluding their spring breaks. Prior to the break, many international school teachers did some preparation in March, in the event that this announcement would come.
Since this announcement, Singaporean parents have been worried about all the same things that American parents have been concerned about, and because of this, the MOE has been available for holding online Q & A events to help ease those concerns.
Does the MOE have a magical remedy here? No, of course not. But they had suggestions ready, similar to ones we have heard about in the US or Canada, and all examinations have been cancelled except the national exam for Singaporeans. This is a learning curve that the nation is slightly behind on, yet not far behind, as the nation has been watching other responses to closing schools from abroad. I am also certain that there would not be any school, district or nation that would ever have the magic potion for instituting an efficient full-time online school / homeschool / work-at-home program.
Additionally, from Tuesday, April 7th, all non-essential shops and businesses are closed. Only grocery stores and pharmacies remain open, and food establishments are open for take away orders and deliveries. Mask distribution commenced again this week at community centers as well so I walked over to my nearest center to pick one up where I had my local identification card scanned. There were no lines, but still many older folks remained seated around the communal tables at the neighborhood hawker center, as I’m sure they have done for years. I guess they were getting their last group chat in before all the tables are removed and stored for the month. Enforcement of social distancing rules is in full force and unless you want to pay a hefty fine, you should be sure to keep your distance from anyone in public places!
To offset some business’s loss of wages, we hear of many national governments creating stimulus packages and governmental monetary support for its citizens. The government is providing a small monetary support to Singaprean citizens with payments ranging from $300SGD to $900SGD per person (depending on salary) from the nation’s Unity Budget. While the locals do get some support, there are always those who are happy to get the payment, those that don’t need it, and those that require more in order to survive. This seems to be a common concern in nations with the same system in place. Additionally, some of the hardest working people in this country are here on work visas and will not receive this support. Those of us who are in the expat community must consult with our home countries’ associations or embassies if we need support.
All in all, things have been changing quickly and I think this will be the last of our big changes here. We have experienced quite a progression of changes over the last couple of months to help people feel at ease with a threatening situation and mostly panic has been kept at bay. I think it’s worked for the most part, so now we ride it out for the next few weeks, keeping to ourselves, and hopefully we will be in a better place very soon.
Take care everyone, and stay home.
Asia News articles:
Schools Open in Singapore
Greater Restrictions Close Schools and Businesses
Singapore Stimulus Package
Tamera Musiowsky-Borneman is an international educator, advisor, and coach who has taught and lead in Singapore, New York City, and Edmonton, Canada. She is the creator of EdCoach Coffee Break, she is an active member of ASCD, President of ASCD Emerging Leaders Alumni Affiliate (ELASCD), KDSL Global Advisory Member, and Participate Course Author.