Several international cases of the coronavirus from the UK to South Korea can be traced back to Singapore and some countries are now advising against travel to the international hub. But while Singapore has been commended for its management of the crisis, the tiny city-state faces unique challenges.
Changi airport in Singapore is one of the most interconnected hubs in the world.
With Chinese tourists shunning Hong Kong because of the anti-government protests there, many chose to come to Singapore over the Lunar New Year holidays – which coincided with the coronavirus outbreak.
“We are very mindful that we are indeed an open economy, we are an international travel hub,” Mr Wong says. “So we are doing all we can to contain that spread. We are putting out information in a very transparent manner and we continue to work with all health authorities overseas.”
Steps Singapore is taking
At home, Singapore is stepping up its coronavirus response by taking extreme measures.
It immediately understood the implications of spread in a densely-populated city. Indeed, eight of the 50 cases reported so far have no known links to clusters that had been in contact with Chinese travellers from Wuhan. That is likely to be of concern because it means the linking cases out there could yet pass on the illness to others.
That’s why Singapore has put in place a highly sophisticated contact tracing mechanism to hunt down every known possible contact of those infected so they can be quarantined or monitored.
It has a zero tolerance approach to any breaches of the measures it has put in – and this is of comfort to many Singaporeans. Employees caught breaking isolation rules saw their work permits revoked and were barred from working in Singapore permanently.
Singapore also distributed masks to more than a million households and has started a government-run WhatsApp group that provides daily updates to subscribers on the number of infected.
It’s even cleared out university dorms to make room for quarantined patients, a move that was executed so quickly it took students by surprise.
Panic buying, shortage of masks
But while the measures have been applauded by international health experts, Singaporeans themselves have not always bought the government’s messaging.
Social media comments show many Singaporeans don’t believe the government’s advice to wear masks only when you’re unwell, suspecting a shortage of masks instead.
Many also complained Singapore didn’t close borders to China soon enough.
And when authorities raised the health alert level last week, indicating the spread of the disease was severe, scores of Singaporeans rushed to the supermarkets to stock up on rice, instant noodles and toilet paper, worried the country was going into lockdown.
The panic abated only when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong released a recorded message assuring his citizens there were more than enough supplies.
This level of control is only achievable in Singapore because of its centralised form of decision-making and the massive parliamentary majority the ruling party enjoys.
Still, the main reason Singapore can move fast and quickly to fight the coronavirus is because it’s so small, and it is clear that there is a plan in place – one that has been crafted from the harsh lessons of the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) crisis in 2002-2003.
“You would see your colleagues one day at lunch, and then a few days later, you would hear that they are in the ICU, or worse – dead,” says Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases specialist.
A Sars survivor, he was on the frontline treating people with the illness in a period that, he says, “scarred and traumatised Singaporeans”.
“We are such a vulnerable country, so small and well connected,” Dr Leong says.
“You could have a disease one day in China, or anywhere else in the world, and the next minute it could be in Singapore. Containment is actually unrealistic, I don’t think China will be able to control it.
“I think a weakened form of the virus will emerge, like a common cold. That will be the eventuality of this virus.”
Singapore has no choice but to be extra vigilant and transparent in its fight against this deadly disease. This country is dependent on the rest of the world for its economy, for its food, for its lifeline.
Its strict containment methods managed to stamp out Sars but in the last 10 years Singapore has become more – not less – integrated into the global economy, and more closely tied to China.
World-leading experts on the novel coronavirus have signed a statement of support for their Chinese colleagues, who are being attacked on social media and even threatened with violence as false rumours circulate about its origins.
There is a real risk that the open and transparent relationship between the Chinese scientists and their western counterparts will come to an abrupt end, impeding the sharing of data and the hunt for treatments and vaccines against Covid-19, warned Dr Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance in the United States, whose research into emerging diseases led to the identification of the bat origin of Sars, among others.
Daszak is one of 27 prominent public health scientists from nine countries who have signed the statement published by the Lancet medical journal. They include Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust in the UK, Jim Hughes, former director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases in the USA, Rita Colwell, former head of the US National Science Foundation and other leaders in infectious disease research and public health.
“We work very closely with the Chinese scientists. We have had incredible openness with the labs in China for the last 15 years, since Sars,” said Daszak. “We collaborate on what are dangerous viruses and get incredible information that helps public health around the world. That is all under threat right now.”
The Chinese scientists and their families have been abused on social media and threatened with violence. They are saying, said Daszak, “we are not going to talk, because every time we speak we get criticised and threatened”.
Conspiracy theories circulating on social media claim the coronavirus was artificially manufactured in a lab conducting bioweapons research. They are “crackpot theories that need to be addressed, but in the age of social media it is just impossible,” said Daszak.
As with the conspiracy theories around MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination, those promulgating the rumours are in their own social media echo chambers.
And as with anti-vaxx theories, the unfounded rumours have then been amplified by mainstream politicians such as the US senator Tom Cotton, and international news platforms such as the Daily Mail.
The signatories to the statement, says Daszak, have put their reputations on the line in support of their Chinese counterparts who are being targeted. “There are scientists out there trying to save our lives,” he said. “They have been doing this for 15 years since the Sars outbreak.”
The Lancet letter is a “statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combatting Covid-19”.
“The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins. We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin. Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (Sars-CoV-2) and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens,” it says, linking to all the scientific evidence published so far.
The director general of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom, has also warned against rumours and misinformation, speaking of the “infodemic” that needs to be fought alongside the epidemic.
The statement continues: “Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus. We support the call from the director-general of WHO to promote scientific evidence and unity over misinformation and conjecture. We want you, the science and health professionals of China, to know that we stand with you in your fight against this virus.”
It calls on other scientists to sign up to the statement. The signatories have also launched a change.org petition for public support.
European Union leaders are preparing for acrimonious talks on the bloc’s seven-year budget, amid deepening divisions between the self-styled “frugal” club versus a larger number of countries fighting cuts.
The EU’s 27 leaders will attempt to agree a budget for 2021-27 at a special summit on Thursday, the first such exercise since Brexit blew a €70bn (£58bn) hole in the finances. “It is an exercise in the division of loss, a bit like Brexit,” a senior EU diplomat said.
European council president Charles Michel has taken the high-risk strategy of calling the special one-day summit, which could drag into the weekend if there is a chance of a deal. “We don’t have the intention to keep them imprisoned,” an EU official said. “They are there for the time it will take.”
Brussels budget squabbles are nothing new, but Thursday’s summit threatens to be the most difficult yet. The EU is seeking to spend more on tackling the climate emergency, research and border security, while facing demands to maintain spending on farmers and infrastructure for poorer member states, and dealing with the Brexit black hole. “The facts are the facts,” said the EU official. “We face a €60-75bn gap [over 2021-7] because of Brexit, we are facing new challenges and demands for which money is needed and … the member states have a tight budgetary situation. So realism is needed.”
Adding another layer of division, western countries want better oversight of EU funds, so governments that flout the rule of law, by weakening independent courts, would lose EU funds. Some claim that Michel has gone too far in weakening an original mechanism to ensure that recipients of cohesion funds act in accordance with the rule of law.
The budget battle pits the self-styled “frugal four” – net payers Austria, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands – against “the friends of cohesion”, 15 southern and eastern European countries that seek at least to preserve current agricultural and infrastructure spending.
The two largest net payers (by size of contribution) are outside both camps. France wants to maintain agricultural spending and boost EU defence funds. Germany wants a speedy agreement, to avoid having to solve the budget during EU presidency in the final six months of the year. “The Germans face a dilemma,” said the senior EU diplomat. “They don’t want to own this hot potato. But will they pay up just to avoid it?”
As well as the Brexit gap, the UK leaves another poisonous legacy: the rebate. After Margaret Thatcher secured the British rebate in 1984, some other countries were granted one, effectively a discount on their EU membership fee. While the European commission proposed sweeping away all “corrections”, Michel has proposed that five net payers should keep their rebates. “The rebate is not there just for fun. It is there, because otherwise, things would really get out of hand and off the scale,” said a diplomat from one country that gets a rebate.
Other countries, including net payers such as France, think the rebate has had its day. “Why these five countries? Just because they already had one [a rebate],” said another diplomat. “It is very unfortunate that we continued with this tinkering.”
Although the arguments are big, the sums are relatively small. The “frugal four” want to limit the EU budget to 1% of the EU’s economy, as measured by gross national income (GNI). The European commission proposed 1.11% GNI, while Michel has almost split the difference with his 1.07% compromise plan.
“We have a plan”, said an EU diplomat from one of the self-styled frugal member states. “Plan A is the 1% and the rebate. And we have a plan B which is 1% and the rebate”. The “frugal four” argue that while content to be net payers to the seven-year budget the additional contributions being sought by Michel put an intolerable burden on their taxpayers. The Dutch estimate that the proposals put forward would increase their contribution by 20%.
The diplomat said 22 countries think the Michel compromise is not enough, while five find it too much, adding: “the balance is not necessarily in the middle.”
But the frugal four insist they won’t compromise, despite being a minority: “Whose money are you going to spend? In any negotiation you need the investors on board otherwise you won’t get an agreement,” said one frugal diplomat.
Hours ahead of the summit, few EU insiders are banking on a deal. Michel has warned EU leaders in private meetings that failure to find agreement imperils current and new EU programmes due to start in 2021.
“It looks like quite a big gap to reach,” said one of the frugal diplomats. “If not, then we will have to come back a second time, which is not something special because it’s quite normal to not manage it.”
Another diplomat, worried about “unpleasant” media headlines, asked: “Do we want such a fiasco when the numbers are going to be the same in March and April?”