Commuters wearing face masks as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus leave the Mass Rapid Transit train station in Singapore on March 18, 2020. (Photo by Catherine LAI / AFP)

SINGAPORE – In an unprecedented move for one of the world’s most open economies, Singapore will deny entry and transit to all short-term visitors beginning Tuesday (March 24) to prevent a “second wave” of Covid-19 cases linked to arrivals from countries with mushrooming infection rates.

Around 80% of new cases between March 19 to 21 came from inbound Singaporeans and residents, the Ministry of Health (MoH) said on March 22.

Those permitted to work in the city-state and their dependents are exempted from the new travel restrictions provided they are employed in essential fields such as healthcare and transport.

While the wealthy island nation has earned plaudits for its success in curtailing the outbreak without imposing draconian lockdown measures, it is now bracing for an economic downturn with forecasts of a recession on the horizon.

Singapore’s leaders are also mulling whether and when to call a general election which by law must be held by April 2021.

The city-state currently has 455 confirmed Covid-19 cases, a figure that has more than doubled over the last week concurrent with a global surge in transmissions.

The stricter entry measures were announced a day after the nation acknowledged its first virus-related deaths: two patients, both elderly with underlying conditions, who perished on March 21.

Citizens and residents returning to Singapore must undergo mandatory home quarantine for 14 days to “flatten the curve” of a possible new spike in infections that could ultimately overwhelm local health services.

Visitors wear protective face masks at the Marina Bay waterfront in Singapore, January 26, 2020. Photo: AFP via Getty Images/Roslan Rahman

Singapore is currently regarded as one of the safest places in the world for Covid-19 patients owing to the quality of its healthcare system, which is often cited as a model of excellence.

Prior to the recent uptick in imported cases, the city-state boasted one of the highest recovery rates worldwide for coronavirus patients.

Schools and workplaces across the island nation have remained open, though students and staff are subjected to temperature screenings and large gatherings have broadly been banned.

That is in stark contrast to measures in neighboring Malaysia, which has closed its borders and deployed military forces to enforce a partial domestic lockdown that went into effect last week.

Those emergency restrictions have also had an impact on Singapore, which relies on some 300,000 Malaysian workers who commute to the city-state daily to do jobs many Singaporeans shun.

Putrajaya has since agreed to let Malaysian workers cross into the city-state, provided they remain there until the movement restrictions are lifted on March 31. Singapore has also assisted local employers to offer Malaysian workers temporary housing.

A view of traffic on the Johor Causeway linking Malaysia and Singapore. Vehicles streamed into Singapore on March 17 (L) to avoid Malaysian travel curbs that entered force on March 18 (R). Photo: Dhany Osman

Lawrence Wong, co-chair of a multi-ministerial task force charged with handling Singapore’s response to the outbreak, has said the city-state is not planning for a Malaysia-style lockdown, which has seen schools and all but essential businesses and workplaces closed.

Such measures, however, have not been entirely ruled out by authorities.

“It may be a strategy that’s needed. We do pay a price for it, the economy will be affected, but it may have to be done,” said Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious disease expert at Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital.

The city-state has thus far relied on identification and containment-oriented strategies to curb Covid-19’s spread.

Epidemiologists attribute Singapore’s preparedness and robust response to the unfolding pandemic to lessons learned while dealing with previous viral outbreaks, including the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and H1N1 influenza in 2009.

Both emergencies motivated investments to strengthen the city-state’s public health infrastructure.

Rigorous contact tracing aided by police and surveillance cameras have helped the government find more than 7,000 close contacts of confirmed Covid-19 cases, all of whom have been quarantined.

Those who flout quarantine orders risk a fine of up to S$10,000 (US$6,900) and the possibility of six-month jail sentences.

Last week, the government launched a smartphone app, TraceTogether, to assist in contact tracing efforts. Users who install the app and consent to sharing their information with the MoH are notified of any close contact with a confirmed Covid-19 patient through Bluetooth signals that log the distance and duration of social encounters.

Government Technology Agency (GovTech) staff demonstrate Singapore’s new contact-tracing smart phone app called TraceTogether. Photo: AFP/Catherine Lai

Singapore, one the world’s top biotech hubs, also deployed its own Covid-19 test kit within a week of its first case on January 23.

It currently only tests suspected cases, including inbound travelers who exhibit fever or other symptoms of respiratory illnesses; results show within three hours. “Identify, isolate, quarantine. Those are the key things they did,” said Leong.

But with the sharp rise of imported cases and more Singaporeans returning home from abroad, the disease expert believes Singapore is at high risk of new community outbreaks. “We could inevitably end up with many silent, asymptomatic unlinked cases locally,” he said.

Despite facing Singapore’s biggest-ever health crisis, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong strongly hinted this month that the country could hold general elections sooner rather than later. His statement followed the March 14 release of a report that defined electoral constituency boundaries, which has historically signalled imminent polls.

In a Facebook post, Lee wrote that same day that the country had two choices: “Either hope and pray that things will stabilize before the end of the term so that we can hold elections under more normal circumstances – but we have no certainty of that. Or else call elections early, knowing that we are going into a hurricane.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appeals to Singaporeans in a televised address not to fear about the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Prime Minister’s Office

Opposition parties are already urging the government against holding polls in the midst of a global pandemic. Insinuations of political opportunism abound with the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) seen as holding a huge incumbency advantage while social distancing measures could hamper opposition parties’ ability to campaign.

Leong, speaking from a public health perspective, said that polls should not be considered until consecutive days of no new cases are recorded. “There is quite a bit of time to decide when to hold elections. It wouldn’t be a gentleman’s game if they were to hold elections now,” he told Asia Times.

While it’s difficult to fathom the government would hold polls while “second wave” cases rise, some analysts speculate that a snap poll could be called as soon as April, while the coronavirus caseload is still manageable and before the health crisis infects the wider economy.

“In a perverse sort of way, this crisis has been a godsend for the ruling party,” said veteran journalist and former newspaper editor PN Balji. “Singapore’s response has been described as a gold standard. The economy is in big trouble, a recession is very likely to happen. In such a scenario, who would you trust to run the country?”

Irvin Seah, a senior economist at Singapore’s DBS Bank, said the likelihood of Singapore’s bellwether economy tipping into its first recession in nearly two decades appears “inevitable” given the negative shock to growth from travel restrictions and other measures to contain the pandemic’s spread.

A woman looks at a notice above empty shelves at a supermarket amid concerns over the spread of the Covid-19 novel coronavirus in Singapore, March 18, 2020. Photo: AFP/Catherine Lai

“This will be a lot deeper than SARS and more painful than the global financial crisis. Being a small and open economy, Singapore will not be spared,” Seah said. DBS has revised its full-year growth forecast to -0.5%, down from an earlier 0.9% estimate in early February before Covid-19’s rapid global spread.  

Last month, the government unveiled a S$10.9 billion ($7.7 billion) spending plan to mitigate the outbreak’s economic fallout. Seah now expects the government to tap its strategic financial reserves for an even larger stimulus of up to S$14 to S$16 billion ($9.6 to $11 billion).

“Global outlook hasn’t been grimmer than this since the global financial crisis. Official rhetoric is that a second stimulus package will be announced,” said the economist. “Plainly, the focus has shifted from mitigating the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak to cushioning the economy from an imminent recession.”

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