Singapore's usually bustling business district was almost deserted on April 7 as most workplaces in the city-state closed to stem the spread of the coronavirus after a surge in cases. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

SINGAPORE – Singapore’s battle against the Covid-19 pandemic entered a restrictive new phase today (April 7), with the city-state enforcing tough new measures including school and work place closures to curb a recent spike in locally transmitted infections. Authorities say the “circuit breaker” measures will remain in place until at least May 5.

The island nation was among the worst hit during the initial stages of the global outbreak, though it managed to contain the disease’s spread through testing and travel restrictions, aggressive contact tracing and a strict quarantine regime that earned accolades from the World Health Organization (WHO) and others for its model response.

Schools, malls and most businesses across the island nation remained open with specific social distancing guidelines enforced, instilling a semblance of normalcy even as Covid-19 case numbers increased on a smaller-scale than elsewhere. But with community spread now on the rise, the city-state’s lauded containment efforts have come into question.

“We have decided that instead of tightening incrementally over the next few weeks, we should make a decisive move now, to pre-empt escalating infections,” said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong upon announcing the new measures on April 3.

For the next month, only essential services such as markets, supermarkets, clinics, hospitals, utilities, transport and banking services will remain open. Residents have been urged to stay home and limit contact with others as much as possible. Authorities say the strict new measures could be extended further if the situation does not improve.

“The latest ‘circuit breaker’ is a restriction on businesses and schools, very much applied to institutions rather than on individuals,” Teo Yik Ying, dean of the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, told Asia Times.

“This differed from the usual ‘lockdowns’ that we see employed in Italy, Hubei (China), and parts of South Korea, where the restriction is on individuals’ movement. If it is clear that the present restrictive measures on institutions are not sufficient to curb people’s movements, then I believe the government will not hesitate to enforce stronger measures,” he said.

Singapores central business district on April 7, 2020 as the country ordered the closure of all businesses deemed non-essential. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

Singapore’s Covid-19 caseload jumped from around 100 at the beginning of March to 1,000 by month’s end, a surge that experts describe as a “second wave” of cases linked to residents returning from contagion-hit countries such as the United States and Britain, as well as community transmissions with no known links to confirmed patients.

The city-state has 1,375 confirmed cases and six deaths. To date, 344 patients have fully recovered from the pneumonia-like illness and have been discharged from hospitals or community isolation facilities, though experts believe the virus is capable of remaining in the body and proliferating again if a recovered patient’s resistance is weakened.

Lee, during his televised address, said the tighter restrictions were “the only effective way to slow the transmission of the virus, so that we gradually bring our numbers down.” While most of Singapore’s cases were initially imported, the overwhelming majority of new cases are locally transmitted with links to what could be new mega-clusters in the making.

Singapore registered its highest single-day spike of infections on April 5, with a significant number of the 120 new cases originating in crowded foreign worker dormitories that experts regard as potential time bombs for wider disease transmission. Authorities have since controversially sealed off two mass dormitories housing some 20,000 workers.  

Workers mostly from South Asia are housed 12 to 20 men per room in double-decker beds at the two sites now gazetted as “isolation areas”, namely the S11 Dormitory in Punggol and Westlite Toh Guan dormitory near Jurong East. Conditions there are reportedly squalid with overflowing toilets and overcrowded living quarters that make social distancing impossible.

“Migrant workers in cramped, increasingly unhygienic dormitories is a tinderbox for Covid-19 infection and the Singaporean authorities can’t just wall it off behind a quarantine line,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, echoing critics who say the tough measures risk exposing healthy individuals to a higher chance of infection.

Foreign workers stand along the corridor of their rooms in the S11 Dormitory @ Punggol, April 6, 2020. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

“Since medical research shows that as many as a quarter of Covid-19 cases are asymptomatic, Singapore’s Ministry of Health needs to quickly and thoroughly test workers to determine everyone who is positive, move them out of that population, and give them the health care they require,” said Robertson in a statement sent to Asia Times.

“Otherwise, Singapore will have a potentially deadly crisis on its hands affecting some of the most vulnerable people in the country, and governments of these nationals knocking on the door asking why their people are not being helped.” Workers from India and Bangladesh are believed to be among those infected in the dormitory clusters.

Apart from foreign workers’ dormitories, there are now more than 20 local Covid-19 clusters, including two preschools and a nursing home where a 102-year-old woman is among those who contracted the disease.

Lawrence Wong, co-chair of Singapore’s multi-ministry Covid-19 task force, has said that authorities chose not to impose the “circuit breaker” closures earlier out of concern that “fatigue” could set in among the population, which would undermine public compliance.

Others believe authorities were also reluctant to close off further sectors of the economy.

Wong said that compared with other countries that have imposed lockdowns or drastic restrictions on movement and economic activity, Singapore is introducing tighter measures at a relatively early point on its coronavirus infection curve.

“Many countries had moved to this set of measures that we just announced only after giving up and abandoning containment,” he said. “We are still going all out to contact-trace and quarantine close contacts and try to stamp out every infected cluster.”

Dirk Pfeiffer, director of the Centre for Applied One Health Research and Policy Advice (OHRP) at the City University of Hong Kong, believes that Singapore has aimed “to find the best compromise between the now and trying to shape the future, while trying to avoid blunt policy instruments such as whole-country lockdowns as much as possible.”

Customers visit a wet market to buy food in Singapore on April 4, 2020. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

“That is not without risks,” he added. “It is impossible to know what the right policy is. Each country needs to identify their own strategy, by looking elsewhere and understanding its own population epidemiologically and socially.”

Whether the city-state’s new tougher measures are enough to flatten the infection curve will largely depend on whether Singaporeans cooperate with the restrictions and heed the government’s calls to stay home unless absolutely necessary. While personal travel within Singapore has been heavily discouraged, it has not been banned outright.

Despite explicit calls to stay home by Singapore’s leaders, large crowds of shoppers were seen over the weekend in meandering queues outside Swedish furniture store Ikea, some with infant children in tow.

Images of the long lines went viral on social media to the chagrin of some netizens who questioned whether social distancing measures were being taken seriously enough.

“The reality is that many households will need some minor preparation or even modification to allow adults and children to spend an extended time indoors during the month-long home-based learning or work-from-home period,” said Teo.

“I am a lot more optimistic that these occurrences do not have any reflection on whether Singaporeans will or will not comply with the call for them to stay at home. Just looking at traffic on the roads and public transport networks clearly indicate that a large segment of the country is not moving much.”

Walter Theseira, an associate professor at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) and a nominated Member of Parliament, believes the city-state could phase in stricter curbs on individual movement, such as those in place in neighboring Malaysia, if local infections keep rising.

Many commuters on Singapore’s MRT transit system don face masks amid rising public anxiety over the coronavirus outbreak, February 11, 2020. Photo: Nile Bowie

“The most obvious next set of tightening measures would be to regulate personal movement. However, the logistics of such an exercise would be very significant and would certainly require active enforcement by the police and possibly even the military in a supporting role,” he told Asia Times.

“Like other countries who have taken that step, it is an entirely plausible escalation of measures, but I do not think the government would take that step without evidence that there continues to be substantial uncontrolled, untraceable transmission.”

To ease the economic toll on businesses, workers and households wrought by the month-long restrictions, Singapore unveiled its third Covid-19 relief package on April 6, totalling S$5.1 billion (US$3.55 billion). The latest injection comes after an earlier S$48 billion ($33.6 billion) package was announced on March 26.

Total spending earmarked for Covid-19 relief now amounts to S$59.9 billion ($41.9 billion), or 12% of gross domestic product (GDP). The trade-geared, export-reliant Southeast Asian nation is projected to face its worst-ever recession despite massive stimulus spending to cushion the impacts of the contagion-induced global downturn.

The latest relief package will go towards wage support, waivers of levies and one-off payments to Singaporeans. The city-state has once again drawn from its national reserves to fund the spending, marking the first time in Singapore’s history that it has tapped reserves twice in a single year.

“The central rationale behind the massive stimulus package is the projection that the situation would get worse before it gets better,” said academic and political analyst Mustafa Izzuddin. “The hope from this package is also to incentivize Singaporeans to stay at home so as to contain the virus and avert further clusters from propping up.”