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Preparation, vigilance and unity will see us all through this coronavirus epidemic

Dr Paul Ferguson


What Northern Ireland could learn from how Singapore has dealt with the threat

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Visitors pass through a thermal scanner as they arrive at the Singapore Air Show (AP/Danial Hakim)

Visitors pass through a thermal scanner as they arrive at the Singapore Air Show (AP/Danial Hakim)

Visitors pass through a thermal scanner as they arrive at the Singapore Air Show (AP/Danial Hakim)

The world is in a state of panic over the COVID-19 virus epidemic. Tens of thousands have been infected in China and more than 2,000 are reported to have died. Singapore, with its large ethnic Chinese population and close business and travel links to China, has been one of the worst hit of the Asian countries by the COVID-19 virus. More than 90 persons are reported to have been infected with the virus.

My adopted home of Singapore is the second most densely populated city on the planet with almost six million people living on a small island of 280 square miles (less than half the size of my family's home county of Fermanagh). Viruses like Covid-19 pose an existential threat to such a densely populated island.

Learning from the experiences of the Sars epidemic 17 years previously, the Singapore government quickly initiated a co-ordinated response. Flights from China were curtailed and those from Wuhan banned.

Harvard University called it the "gold standard" in tackling the epidemic because its robust screening systems mean that it detects imported cases of Covid-19 at three times the rate of other nations. Every day the government health officials and ministers calmly held a press conference to update the local population on all the facts.

The prime minister spoke regularly to the public at length. He emphasised that this virus had a low mortality rate outside of Hubei province in China of around 0.2% of those affected. Full transparency was integral to building public confidence in the fight against Covid-19.

The results have been impressive. Over a month after the first cases were discovered, the country has announced 93 individuals infected, with 31 hospitalised and 62 discharged from hospital. No deaths have occurred to date.

Any infected by the virus were immediately isolated and interviewed by trained personnel for contact tracing. Any individuals deemed at risk to exposure were professionally quarantined. All major buildings and schools were mandated to do regular temperature screening and hand-washing for all entering.

These measures have so far managed to contain the outbreak without plunging the country into complete paralysis by mass lockdowns.

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Dr Paul Ferguson, wife Cheryl and their two children

Dr Paul Ferguson, wife Cheryl and their two children

Dr Paul Ferguson, wife Cheryl and their two children

The local population quickly recovered from the initial shock to a disciplined and intelligent response. Masks were worn by many and every major building and institution initiated regular temperature screening and hand-washing.

There is, generally, a large measure of confidence in the government, who have ruled the nation for over 50 years and took a third-world country with the GDP of Ghana in 1965 to the third richest country in the world in one generation.

The government quickly responded to the affected areas of the economy by promising huge financial packages of 5.6bn Singapore dollars (£2.23bn) to encourage companies to use the downturn to retrain staff and to support companies through the financial losses. Singapore is able to intervene in this manner because the constitution mandates that the government must balance its budget over the five-year electoral term.

Over the last 50 years Singapore has accrued huge financial reserves to be drawn from in hard times, estimated to be above S$500bn (£278bn).

Not everything has been faultless.

There were moments of panic among the local population. For a week or so restaurants were largely abandoned and many reverted to ordering meals and groceries online.

A social media buzz caused some panic-buying with a handful of stores being stripped bare at the height of the crisis. This was condemned by the government and shelves were quickly restocked.

The heightened level of fear and alarm has now greatly subsided in Singapore. The reasonable and measured approaches have resulted in the numbers of new cases of infection being reduced to just a handful over the past week. Public transport is fully functional. Restaurants and shops are slowly returning to normal.

School attendances are around the normal levels for a country where education is a national passion, with Singapore leading the international PISA rankings in English, mathematics and science.

Christianity has a huge role to play in the lives of the people with around 20% of the population registered as Christians.

We take the recommended precautions and seek to get on with family life as best we can. It is at times like these that you realise that the main priorities in life are your faith and your family

Some of the larger Christian churches had cancelled services for a fortnight and organised online broadcasts but have now largely restarted public services.

On a personal level, I have lived in Singapore for 16 years.

This is the worst crisis the nation has faced in my time here. As a parent of two children aged 13 and 10, there is a natural anxiety for them with so many unknowns. It is not encouraging to see your children leave for school every morning wearing face masks with hand sanitisers and thermometers in their bags.

You struggle with basic questions: Should I let them play outside with other children? Would it be safer to keep them at home from school? What about sending them to Northern Ireland to stay there for a time?

But experience of the highly organised nature of this society, and our Christian faith, has enabled my wife Cheryl and I to face each day with a measure of calm.

We take the recommended precautions and seek to get on with family life as best we can. It is at times like these that you realise that the main priorities in life are your faith and your family.

Worrying doesn't change anything.

As the Dutch Christian heroine of the Second World War, Corrie Ten Boom, observed: "Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows; it empties today of its strength."

The threat remains still from external carriers of the virus. Almost 70 million passengers departed or landed at Singapore Changi Airport in 2019. Without extreme vigilance, another epidemic could easily break out.

But Singapore has proven that preparation, vigilance and a unified approach by all the agencies of the state can be effective in dealing with this terrible threat.

Northern Ireland has a different political and geographical make-up.

But there are many lessons it can learn from Singapore.

The Assembly and the Executive should study the practices here and plan to utilise many of the lessons.

Dr Paul Ferguson was trained as a finance lawyer and has lived in China, Singapore, USA and in the UK. Although born and reared in Northern Ireland, he has lived almost half of his life in Asia. He is a minister of a Presbyterian Church in Singapore

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