Government and governance, Health | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

14 April 2020

Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, have achieved impressive results from their measures to control the spread of COVID-19, and other countries can look to their responses to see the importance of listening to experts, Christy Tsang and Alfred Muluan Wu write.

On 3 April, Singapore suddenly announced the closure of most workplaces effective as of 7 April and schools effective as of 8 April to mitigate community transmission of COVID-19. Singaporeans have been advised to stay at home. Domestically, Singapore’s leaders are under pressure to continue containing the spread of the virus.

Hong Kong and South Korea have been the subject of much attention too, and have physical borders with mainland China, where COVID-19 was found and has been rapidly spreading since December 2019. Singapore, as a popular tourism destination, attracts a great number of tourists from China.

This put these places at great risk in facing the pandemic, but what have the governments of Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea done to fight COVID-19, and what lessons can policymakers learn from the way they have tackled their outbreaks of COVID-19?

One of the most important takeaways from the experiences of Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea is that healthcare experts, particularly those working on infectious disease, provide strong evidence to support governments in making well-informed policy decisions very quickly.

While it is easy to group them together, there is great variation in the political situation among the three economies, ranging from Singapore having very good state-citizen relations to Hong Kong having very poor. Nevertheless, law enforcement remains relatively effective in all three contexts, and therefore, containing the spread of virus has been possible in all these economies.

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From 23 March onwards, both Singapore and Hong Kong closed their borders to visitors. In Singapore, the Ministry of Health announced that short term visitors will be barred from entering or transiting through the country. On the same day, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, also declared that Hong Kong’s border would be closed to non-residents.

On the contrary, South Korea has not imposed border control the same extent as Singapore and Hong Kong. So far, the government has enforced stricter border checks on visitors from China, Italy, Iran, and other virus-hit regions and countries. All that came from the government was an announcement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to instruct the public to refrain from travelling abroad for a month. On 9 Apr 2020, South Korea rolled out a new measure that starting on 13 April, short-term visas for all foreign nationals will be invalidated. Visa waiver programs for 90 countries will be stopped as well.

Apart from measures to check imported cases, new policies have also been introduced to contain outbreaks in local clusters. In South Korea and Singapore, all sports (except open-air stadiums), entertainment, and religious facilities are currently closed. Other venues, such as restaurants, malls, and museums would be required to comply with strict social distancing measures to keep customers at a safe distance. In Singapore, no dining is allowed at restaurants, until at least 4 May 2020.

Hong Kong, which was heavily impacted by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, went as far as closing schools, suspending some government services, and advising businesses to allow workers to work from home. The majority of public sector workers in the Hong Kong are now working from home.

On top of closing non-essential services and facilities, a series of contact tracing measures have also been implemented. Using mobile technology, all three economies have sought to complement existing contact tracing efforts to isolate cases as they are discovered.

In Hong Kong, for instance, electronic wristbands accompanied by an app are distributed to people arriving on the island to ensure that they are following the city’s two-week quarantine and medical surveillance measures. Similarly, apps such as TraceTogether in Singapore and Self-quarantine Safety Protection in South Korea are being used to facilitate contact tracking.

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Some concerns about privacy have been raised in each of these different contexts, but public debate on this area is still limited and the bulk of public attention has been given to fighting COVID-19.

Contact tracing alone is not effective in combating COVID-19 if it is not supported by corresponding quarantine policies and infrastructure. Instead of sending all patients to quarantine facilities, all three governments have imposed different levels of quarantine measures depending on the severity of symptoms, as well as the level of exposure to the virus. Most importantly, this was based on the advice of experts.

For instance, in South Korea, older patients with long-term illnesses would be hospitalised, while people who were just in contact with confirmed cases with minimal symptoms would instead stay at residential treatment facilities, where medical personnel are deployed to check their health status.

In some cases, laws were updated to enhance such quarantine orders. In Singapore, the Infectious Disease Act was gazetted to penalise patients that refused to comply with the restrictions. Similarly, in Hong Kong, the new Compulsory Quarantine of Certain Persons Arriving at Hong Kong Regulation is in place for three months to impose mandatory quarantine orders on anyone arriving outside of China.

This is reflective of expert advice, the most crucial element of a good response to the pandemic. A paper written by infectious disease experts in Singapore points out that ideally, a policy mix of different interventions should be put in place to fight COVID-19, there and elsewhere. This is what has made the approaches of these governments so successful in fighting the virus so far. Whether they can maintain this success, especially considering the record increase in daily new cases for Singapore on 13 April, will depend on their commitment to this and how they handle the new challenges effectively.

This approach, led by these three economies, involves the combination of quarantining infected individuals, social distancing, including workplace distancing, and school closure could be very useful for reducing the number of COVID-19 infections.

While all these governments have faced unique struggles in their COVID-19 responses, what links them is that they have followed expert opinions and implemented successful social distancing measures that makes their situations look managable at this stage.

If other countries can learn these lessons from Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, they stand a better chance at coming out of this public health crisis in good stead.

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