The COVID-19 Crisis: Through Medical, Economic and Legal Lenses

The COVID-19 Crisis: Through Medical, Economic and Legal Lenses

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Dr Jeremy Lim

“ I have been to many of the dorms after the lockdown. The workers are clinically very well. They are being locked down not for themselves but for us. The lockdown is really to protect the rest of Singapore and not them. They are undergoing incredible economic and  physiological hardship because they are protecting us…”

Singapore’s broad strategy has been around striking a balance. Keeping the economy, the society functioning as normally as is possible, while driving public health and various preventive interventions. This is a very fine balance.

Singapore has done well on two fronts of imported cases and community spread cases. On the third battle front, (foreign workers dormitory), there was a cognitive blind spot where the government underestimated the velocity and severity of COVID-19 racing like wild fire.

While Dr Lim shared his confidence that Singapore will get through this, he highlighted that we must live with the possibility of subsequent waves, due to the porosity of Singapore as a global transport hub.  Singapore needs to examine what sorts of strategic assets we need to maintain domestically to build surge capacity for effective responses to future threats.

Mr Yeoh Lam Keong

“If we had a proper unemployment insurance system, better WIS and SSS  ( workfare income supplement and silver support scheme) handouts, they are going to cost 3-4 billion a year, compared to 63 billion that we dished out in 3 weeks…”

COVID-19 highlights the thinnest of social protections that we offer to the underprivileged in Singapore, our low-income workers and our foreign workers. The working poor, unemployed poor and elderly poor will feature very prominently in this crisis, as higher unemployment is expected.

They were already suffering before our crisis and are mostly living in crowded rental flats. This is another potential area of vulnerability that we seem to have overlooked, together with the foreign worker dormitories.

Lam Keong shared various policy ideals to build a more resilient economy through rethinking of topics such as unemployment insurance, flexibility in CPF usage, greater workers support as well as a more stakeholder-oriented approach from landlords to tide business through.

On the foreign workers front, Lam Keong urged enforcement and follow through of protection measures enacted in 2016, which provided for the appointment of a commissioner to effectively oversee proper housing of our foreign workers and pandemic response plans. Furthermore, Singapore needs to re-examine our transient workforce growth for a more sustainable, local-driven workforce.

He also advocated that much more income support was needed to help our SMEs to survive and recover from the lockdown which could be likened to a natural disaster. The state should bear the brunt of such costs as the lockdown was needed for public health and we had ample reserves and fiscal resources to do so. More help for the 200,000 SMEs in the form of wage support, rental support and ready low interest credit was needed to prevent mass bankruptcy and unemployment. He recommended a $1 million credit line and up to $100,000 loss write offs per established SME.

Mr Harpreet Singh

“Citizen-led open forums are important to float and share ideals. Together we have a say in shaping policies.  Mainstream media owes a broader duty to give more non-mainstream voices more coverage. They may not necessarily gel with official ideas, but we should never doubt the sincerity, commitment and loyalty of our non-mainstream voices. We need to bring them in..”

Harpreet Singh believes that lessons drawn from this COVID Crisis offer Singapore the opportunity to do deep soul searching. Especially in the areas of our practices and attitudes towards our foreign workers, many of whom incur crippling debts from agencies just to get the opportunity to work here.
We have either not asked the difficult questions or we have stopped asking the difficult questions about whether there is something more we need to do than just allow free play to market forces.  As a nation, we need to institutionalize and insist on fair work practices. We need to pay attention to NGOs and other  ground voices who have, for a long time, been raising these issues.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This time is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.  We need to use this opportunity to re-imagine a Singapore post- COVID-19 where everyone, including foreign workers, are accorded dignified treatment.

Dr Leong Hoe Nam

“COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic, there will be other crisis that come along, and we must be prepared. Each time, it is an opportunity to re-examine, look into the mirror and say what did we do wrong, what can we do better? COVID-19 is going to go down in history as yet another milestone in nation building.”

COVID-19 is a new virus with behavior that is unheard of. It literally tests every government and healthcare system in the world at its weakest link. Everyone can be a Trojan Horse. That visibility or invisibility comes only with PCR testing.

Dr Leong shared that countries which had gone through SARS had been better prepared to handle this recent COVID-19 crisis. However, due to the novel nature of COVID-19 , it takes time for science and medicine to understand the characteristics of the virus and adapt/tweak measures based on new found information. These frequent changes in guidelines can be frustrating to people on the ground.

While it will likely take some time before a proven vaccine becomes widely available, Dr Leong shared that global collaborations within the medical profession have resulted in increased medical care quality. This gives hope for better treatments that can push down mortality rates.

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