Article

COVID-19 Crisis Management: An Early Look

CSC Researcher James Low traces Singapore’s response to the pandemic to date, highlighting the coordinated response and whole-of-Singapore efforts to help those most affected by the crisis.

Covid-19 Crisis Mgmt

Date Posted

3 Jun 2020

Issue

Digital Issue 6, 3 Jun 2020

On 31 December 2019, cases of severe pneumonia in Wuhan in Hubei Province, China, were reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO). By 3 January 2020, Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH) was screening travellers from Wuhan. On 20 January 2020, Singapore started isolating travellers with pneumonia and a 14-day travel history to China. On 22 January 2020, Singapore set up a Multi-Ministry Task Force (MTF)1  to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. The MTF’s formation was timely: the very next day, a Wuhan tourist was confirmed as Singapore’s first positive case.

This article provides an early look at how the Singapore Public Service has responded thus far to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of writing, it is two-weeks away from the end of Singapore’s “circuit breaker”. This refers to an elevated set of nation-wide safe distancing measures to pre-empt the trend of increasing local transmission of COVID-19.2  Singapore’s pandemic Task Force is supported by the Homeland Crisis Executive Group (HCEG), an institutional structure originally set up to coordinate responses across agencies in a crisis. Over time, the HCEG had evolved and improved. The smooth functioning of the HCEG is predicated on a whole-of-government mindset among public officers. Should a situation require it, this public sector crisis management capability helps mobilise a whole-of-nation effort to deal with the crisis.

A Structure for Crisis Response

Singapore’s crisis management capability is the result of continual learning from past crises. The HCEG started out as the Executive Group (EG), which was set up to coordinate responses among security agencies after the Laju ferry hijack in 1974.3  When Hotel New World collapsed in 1986, the EG oversaw multi-agency rescue efforts. Later, in 1991, the EG led security forces to resolve the hijack of Singapore Airlines Flight SQ117. When the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak hit Singapore in 2003, the EG coordinated a government-wide response. SARS showed that crises are by no means restricted to security issues. They are complex with wide-ranging implications on society and the economy. Because of this, the EG was renamed and reorganised into the HCEG in 2004 (see Figure 1).


Figure 1

Figure 1. Homeland Crisis Executive Group (NSCS, 2006)4


The HCEG is chaired by the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and comprises senior representatives from all ministries. It reports to the elected leadership for political direction and executes the decisions of the MTF.5  Under the HCEG’s oversight are Crisis Management Groups that muster relevant agencies to deal with different types of incidents.

While the HCEG provides the institutional structure, a whole-of-government mindset among public officers is the “software” of cross-agency crisis management. A “shared language and culture” among public sector leaders,6 up and down the hierarchy and across the Public Service, eases coordination among agencies during crisis management. This service-wide mindset lubricates the machinery of inter-agency coordination, particularly when the number of personnel mobilised scales into the thousands. In ordinary times, this whole-of-government mindset, increasingly tied to engagement with citizens towards whole-of-nation outcomes, is emphasised as being essential for effective public service delivery. Such constant reiteration of cross-agency and whole-of-nation coordination during normalcy also inspires officers to persist during difficult times and to exercise initiative when needed at their respective working levels.


A shared language and culture across the Public Service eases coordination among agencies during crisis management.

Following the 2003 SARS crisis and the 2009 H1N1 influenza crisis, the Singapore Government developed a Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) framework to prepare the country’s healthcare infrastructure, as well as public sector agencies in general, for relevant contingencies (see Figure 2).7  When DORSCON is elevated to Yellow, the Crisis Management Group for Health is activated to lead the WOG management of disease outbreaks.8 The DORSCON framework is now being used to coordinate all Public Service agencies in managing COVID-19.


A service-wide mindset lubricates the machinery of inter-agency coordination, particularly personnel mobilised scales into the thousands.


 Figure 2

Figure 2. Disease Outbreak Response System Condition9 
Reproduced with permission

Protecting Singaporeans

The crisis management capabilities of a coordinated Public Service have allowed the Government to roll-out comprehensive measures to protect Singapore. The MTF, co-chaired by Minister for Health, Gan Kim Yong, and Minister for National Development, Lawrence Wong, was able to set up “multiple lines of defence to reduce the risk of imported cases and local community transmissions”,10 based on implementing appropriate measures at the right time, grounded in evidence and expertise. Explaining Singapore’s approach, Minister Wong has pointed out that:


“There is a view…‘why don’t you just go for…lockdown today, do it for two weeks then life can go back to normal’. There is no such magic solution as [a] two-week lockdown and then we are free from the virus…we have to deal with this situation for quite a long period of time…So, we have to find measures that can control, slow down the virus and do so in a way that is sustainable—not just for two weeks, two months, but all the way through the end of the year.”11

At the outset of the disease, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) and Maritime Port Authority (MPA) were immediately activated to conduct temperature screening at border checkpoints. They were quickly supported by officers from the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) and other agencies. After six Chinese tourists tested positive for COVID-19 on 28 January, visitors with travel history to China were refused entry into Singapore. As the outbreak grew into a global pandemic, travellers from more countries were restricted from entering Singapore.

Figure 3

SCDF officers supporting temperature screening
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction

The MTF’s strategy was to reduce the number of cases as much as possible. This meant that contact tracing was key to reducing the risk of local community transmissions. The MOH worked round the clock to track down and quarantined contacts with confirmed cases. As contact tracing and quarantine operations expanded, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) joined MOH in the fight. The Ministry of National Development (MND) was also roped in to care for those under quarantine.

From the beginning, the MTF was transparent. It hosted daily media briefings and persisted with honest reporting of COVID-19 cases even when these numbers increased. Such transparency builds trust with citizens, and trust undergirds crisis management efforts. The Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) employed differentiated media to reach specific audiences, beyond traditional print and broadcast media. Crisis response information was customised to engage senior citizens through television programmes featuring popular artistes, fitness workouts and e-getai (street-side variety shows featuring banter and songs) on YouTube. Programmes were also developed to engage migrant workers using popular Singaporean, West Bengal, Bangladeshi and Kollywood artistes to convey important and reassuring messages through the friendsofmw.sg online portal. With the help of the Government Technology Agency (GovTech), Singaporeans were also updated with timely bite-sized information through messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram as well as a dedicated Info Bot summarising COVID-19 information on government websites. MCI also made use of social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tik Tok as well as the Digital Display Panels in HDB lifts and lift lobbies. The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) provided the legal framework to quash fake news—such as of a COVID-19 fatality early in the outbreak, and the closure of Woodlands MRT Station. Altogether these efforts established the Government’s credibility as a trusted source of information amidst the crisis.


Transparency builds trust with citizens, and trust undergirds crisis management efforts.

The calm manner in which Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong addressed Singapore, and in which the MTF conducted daily press conferences, helped to steady the country’s psychological posture amidst the crisis. PM Lee addressed the nation through a live TV and digital media broadcast at key junctures of the crisis, helping to frame Singaporeans’ perspectives towards the situation. His speeches—along with the range of measures introduced in response to the crisis—helped to calm down a rattled population.

When a rumour circulated that Singapore was running out of face masks, the MTF assured Singaporeans that there was sufficient supply of masks “if we use them sensibly and responsibly”.12  Guided by evidence at that time, people were advised to wear masks only if unwell, to conserve masks for medical personnel. Yet, understanding public anxiety and apprehension, the MTF decided to distribute four surgical masks to each Singapore resident. Within 24 hours, SAF servicemen prepared and packed 5.2 million masks for distribution. Officers from the People’s Association and citizen volunteers set up 1,000 mask collection points across Singapore.13,14 Senior citizens and vulnerable segments of society were given priority.

Figure 4a

Figure 4b

SAF servicemen and PA staff helping with mask collection for Singaporeans
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction

As local transmission cases emerged, the MTF raised the DORSCON from Yellow to Orange on 7 February 2020. Workplaces began temperature screening, schools suspended external activities, and large-scale events were cancelled. Amidst panic buying in supermarkets, the Government assured Singaporeans that there were sufficient essential supplies. Behind the scenes, public agencies worked with businesses to quickly restock supermarkets and arranged protected time in supermarkets for elderly citizens to shop.

Responding with a Heart

Despite the risks of imported cases, the MTF decided to bring Singaporeans overseas home to safety. As Chinese cities began locking down, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) evacuated Singaporeans stranded in China. When Singaporeans abroad risked being stranded as Europe, the United States and countries across the world closed their borders, MFA worked with local authorities to bring Singaporeans home. Returnees were then quarantined to protect their loved ones and mitigate the risk of further community spread.

James Low_Covid_Timeline_SG_V2-compressed

Fiscal Support Measures

To mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic on Singaporeans, Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) and Minister for Finance, Heng Swee Keat, announced a “Unity Budget”.

Read More

The MTF took care to ensure Singaporeans have reusable masks, as local transmissions increased and the WHO began to advise the widespread wearing of masks.15  By April, local transmissions grew to 54; the total number of cases reached 1,000. Four people had died to COVID-19 in Singapore. PM Lee announced a circuit breaker to tighten containment measures, given evidence of asymptomatic transmission.16  To ensure that Singaporeans have the necessary protection, the MTF immediately moved to provide every Singaporean with a reusable mask.

Officers across the Public Service assumed the roles of “ambassadors” to remind Singaporeans to be socially responsible in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. SG Clean Ambassadors from the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) and National Environment Agency (NEA) took to the streets to explain to Singaporeans the importance of personal hygiene and public cleanliness. Safe Distancing Ambassadors from MEWR, NEA, Land Transport Authority and National Parks Board also fanned out across housing estates, transport hubs, markets and parks. They educated the public on the need to maintain safe distancing, especially in crowded places. Enterprise Singapore and Singapore Tourism Board also recruited 500 Singaporeans whose jobs were displaced by the crisis to help with safe distancing, at the same time providing them with employment.


Figure 5

Safe Distancing Ambassadors in action
Source: The New Paper © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction

From Whole-of-Government to Whole-of-Singapore

Ordinary Singaporeans meanwhile started ground-up initiatives to help amidst the crisis. Citizens, businesses and non-government organisations (NGOs) donated and delivered food and essentials to families affected by the outbreak. Individual Singaporeans, companies and community groups sent well-wishes and small gifts to appreciate and cheer on frontline healthcare workers.

Recognising the strong community response to the outbreak, the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth developed a SGUnited portal. Under the SGUnited banner, the Government rallied Singaporeans and linked volunteers with resources to generate a whole-of-nation approach towards containing the effects of the crisis.


Recognising the strong community response to the outbreak, the Government rallied a whole-of-nation approach towards containing the crisis.

The Sing Together Singapore! was one such idea. Dick Lee, the composer of the popular national song “Home”, thought of gathering local celebrities in singing the heartfelt song over the Internet, to acknowledge the contributions of frontline health workers. The initiative expanded, with artistes like Taufik Batisah, Vernetta Lopez and Mediacorp artistes joined by a 900-strong virtual choir. Eventually, it evolved into a huge sing-along for all Singaporeans. On 25 April 2020, Singaporeans sang “Home” while waving torchlights from their windows and balconies across the country. While some criticised this as an empty gesture distracting from meaningful action, Singaporeans across the country did come together in their show of gratitude towards health workers. And in that moment, Singaporeans demonstrated their unity in weathering this crisis.


Figure 6

Sing Together Singapore!
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction

When clusters in the dormitories of foreign workers emerged, the MTF engaged with dormitory operators, NGOs and citizen-volunteers to step up care of the workers. The dormitories were designed for communal living but ill-suited for a pandemic. To arrest the transmission, the dormitories were gazetted as isolation areas; the foreign workers were quarantined. Workers who were sick were hospitalised for medical attention.

PM Lee assured the foreign workers that the Government will take care of them.17  MOM will work with employers to continue paying their salaries. The Government acknowledged that standards at foreign worker dormitories could and had to be improved. An MOM–SAF Joint Task Force engaged with dormitory operators, NGOs and citizen-volunteers to take care of the workers’ well-being. The logistical challenges of caring for 290,000 foreign workers were immense.18  NGOs like Migrant Workers Centre, as well as individual Singaporeans, have started ground-up initiatives to provide workers with food and “care packs” of hand sanitisers and toiletries. The Task Force has partnered with these volunteers from the community, and together with the dormitory operators, engaged with the foreign workers to assure them and better understand their needs. With this effort, which spanned stakeholders across the nation, the Government was able to overcome teething issues in the pandemic response. Food was adjusted to better cater to the foreign workers; dormitories were cleaned up, the living conditions of the foreign workers improved.


Figure 7

Foreign worker’s response to COVID-19 measures.19 
Reproduced with permission

Conclusion

The effects of circuit breaker measures have finally begun to show. On 2 May 2020, the average daily number of new cases in the community halved from 25 in mid-April to 12 in late April. The MTF announced a gradual easing of circuit breaker measures: traditional Chinese medicine shops opened on 5 May 2020; home-based bakeries, barbers and some food establishments opened on 12 May 2020. To tighten contact tracing, MOH has required all businesses to track customers with the SafeEntry app.20

However, Singapore is not yet out of the woods,21  as the pandemic continues to develop. It is too early to make a comprehensive assessment of Singapore’s management of the COVID-19 crisis: this article outlines Singapore’s response COVID thus far. The key thrust of this response thus far has been an institutional coordinating structure, combined with a whole-of-government mindset among public officers providing Singapore with strong crisis management capabilities. This readiness has allowed the Government to roll-out comprehensive measures aimed at protecting Singapore, with such measures delivered and calibrated with care to give priority to those most affected by this unprecedented crisis.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James Low is Principal Researcher with the Institute of Governance and Policy, Civil Service College, Singapore. His research areas include public governance, particularly whole-of-government coordination, crisis management and international relations. James also teaches case study methodology.


NOTES

  1. For terms of reference and composition of the Multi-Ministry Taskforce, see https://www.moh.gov.sg/docs/librariesprovider5/default-document-library/multi-ministry-taskforce-on-wuhan-coronavirus-and-tor---final.pdf.
  2. “Ministerial Statement on Whole-of-Government Response to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-NCOV)”, Ministry of Health, February 3, 2020, accessed May 8, 2020, https://www.moh.gov.sg/news-highlights/details/ministerial-statement-on-whole-of-government-response-to-the-2019-novel-coronavirus-(2019-ncov).
  3. James Low, “Singapore’s Whole-of-Government Approach in Crisis Management”, Ethos 16 (December 2016): 14–22, https://www.csc.gov.sg/articles/singapore's-whole-of-government-approach-in-crisis-management.
  4. National Security Coordination Secretariat (NSCS), 1826 days: A Diary of Resolve: Securing Singapore since 9/11. (Singapore: NSCS, 2006).
  5. Yuen Sin, “About 200 Police Officers Deployed to Government Quarantine Facilities, Says Shanmugam”, The Straits Times, February 10, 2020, accessed May 7, 2020, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/coronavirus-about-200-police-officers-deployed-to-government-quarantine-facilities-says-k.
  6. Ow Foong Pheng, “View from the Centre: Working as One Government”, Ethos 9, no. 4 (2003): 15–17.
  7. “Being Prepared for a Pandemic”, Ministry of Health, 2019, accessed 8 May, 2020, https://www.moh.gov.sg/diseases-updates/being-prepared-for-a-pandemic.
  8. “MOH Pandemic Readiness and Response Plan for Influenza and Other Acute Respiratory Diseases (Revised April 2014)”, Ministry of Health, 2014, accessed May 7, 2020,https://www.moh.gov.sg/docs/librariesprovider5/diseases-updates/interim-pandemic-plan-public-ver-_april-2014.PDF.
  9. Ibid.
  10. See Note 2.
  11. Michael Yong and Jalelah Abu Baker, “‘No Magic Solution’: Lawrence Wong on Why Singapore Is Not Locked Down amid COVID-19 Outbreak”, CNA, March 31, 2020, accessed May 7, 2020, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/lockdown-singapore-covid-19-coronavirus-lawrence-wong-12594484.
  12. “Corrections and Clarifications Regarding Falsehoods Published by States Times Review on Availability of Face Masks”, Gov.sg., January 30, 2020, accessed May 12, 2020, https://www.gov.sg/article/factually-clarifications-on-falsehoods-posted-by-str-on-availability-of-face-masks.
  13. Aqil Haziq Mahmud, “Wuhan Coronavirus: 1,500 SAF Personnel Packing 5.2m Masks in 24-Hour Operation”, CNA, January 31, 2020, accessed May 7, 2020, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/wuhan-virus-masks-saf-safti-coronavirus-household-12374196.
  14. Tiffany Fumiko Tay and Lim Min Zhang, “Mask Distribution to Begin at 200 RC Centres Today”, The Straits Times, February 1, 2020, accessed May 7, 2020, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/mask-distribution-to-begin-at-200-rc-centres-today.
  15. Stuart Lau, “Coronavirus: World Health Organisation Reverses Course, Now Supports Wearing Face Masks in Public”, South China Morning Post, April 4, 2020, accessed May 13, 2020, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/3078407/coronavirus-world-health-organisation-reverses-course-now-supports.
  16. Toh Ting Wei, “Coronavirus: Singapore Govt Will No Longer Discourage Wearing of Masks, to Give Reusable Masks to All Households”, The Straits Times, April 3, 2020, accessed May 13, 2020, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/coronavirus-govt-will-no-longer-discourage-wearing-of-masks-to-give-reusable-masks.
  17. “Containing COVID-19 Spread at Foreign Worker Dormitories”, Gov.sg, April14, 2020, accessed May 8, 2020, https://www.gov.sg/article/containing-covid-19-spread-at-foreign-worker-dormitories.
  18. “Inter-agency Taskforce Coordinating NGOs’ Efforts to Support the Well-Being of Foreign Workers”, Ministry of Manpower, April 17, 2020, accessed May 13, 2020, https://www.mom.gov.sg/newsroom/press-releases/2020/0417-inter-agency-taskforce-coordinating-ngos-efforts-to-support-the-well-being-of-foreign-workers.
  19. Source: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=547573026158668&id=100027179268179 &anchor_composer=false. Used with permission from Sozal Mirza.
  20. A digital check-in system that facilitates contact tracing and records the arrival and departure times of visitors.
  21. “Ministerial Statement by Mr Gan Kim Yong, Minister for Health, at Parliament, on the Second Update on Whole-of-Government Response to COVID-19”, Ministry of Health, May 4, 2020, accessed May 11, 2020, https://www.moh.gov.sg/news-highlights/details/ministerial-statement-by-mr-gan-kim-yong-minister-for-health-at-parliament-on-the-second-update-on-whole-of-government-response-to-covid-19-4-may-2020.

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