Taking Stock of an Unprecedented Pandemic

COVID-19 has tested societies like never before: but good governance, agile policymaking, social cohesion and broad collaboration remain vital in facing the crisis of a generation.

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In late December 2019, Chinese authorities reported several cases of “viral pneumonia” in the city of Wuhan, China.1 The novel coronavirus, which the World Health Organization (WHO) later named COVID-19, quickly swept through Wuhan before spreading abroad. On 11 March 2020, with the virus having affected more and more countries, the WHO formally declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic.2

In 2020, without effective and widely available treatments and vaccines, governments around the world had to rely on mitigation measures such as safe distancing, as well as restrictions on movement and travel, to flatten the curve of infection and alleviate the burden on their healthcare systems.

Today, over a year after the virus was first discovered, the global situation remains alarming. Many countries have imposed nation-wide, regional or local lockdowns to deal with recurring resurgences of the virus. Even Asian countries which were broadly successful in containing the outbreak for much of 2020 have experienced intermittent flare-ups of the virus.3 As of 1 June 2021, COVID-19 has infected over 170 million people worldwide and claimed over 3.5 million lives,4 with cases reported in every continent.5

While the rapid development and rollout of COVID-19 vaccines have provided much needed hope, the fight is far from over. This is a profoundly globalised crisis, with many cross-border spillover effects. Any nation, after reducing infections to near-zero new cases, can easily see rapid re-emergence from imported infections. Until most nations have the pandemic under control, international travel and economic activity are unlikely to resume fully. The lengthy process of producing and administering the vaccines worldwide, along with the emergence of new variants of the virus that might be more infectious or resistant to existing vaccines, are all factors that threaten the situation in the near future.


The magnitude of this pandemic cannot be underestimated. What started off as a public health emergency has rapidly evolved into an unprecedented, multi faceted crisis with huge socioeconomic, psychological, and political costs.

Socioeconomic Impact

The global economy contracted 4.3% in 2020,6 as the pandemic and series of lockdowns halted travel, hobbled businesses, disrupted supply chains and thrust millions into unemployment around the world.7 The World Bank describes this global recession as “the deepest since 1945–46, and more than twice as deep as the recession associated with the 2007–09 global financial crisis”.8

In 2020, GDP in the US, Eurozone, and Japan contracted by 3.5%,9 7.4%, and 5.3% respectively, while the aggregate GDP in emerging markets and developing economies (excluding China) shrank by 5%.10 Singapore's GDP contracted by 5.4% in 2020—the worst recession since independence,11 with the Circuit Breaker accounting for 2.2% of this decline.12

COVID-19 also caused the median income of residents to decrease for the first time since 2004. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has estimated that real median income in 2020 fell by 0.3%, after enjoying 2.2% growth in 2019.13

Even more worrying is that the pandemic may have hit people from vulnerable groups disproportionately harder. The pandemic’s socioeconomic impact on society has been uneven, with some sectors and more vulnerable groups bearing a disproportionately larger share of the negative impacts.

Real income at the 20th percentile dropped by 4.5% (before government transfers), because the industries more adversely affected by the pandemic tend to have a high concentration of lower-income earners.14 In addition, the number of discouraged workers (those who are not looking for jobs because they think they would not get any) swelled to 16,400 in June 2020—more than twice the number in 2019 and more than the previous peak in the 2009 recession. Lower-educated and older residents were the largest groups among these discouraged workers.15

Even more worrying is that the pandemic may have hit people from vulnerable groups disproportionately harder.

School closures—a common measure introduced to curb the spread of the virus and protect the health of students and teachers—could also widen existing inequalities in educational outcomes,16 which in turn may affect lifetime earnings in the long run.17 This will be especially felt by disadvantaged households who lack the resources needed to effectively support home-based learning.18

Psychological Impact

Experts are only beginning to understand the full extent of the long-term psychological and social impact of COVID-19 and its spillover effects. Psychologists familiar with the effects of past pandemics and major emergencies, such as the SARS epidemic or the Chernobyl nuclear disaster,19,20 warn about the possible long-term mental health impact of COVID-19. Strategies to control the virus such as lockdowns and quarantine have also been shown to promote negative emotions such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.21,22

Singaporeans have also felt the psychological stress of the pandemic, with a rise in the number of people seeking help for mental health issues,23 family violence cases,24 and suicide ideation.25 While the transition from remote to on-site work could help to alleviate the situation, the prospect of a slow recovery makes it unlikely that these heightened social stresses will fall to pre-COVID levels anytime soon.

Political Impact

The pandemic has tested the competence and political will of governments in many ways. They have had to grapple with an unprecedented public health crisis, while addressing its complex economic and social fallout and maintaining public support and public compliance in doing so.

Even among largely compliant communities, “pandemic fatigue” could set in. This will profoundly test the ability of governments to hold their societies steady and keep up with necessary measures.

In many countries, while most people supported measures to contain the spread of infection, a small but significant group either disputed or actively rejected these measures, or grew increasingly frustrated with them.26 This was made worse by a number of opinion and political leaders in some societies, including in the US under then-President Donald Trump, 27 and Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro, 28 who communicated narratives that sowed doubt and mistrust on the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. A number of these protests (such as against mask-wearing or lockdowns) became radical and even violent.29,30 Even in Singapore, there have been several cases of residents blatantly flouting safe management measures.31,32

Such sentiments could sow uncertainty in a volatile crisis and undermine public trust and confidence, compromising the measures imposed to control the pandemic and risking further infections. Even among largely compliant communities, “pandemic fatigue” could set in,33 with people becoming complacent or frustrated over time, especially when the situation appears to be improving.34 This will profoundly test the ability of governments to hold their societies steady and keep up with necessary measures to control the pandemic over extended periods.


While the pandemic’s effects have been global and broadly similar, given that the same coronavirus is the driver, policy responses and outcomes have varied significantly across the world. In part, this is because of important differences in parameters such as the size of each territory and its population; the physical resilience of the population; the robustness of the national healthcare system; the likelihood of imminent cure and amelioration; the tolerance of the overall economy in its sectoral and industrial allocation of jobs, employment, and investment; information levels; political culture; and so on.

But these varied responses also stem from differences in national priorities, with governments selecting policies that make trade-offs—between preserving societal health by increasing social-level coronavirus restrictions on one hand, and supporting socioeconomic performance on the other—along a frontier of acceptable possibilities. The challenge to governance in the pandemic has been to work out the appropriate mix of policy measures, taking into account a society’s norms, preferences and future trajectory, while staving off the extremes of either rampant, devastating disease or economic collapse.

These different policy interventions need to be taken in tandem with one another, so that they do not work at cross-purposes. Thoughtful policymakers design measures that acknowledge the potential negative effects they may have, and work to decouple socioeconomic benefits from risky physical interaction, where possible. For example, they may support moves to shift activity online by enhancing digital infrastructure and access for all households and companies, or improving flexi-work arrangements or tele-education.

Public Intervention Strategies

In general, pandemic policy measures around the world fall into three broad classes: containment, health measures, and non-pharmaceutical interventions.

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How Other Countries Have Responded to the Pandemic

Singapore has not been alone in implementing firm containment measures alongside health and non-medical responses to the pandemic.

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Singapore was one of the first countries to report imported cases of COVID-19. Despite initial containment efforts, the number of unlinked cases, especially in the foreign worker dormitories, continued to rise. Starting 7 April 2020, the Government implemented a series of drastic “Circuit Breaker” measures to contain the spread of the virus.35 For close to two months, all workplaces and school premises, except for those in essential services and key economic sectors, were shut down. Homes became the new office for most workers, while students received lessons online as schools implemented full home-based learning.36 Provisions were made for students whose parents were working in essential services and unable to secure alternative care arrangements or who lacked access to suitable digital devices.37

During the Circuit Breaker period in 2020, people from different walks of life and every segment in society stepped up to help one another in the fight against COVID-19, including many coming forward to help the less fortunate in their communities by donating or volunteering.38 Community care services continued their operations during the Circuit Breaker;39 community groups stepped in to fill gaps; and corporations donated essential items such as food supplies and face masks.40

Since the outbreak in early 2020, the Singapore Government has also delivered a series of budgets, including measures for job creation, wage subsidies, and financing schemes, dipping into its reserves to stabilise the economy and support its people in the ongoing crisis. These measures were effective in alleviating the short-term economic pain and containing the spread of COVID-19. We were lucky to have experienced a period of zero or very few community cases, resulting in the resumption of relative normalcy as Singapore progressively reopened its economy.

However, the fight against COVID-19 is far from over, especially with the emergence of new variants that are more infectious. After several months of relative calm, Singapore has seen a surge in community cases and new clusters since April 2021, attributable in part to the more infectious B1617 variant.41 To control this new wave of infections, the Government has imposed additional measures and restrictions under Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) from 16 May to 13 June 2021,42 including reducing group size numbers, stopping of high-risk activities, and moving the majority of students to home-based learning.43

This resurgence is not unique to Singapore. Other Southeast Asian countries who had previously managed to control the pandemic, such as Vietnam and Thailand, have also experienced higher-than-before waves of new COVID-19 cases in the weeks leading up to late May 2021.44 While this is a concerning development, Singapore is better equipped to handle the COVID-19 situation now compared to last year, due to better testing, contact tracing capabilities, and the availability of vaccines.

Should there be a need for further tightening of measures, we are hopeful that Singaporeans will again rise up to the challenge, as they have done in the past year. Even as the Government does its best to contain COVID-19, stabilise the economy, and ready ourselves for a volatile future, the civic spirit of solidarity, cohesion, resilience and resourcefulness that Singaporeans have demonstrated in the face of crisis offers hope for the long fight ahead.


The war against the COVID-19 crisis continues. Many countries are hoping to start on the road to recovery in 2021, but this will likely be a long and hard journey. World Bank Group President David Malpass has cautioned that “while the global economy appears to have entered a subdued recovery, policymakers face formidable challenges—in public health, debt management, budget policies, central banking and structural reforms…there needs to be a major push to improve business environments, increase labor and product market flexibility, and strengthen transparency and governance.”45

While governments tackle the public health crisis and address the short-term economic and social issues, they will also need to prepare for the next phase of transformation.

Given the unprecedented nature and scale of the crisis, with many unknowns in play, it is hardly surprising if national governments and international institutions have made some policy missteps in the course of responding to the pandemic. In some sense, the best way forward has yet to be determined, although vaccines and improved international collaboration offer the prospect of a path towards eventual recovery.

What is important is to learn from the experiences of the past year. Three principles stand out as salient in facing the continuing crisis. First, policy measures must be designed and implemented with Agility so that adjustments can be made to allow for rapidly changing circumstances and new knowledge about the virus or its impacts. Second, policy measures in themselves cannot do enough to address every facet of the crisis, particularly when so much is dependent on individual compliance and personal behaviours. So Collaboration, involving different stakeholders across society—including public agencies, residents, the private sector and non-governmental actors—is key to effecting a whole-of-society response. While these stakeholders must exercise their own agency on the ground, they must all share a clear and common understanding and acceptance of what policy measures seek to achieve, for the public good. Transparency about these intentions and priorities is vital. If these aims are miscommunicated or misunderstood, then mistrust can emerge between society and policymakers, leading to cross-purposes, non-compliance or worse.

Just as all stakeholders in society must come together to ACT, so too will a similar understanding be important across members of the international community. Multilateral action, in which international responsibility is shared with other like-minded societies, will be needed to overcome both this pandemic and other global challenges to come.

While governments tackle the public health crisis and address the short-term economic and social issues, they will also need to prepare for the next phase of transformation. In Singapore, this means supporting businesses and workers not just through the pandemic but also in developing deep, future-ready capabilities for the post-COVID world to come. We will also need to strengthen our social compact both at a societal and community level to tackle the long-term impact of COVID-19. These long-term structural shifts might be challenging but will be essential for us to truly overcome and emerge stronger from this crisis of a generation.


Ong Toon Hui is Dean and CEO of the Civil Service College, Singapore. She is also Deputy Secretary (Leadership) at the Public Service Division, Singapore.

Danny Quah is Dean and Li Ka Shing Professor in Economics at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. His research interests include income inequality, economic growth, and international economic relations.



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  3. Dasl Yoon and Miho Inada, “Covid-19 Surge Hits South Korea and Japan, after They Had Contained Virus”, The Wall Street Journal, December 9, 2020, accessed March 8, 2021.
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  10. See Note 6.
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  15. Ibid.
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  24. Wong Shiying, “5135 Family Violence Cases Reported in 2020 as Police Release Figures for First Time”, The Straits Times, January 21, 2021, accessed March 8, 2021.
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  28. "Covid: Bolsonaro Tells Brazilians to ‘Stop Whining’ as Deaths Spike”, BBC, March 5, 2021, accessed June 1, 2021.
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