🇸🇬 A Singapore reader

How the city impressed the world

Hello friends!

Today we’re checking in with Singapore which has won praise for being one of the world’s best-prepared responses. This reading list here explores a few angles of that. The Financial Times piece particularly takes a look at the advantages the political system has bred over decades of messaging and total familiarity with government-issued directives. 

Anywho, please read on these are some fascinating pieces! 

If you’d like to continue to support open coverage on coronavirus from across the region as well as some original piece please consider becoming a premium member here for $6 a month or $60 for the year:

Asean and Timorese nationals under 30 are eligible for a free annual membership. Just get in touch. And follow along on Twitter for daily updates and interesting reads from across the region.

Please share and hit that heart button, it helps new readers find us. Thanks :)

See you tomorrow!
Erin Cook

I snagged this at Oxley Rd hehe #iconic

Singapore reported it’s biggest one day increase since the outbreak on Wednesday. The Ministry of Health reported an additional 73 cases bringing the total to 361. This increase has also seen young people between 20 and 29-years-old become the largest group, primarily due to students returning from abroad. 

"The number of young people being infected reflects the demographics of people returning to Singapore as a result of the global situation, where a number of countries in Europe and North America are seeing widespread community transmission,” dean of NUS’ public health school Professor Teo Yik Ying told the Straits Times.

How Singapore waged war on coronavirus (Financial Times)

This is an excellent all-encompassing look at what Singapore has done and why it has been so effective. Early border closures, clear public messaging (as an Australia, I’m nothing short of jealous) and a focus on tracking and testing has helped Singapore avoid a sharp spike in deaths. I like this piece particularly because it notes the city’s advantages. There’s a habit of comparing/contrasting the Singapore response to literally everywhere, but it’s a unique place!

“We used the lead time that China gave us by its massive shutdown to really refine our readiness,” said Dale Fisher, professor of infectious diseases at the National University of Singapore. “By the time we had one of our cases, we were able to do tests and within a week, tests were available in all major hospitals.” 

Some experts say the fact most patients in the city have been below the age of 65 also helps explain the low number of deaths.

But Leo Yee Sin, executive director at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, which was set up after Sars and is helping spearhead Singapore’s response to the coronavirus, said: “I don’t consider us lucky. We are just giving the best of critical care to those affected.”

Singapore says it will make its contact tracing tech freely available to developers (CNBC)

Singapore’s TraceToegther app is a simple enough idea with big outcomes. By using Bluetooth, the app records where a user has been for 21 days. That data can then be used by the Health Ministry to notify possible transmissions. The government has gone to great lengths to reassure users that it will not access other parts of your phone or store data over 21 days. Now it’s saying it will make the tech available to developers across the world which brings up all sorts of other questions about privacy.

To allay privacy concerns around what is essentially an instance of high-tech surveillance by the state, Singapore’s health ministry said personal details such as a user’s name is not collected by the TraceTogether app. It does not record location data or access the user’s phone contact list. 

Data logs are stored on phones in encrypted form; information on potential close contacts is stored not by their phone numbers but by using “cryptographically generated temporary IDs,” the health ministry said.

Still, the logs can be decrypted and analyzed by Singapore’s health ministry when it is deemed necessary and the users can be easily identified from that information. 

More broadly, privacy concerns are growing as governments around the world rely on technology to track people in their efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic. 

Singapore says its coronavirus app helps the public. Critics say it’s government surveillance (LA Times)

The Los Angeles Times takes a look at the app as well as others around the world. While TraceTogether and its equivalents elsewhere are still quite new, there are already privacy and human rights concerns. It also notes the emergence of the stigma of those who have had the virus which would be interesting to follow up on in Singapore. 

Unlike many parts of the U.S., the island nation of 5.7 million has resisted lockdowns. But in a sign of the deteriorating situation, the government announced Tuesday that starting Thursday night, bars, nightclubs and movie theaters would close and gatherings of more than 10 people would be prohibited for at least the next month.

Until recently, Singapore appeared to be a rare bright spot in the battle against the coronavirus. The rise in confirmed cases will probably now aid the government’s bid to have TraceTogether widely adopted.

Privacy matters don’t elicit concern in the de facto one-party state like they do in the U.S. or Europe. Government surveys show more than three-quarters of Singaporeans trust the way authorities handle personal data.

That sentiment has allowed Singapore to embark on its Smart Nation initiative, which aims to digitize vast corners of everyday life with cashless payments and facial recognition cameras on lampposts, with little resistance.

TraceTogether and emergency measures amid an outbreak (We, The Citizens)

You thought we were going to talk about Singapore and NOT check-in with Kirsten Han?! Yeah, right! In her most recent We The Citizens letter, she takes a look at the TraceTogether app and unpicks her complications about it, which is fascinating. Go read it, go subscribe and then go donate to her Milo Peng fund. It’s never been a better time to support independent journalists in the region!

I think we can all agree that these are not normal times. There are certain measures, such as travel restrictions, that we’re willing to put up with now, that we wouldn’t be okay with at any other time. Governments might also move to pass urgent or emergency measures that allow them more powers than they would normally be able to wield.

During this time of crisis and anxiety, the issue of privacy (personal, data, etc.) is often treated as secondary. This is an extraordinary period, so it makes sense to many of us that we should give up some personal liberties to enable governments to handle the crisis better or more easily.

But this doesn’t mean that it’s wise to give governments—any government—carte blanche to do whatever they like during this period. This doesn’t mean that we can’t question governments, or that we have to “leave politics out of it” and just comply with everything—because everything is political and politicians everywhere are definitely still keeping political interests in mind even when dealing with COVID-19.

Singapore scientists on the front lines of fight against Covid-19 (The Straits Times)

Singapore has been praised for it’s testing policies and the Straits Times checks out the city’s labs to see what that looks like. This is the exact kind of thing I don’t understand but it is very interesting to learn about the process nonetheless. 

Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang, the programme leader for infectious diseases at the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said that there are many diagnostic tests and kits being developed in China and the US, as well as those by local companies such as MiRXES and Veredus Laboratories, and it is a matter of time before the ones from overseas are available here.

US firm Cepheid has received emergency authorisation from the US Food and Drug Administration for its rapid molecular test, which can be used at the point of care for patients and gives a result in 45 minutes. It makes use of machines to run the test, which are already available in Singapore hospitals.

Other types of tests done to find Covid-19 in patients are the serological tests. These look for immunoglobulins, which are the antibodies made by the immune system to fight the virus - in patients' blood.

Aggressive tracing, lessons from Sars: how Singapore is flattening the coronavirus curve (SCMP)

Singapore didn’t just wake up cracking at public health controls. Public health experts in the city have credited the tough lessons learnt during SARS gave Singapore and others a decent grounding in understanding the importance of tracking the spread and containing further community transmission. 

Infectious disease expert Leong Hoe Nam said when details of the outbreak emerged from mainland China at the end of December last year, places such as Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong readied themselves.

“The severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak gave us the experience and it was a blessing,” he said.

“When we had our first case, we traced contacts aggressively so we could quickly isolate them. The moment the race started, Singapore ran but the other countries were just getting ready,” he said. “You see that happening in the US, UK and Europe. Once there were cases, they couldn’t detect, isolate and quarantine fast enough.”

Coronavirus Quarantine Breakers and Evaders Face Fines, Jail Terms (Wall Street Journal)

Authorities are not messing around. You violate your stay at home notice and you’re big-time busted. One man has had his permanent residency revoked after flouting the isolation rules upon returning to the city from a visit abroad. Others have been banned from the city for good.

Governments trying to control the fast-spreading coronavirus are punishing residents and visitors accused of misleading health investigators, hiding key details about their activities and flouting quarantine orders.

Singapore this week charged a Chinese couple under the Infectious Diseases Act for giving false information about their movements. The city-state has also stripped people of their permanent-resident status and revoked foreigners’ work passes over virus-related infractions. Thai officials on Wednesday criticized an infected citizen who delayed telling authorities he had traveled to Japan and caused them to test dozens of others.

Countries in Asia are using a grab bag of tools to identify those who may have been exposed to the virus and impose limits on their movements. These have included in-depth interviews of sickened people, quarantines and stay-home directives for those returning from high-risk countries. But getting people to tell the truth or lock themselves in their homes isn’t easy.

The Border Is A Line That Birds Cannot See (Race Tuition Centre)

The Race Tuition Centre newsletter raised the alarm on coronavirus-related xenophobia well before the virus spread to the West all the way back in January. This is a really interesting follow-up. It reads more personal, more alarmed, less certain but still deeply emphatic about the protection of minorities in Singapore as the city tightens up.

I’m not sure I would make a different decision if I were in charge of managing this crisis. There are limited healthcare resources and, if we have to make decisions over who gets to have access to them, it makes sense to limit it according to those who pay taxes here and contribute towards the maintenance of those resources. It is worth thinking about the effects of the logic of citizenship though. Some of us have loved ones we are unable to see, either because they cannot come here or we cannot go to them, which feels especially frightening in these times. Queer spouses are forced to be apart because the Singaporean state does not acknowledge their relationships. New citizens and immigrants have to decide if they want to ride out this period of turbulence in their new homes or with their families who may not have the right to enter the country at present. Families who have one or more member who failed to secure PR status before the crisis for any number of opaque reasons are also living in uncertain times. There are also Singaporeans who have built lives overseas that they’ve been forced to leave because of their immigration statuses there. The rules that determine who gets to belong to Singapore are manmade and always up for (re)negotiation. According to what logic do our borders operate? Are they serving our communities well?

Ethicists weigh in on the implications of using phones to track coronavirus (Mic)

I think this is the read I’ve been looking for. It’s not exactly our region, but some of the conversations have had me thinking. What are the ethics around governments using tech to track citizens? Where’s the line between civil liberties and protecting public health? Opt-in apps are coming onto the market and they make great sense to me, but the rest I’m very hazy on. Everyone did the free pass ethics unit in first year but I don’t think I did the readings. This is even further afield but the always great Casey Newton on the ‘Big Tech backlash’ and the crisis is fascinating.

"Our efforts to track down those with COVID-19 are running headfirst into delicate issues around privacy," David Ryan Polgar, a technology ethicist and founder of tech accelerator All Tech Is Human, tells Mic. "The general public has the justifiable need to want to understand where are safer and where are riskier areas to travel, along with understanding if they may have been exposed to a carrier." But it's not clear just how much that need clashes with privacy considerations. Polgar noted that providing information in a haphazard way runs the risk of creating a public panic or even public shaming if a person's identity is not adequately protected.