A look at Singapore’s COVID-19 response, a complex and wicked problem on a grand scale

Wong, COVID-19, DPM, Home, Lawrence, Response, Crisis, Pandemic, Protect, Spend

“COVID-19 was a very complex and wicked problem on a grand scale,” said DPM Lawrence Wong.

Our battle with the virus was a journey with many twists and turns, and with repeated surprises and disruptions along the way. The situation was dynamic and fluid, with new information and developments unfolding daily. We had to operate in the fog of war and always saw through a glass darkly, said Mr Wong

Speaking at the Debate on the Motion on Singapore’s Response to COVID-19 on 20 March 2023, DPM Wong said our COVID-19 response was by no means perfect.

There were areas that we could have done better. These were highlighted in the White Paper.

“We have been forthright and transparent about this, so that we can learn from our experiences,” he said.

“The point is not to look back and critique the past with 20/20 hindsight, but to unpack how and why certain decisions were made at those points, what assumptions were held then, which considerations should have been weighed differently, and how we can do better the next time.”

Remember this?


Some initial responses fell short.

Some initial COVID-19 responses fell short because little was known of the virus in the beginning. 

For example, the initial prevailing view was that one needed to show symptoms before the virus could spread. This was the case with SARS but COVID-19 proved different. This wrong assumption led to infection protocols that were insufficient in the dormitories. The major outbreak in the dormitories almost resulted in a disaster. 

The outbreak was brought under control through a herculean effort by the government, private firms, and NGOs.

We never wavered from our commitment to take care of our migrant workers. We acted as quicky as possible and activated every resource we had available to control the situation. We have also learnt from this episode and taken steps to plug the shortcomings in our system

The initial advice to the public to only wear masks when unwell stemmed from the assumption that an infected person is infectious only when they have symptoms (like SARS). When it became clear that asymptomatic transmission was possible, the wearing of masks in public spaces became mandated.

We went through the circuit breaker together.

PM Lee
PM Lee announcing the circuit breaker.

There was no vaccines then. Everyone was urged to protect their family. The front door of every home is the front line, we said at that time. Stay at home. No visitors. You move, the virus move. Those were the days. Without vaccines, the only way to break the chains of transmission was to stay at home and keep a distance. 

Stay at home! Stay at home! Protect your family. Stay at home!

For the first time, the Causeway was closed. Families separated.

The Causeway shut down on 18 March 2020. Many rushed to cross before the gates closed.

It's a marathon, says Lawrence Wong in April 2020

DPM Lawrence Wong

The world came to a standstill and we took a hit on many fronts.

As a small country, we were harder hit than others. Our airline was grounded when air travel came to a standstill. Unlike big countries, there is no domestic flights to sustain SIA. There were no tourists. Many things came to a standstill.  

Saving lives is out topmost priority. Saving jobs comes next.

We were very thankful for our Reserves, and our public service.

Then Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said in April 2020.

On our COVID-19 response, DPM Lawrence Wong said, “On the whole, compared to other countries, we have done well in protecting both lives and livelihoods throughout this pandemic. Our healthcare system, though strained, was never overwhelmed. Our case fatality rate is one of the lowest globally. Our vaccination rate is amongst the highest in the world.

How much did we spend?

We budgeted around $100 billion to respond to this crisis.

“We eventually spent $72.3 billion, rolled out over 8 budgets in FY2020 and 2021, partly because we had been prudent in our spending, and also because we avoided some of the worst-case outcomes we had prepared for,” said DPM Lawrence Wong.

“Our financial resources enabled us to mount a strong public health response, and to secure early access to vaccines. A large proportion of the spending, over 80%, went towards supporting workers, businesses, and individuals, so as to cushion them from the worst impact of the crisis.

“Crucially, we augmented the direct Government measures with a series of Covid legislations that provided SMEs relief from their contractual obligations, and protected them from financial distress and insolvency.”

Our fiscal response for the two years, FY2020 and FY2021, included $36.9 billion drawn from our Past Reserves. These resources were crucial to our Covid fight.

All in all, this was money well spent to tackle the extreme downsides of Covid-19, to protect lives and to avoid mass unemployment. Our comprehensive and swift economic schemes enabled our resident employment and incomes to recover quickly to pre-Covid levels, while keeping Covid-19 deaths low.

Our policies and actions to respond to the pandemic have also distinguished us from other countries. We kept our air and sea ports open, and ensured an uninterrupted flow of critical supplies. We enhanced our reputation as a trusted node that can be relied upon, even when other parts of the world shut down.

We also stand out in the world because of how our population rallied together in this crisis. Through all the trials and tribulations, we held together as a society, and pulled through as one united people. We kept faith with our fellow Singaporeans, took care of the non-Singaporeans in our midst, and everyone did our part in the interest of the common good,” said DPM Lawrence Wong.

“The aim of this White Paper and this debate is not to rate the government’s, or Singapore’s, performance in this pandemic. We have done our best, and that is what matters. In the final analysis, the long arc of history will judge how well we have responded to this crisis of a generation, and how well we have learnt and remembered the lessons of COVID-19.

Today, we are here to give thanks, for we have found our way through the pandemic, and emerged from it intact and strengthened. We are here to pay tribute to all who have made countless sacrifices and worked so hard to get us through this crisis. We are here to learn, improve and be better prepared when the next pandemic comes,” Mr Wong said. 


Promises kept!

Spoken on 12 March 2020, PM Lee and his PAP Government have kept their promises to Singaporeans.


On Key

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