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Measures to tackle COVID-19 cases in dorms early on were 'insufficient': Teo Chee Hean

SINGAPORE — Despite having heightened surveillance and tightened precautions in Singapore’s migrant worker dormitories early on during the COVID-19 pandemic, the measures “turned out to be insufficient”, said Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean on Thursday (11 June).

In a 25-minute speech televised on regional broadcaster CNA, Teo pointed out to the novel coronavirus being much more infectious than its genetically-related counterpart, which causes the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

During the 2003 SARS outbreak, Singapore recorded 238 cases of the disease and 33 deaths.

In comparison, the city-state has confirmed 39,387 COVID-19 cases, including 25 related fatalities to date. Some 94 per cent of the total are foreign workers living in dorms.

“On 25 March, we recorded zero cases in our dormitories. Just 10 days later, on 4 April, when the number increased to 26 cases, we acted decisively to isolate the dormitories,” said Teo, who is also Coordinating Minister for National Security.

“However, the infectiousness of this virus and the communal living conditions in the dormitories meant that in a fortnight, by 20 April, we were recording more than 1,000 new cases per day in the dormitories.”

While Singapore may have gained experience in tackling the SAR outbreak here, “no two crises are the same”, Teo said. The efforts to fight the COVID-19 outbreak in the migrant worker community is “a major challenge”, he added.

On the mobilisation of the Singapore Armed Forces and Home Team to combat the COVID-19 outbreak, Teo pointed out that the task is not a mission that they have been specifically prepared and trained for.

“But they demonstrated their readiness and flexibility by stepping up to establish the joint task forces within days, to support their MOM (Ministry of Manpower) and MOH (Ministry of Health) colleagues who were already on the frontlines”, he noted.

The taskforces had deployed teams to all the dorms to look after more than 300,000 workers and supported the MOH’s overall medical support plan.

Teo reiterated that the authorities are currently testing and clearing every worker living in the dorms to ensure they are well and can safely resume work.

“The operations are still ongoing, to bring the dorm situation fully under control. But the number of daily cases has already come down to between a third and half of the peak. About two-thirds of the patients have already fully recovered,” he added.

Teo’s delivery is the third in a series of national speeches by cabinet ministers, following the address by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last Sunday and National Development Lawrence Wong on Tuesday. Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing is scheduled next to deliver his speech on Sunday.

Bigger test than past crises

In his speech on “Resilience in a changing external environment”, Teo also spoke at length about Singapore’s efforts in providing community care facilities for patients who have mild or no symptoms.

“We had already anticipated the need for community care facilities and had started to build them. We accelerated these plans and scaled them up, adding new capacity daily over the first few weeks of April,” he said.

At the peak on 12 May, some 20,000 patients were being cared for at community care and similar facilities, with as many as 1,000 are admitted daily, Teo said.

“This is more than the total number of beds in all our public acute hospitals. We mobilised resources from across our public service, government-linked companies, and the private sector to set up and run all these facilities. Healthcare volunteers stepped forward to help man them,” he stressed.

“This is how we are able to take care of every patient without overwhelming our healthcare system and putting lives at risk.”

The clear lesson learned during the COVID-19 outbreak is that Singapore needs to plan in peace-time “on facing the unknown, and build deep reserves of people and capabilities, so that when we face a crisis, we can act decisively, and respond flexibly and rapidly”.

He referred to past challenges in Singapore’s history such as in 1967 when the British announced the withdrawal of their troops from the city-state. With the move, Singapore was poised to lose 20 per cent of its gross domestic product and 70,000 jobs at a time when the population was half of what it is today, Teo said.

“We are far more resilient today than in 1967, and better positioned to create new markets, businesses, and jobs to replace the ones that will be lost.”

Singapore also rode out the September 11 attacks in 2001, the Asian and global financial crises. “COVID-19 is an even bigger test,” he added.

The outbreak is the first major crisis for many of the new generation of ministers and civil servants taking the lead in efforts to tackle the situation.

The ministers have sought advice and tapped the experience and knowledge of their older Cabinet colleagues as well as consulted widely within and outside the government, Teo said.

He added, “Over the past few months, I have worked very closely with them. We speak daily and exchange views freely. They have stepped up to the task, worked together as a team, and led from the front. This is the way that we collectively ensure resilience and continuity in our leadership team for Singapore.”

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