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Asia Minute: Singapore's COVID-19 lessons

Virus Outbreak Singapore
Annabelle Liang/AP
People wearing protective face masks walk along the Orchard Road shopping area in Singapore on Nov. 28, 2021. When Singapore embarked upon its strategy of “living with COVID,” backed by one of the world's leading vaccine programs, the wealthy city-state saw a spike in its rate of infections, leading many to question whether the time was right. (AP Photo/Annabelle Liang)

Three years ago this Saturday, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a pandemic.

As the world marks that grim anniversary, authorities in one Southeast Asian country are looking back at policies that worked — and looking ahead to what lessons can be applied to future public health emergencies.

Singapore's government said its response to the outbreak of COVID-19 included some good decisions and some mistakes.

A White Paper from the Prime Minister’s office recaps both, calling COVID “a wicked problem on a grand scale”— with many decisions made “under conditions of incomplete information and uncertain outcomes.”

In a section titled “What We Did Well,” the government started with maintaining the resilience of its healthcare system, where hospitals were never overwhelmed.

Another success was the vaccination campaign. More than 90% of the eligible population received at least one dose.

The section “What We Could Have Done Better” includes the mishandling of an outbreak of the virus in migrant worker dormitories and inconsistent government rules — from border controls to mask-wearing.

Lessons for the future include determining which dimension of a complex problem to prioritize and building up expertise and capacity for public health care.

However, some missteps came because certain assumptions were based on a past emergency — The SARS outbreak of the early 2000s.

The lesson: Be informed by the past, but not bound by it. In other words, don't base tomorrow's solutions on yesterday's problems.

Bill Dorman has been the news director at Hawaiʻi Public Radio since 2011.
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