In this webinar, Dr Benjamin Ong and Dr Deborah Elms shared about the respective experience in managing the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore and Taiwan.
REGIONAL ECONOMIC STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Wednesday, 19 May 2021 – ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a webinar on “Lessons from Managing the Covid-19 Pandemic: Singapore and Taiwan”, delivered by Associate Professor Dr Benjamin Ong, Senior Vice President (Health Education & Resources) at the National University of Singapore and a Senior Consultant Neurologist with the Division of Neurology, National University Hospital. He was joined by Dr Deborah Elms, Founder and Executive Director of the Asian Trade Centre.
Dr Ong began with a timeline of how the virus began between December 2019 and February 2020. He presented the timeline and proliferation of cases in Singapore. Some important lessons on how the virus spread were learnt during this period, namely through congregate living and shared facilities, crowding at popular locations and close contact at the workplace. Hence, testing capacity and capabilities were built up rapidly and a risk-based rostered routine testing was implemented. As soon as the mRNA vaccine was cleared for use in December 2020, the government immediately configured and ramped up a phased vaccination roll out.
Next, Dr Ong explained the hurdles that Singapore continues to face: the need to reopen borders, the problem of variants and its interaction with the population. He elaborated on the current clusters in Singapore as well as the different variant viruses. The response to the current outbreak of the B1617 variant was to increase the capacity and capability to quarantine exposed individuals and manage infected cases. The trust of the public is also required as stricter restrictions are imposed. Dr Ong stressed the importance of stopping and reducing introduction of the virus. Aside from vaccination, non-pharmacological interventions like education and public engagement are required to prevent the continued spread of the virus and its variants. He concluded with his prediction of the longevity of the pandemic and urged Singapore to plan to thrive in such a setting.
The webinar was then passed onto Dr Elms who continued with the Taiwan’s experience. She began with a comparative discussion of the region. She specially highlighted Taiwan’s increase in exports during the pandemic, despite trade contraction for nearly all global economies, resulting in a 5% expansion in GDP. Dr Elms found that the positive economic impact of COVID-19 in Taiwan was largely attributed to its semiconductor and medical industry. As the world’s largest contract chipmaker, work from home arrangements brought about by the pandemic resulted in an increase in consumer demand for electronics, and particularly semiconductors. Moreover, with the subsidy of almost US$10 million, close to a hundred mask production lines were created to meet the increased global demand. To support this increased demand for exports, Taiwanese carriers employed a significant number of cargo fleets which allowed them to convert from carrying passengers to exporting goods instead. This was in contrast to numerous other airlines that decided to shut or scale down in view of travel restrictions. As a result, exports increased by a record of 10.1%. Coupled with a quick recovery in consumption driven by the increase in demand, positive GDP growth was achieved between 2019 and 2020.
Dr Elms continued her presentation with Taiwan’s four-pronged strategy in managing the virus. The SARS epidemic in 2003 led Taiwan to establish a series of key measures to manage future pandemics. Hence, the Central Epidemics Command Centre (CECC) was established in 2008, and was used effectively to mobilise funds, military personnel, and medical resources for disease control actions. Taiwan curbed the spread of COVID-19 by deploying the following strategies in the early stages of the pandemic: travel bans and restrictions, mandatory 14-day quarantine for travellers, and provision of Taiwanese phone numbers for visitors without phones to enable contact tracing. Additionally, Taiwan utilized its community surveillance system, big data from its immigration and national immigration digital databases, and mobile phone data for effective contact tracing. This enabled doctors to check their patients’ travel history and, as a result, help curb the spread of the disease.
Moving forward, Dr Elms shared some concerns. Despite efforts to curb the spread of the virus, the lack of restrictions in place on daily life coupled with relatively low vaccination rates and limited availability of vaccine has resulted in the recent spike in cases. Moreover, with the high levels of exports, there has been a shortage of cargo crew. Thus, the duration of quarantine for these staff has been reduced, contributing to a further spread of the virus. Although their economy has weathered well against the pandemic, Taiwan’s heavy reliance on electronics and semiconductors raises the concern of whether supply chains are resilient enough. This is in view with changing trade patterns in Asia, especially with new trade agreements like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) entering into force in 2022. Taiwan also risks further challenges by remaining outside regional trade deals such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
The webinar concluded with Dr Ong and Dr Elm answering the questions posed by the audience. Both stressed the importance of addressing the tension between health and economic recovery to survive during the pandemic. The questions included what Singapore’s end game is, the strategy for the vaccine sector for both Singapore and Taiwan and whether certain practices adopted in Taiwan are applicable to Singapore.