By even the most optimistic perspective, Singapore faces high risks in the event of a global pandemic for three main reasons:
1.) Singapore is one of the most densely populated nations in the world and naturally a ticking time bomb for disease outbreaks
Singapore is slightly more than 700 square kilometres (about a quarter the size of Rhode Island) and has a population of approximately 6 million. Most of Singapore’s population live in government-subsidised public housing or private apartments. People live in much closer proximity to each other than in other parts of the world, and instituting measures like social distancing and avoidance of mass gatherings can be significantly challenging.
Also, limited space means that the country cannot readily build hospitals (certainly not at a moment’s notice, like China was able to do in Wuhan) or expand capacity in its existing hospitals, another risk factor when a pandemic strikes. A pandemic will place tremendous pressure on its land resources.
2.) Singapore has no natural resources and is almost completely reliant on an open economy and free trade meaning that a pandemic will not just be disastrous; it will lead to a complete collapse of the economy
Singapore has, since its independence, emphasised the need to have a free, open, competitive and dynamic economy. It consistently ranks highly in any index for ease of doing business, IP protection and innovation. Its approach has transformed it from a third world economy to one of the world’s most developed nations in one generation.
However, all this relies on the world economy doing well and being open as well. This is the exact opposite of what is happening currently with COVID-19 as many countries, in an effort to flatten the curve have implemented stringent rules around movement of people and even extreme lockdowns in the hardest-hit parts of the world whereby business has come to a near standstill.
3.) Singapore has one of the fastest growing aging populations in the world making it highly susceptible to COVID-19.
Singapore has overtaken Japan as the country with the highest life expectancy, a testament to its world class healthcare system. But, like Japan, it also struggles with low fertility rates, and a superaging population. COVID-19 has a much higher mortality rate amongst the elderly, which naturally means that Singapore’s population, on average, is more vulnerable than the global population.
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Yet the facts show otherwise. Singapore has managed to keep its COVID19 cases under control, with less than 5,000 people infected to date, despite being one of the first nations outside of China to see imported cases, as early as January end. It’s mortality rate has also thus far remained in the low double digits (ten deaths at the time of writing). In comparison, countries like Switzerland and Austria, with a similar population, are reporting 10-15 times the number of infected people, and hundreds of deaths.
How did Singapore manage this, and what could other countries and corporations learn from Singapore?
There are many different factors that have come together for Singapore, including swift and decisive action from the government to a strong community awareness and social responsibility in complying with guidelines. But here we will focus on the development, adoption and deployment of transformational technologies that have helped Singapore weather the COVID-19 pandemic.
1.) Robotics to support healthcare needs
Singapore has long placed importance in robotic technologies, especially for medical use. It already uses surgical robots for heart surgeries. Patients suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 infections in certain hospitals receive their meals and medication via robots. Alexandra hospital uses a robot called BeamPro to round on patients in certain isolation wards. Not only does the use of robotics reduce concerns about infecting human healthcare workers, but also reduces the manpower requirements of an already overworked healthcare workforce. In addition, the robots can be used round the clock.
Hospital systems in Singapore receive support and resources to trial new and emerging technologies ranging from connected devices to robotics in safe and regulated environments. Alexandra’s Centre for Innovation had already developed BeamPro over three months before the outbreak. With the outbreak, the system was ready to be deployed after a few additional tests.
2.) Automated temperature screening
Not only did Singapore automate temperature screenings, it developed the tech in just two weeks, thanks to a concerted effort between the public and private sectors, namely the public sector healthtech agency IHiS (Integrated Healthcare Informations Systems) and Kronikare, respectively. The urgency here was catalysed by snaking queues everywhere, from airports to malls and offices.
Fever Screening in Airport (Source)
As mentioned, without natural resources and being an open economy, any disruptions in international commerce and trade is an existential question for Singapore. Thus, these challenges emerged as top priority to fix. The device, called iThermo, offers a quicker and safer alternative to manual forehead thermometers, currently the most popular option everywhere else in the world. It scans people’s temperature as they walk by and alerts staff to those with higher temperatures. Visitors wouldn’t have to stop to be measured. It’s also safer for frontline staff as they are less likely to encounter people with undetected infections and needs one or two people to operate.
iThermo has been used at IHiS’ office and St. Andrew’s Community Hospital to scan visitors and staff for more than a month now. It’s now commercially available as a pilot device for S$1,000 per month and has been certified as a Class A medical device by the Health Sciences Authority.
3.) Rapid diagnostics for COVID-19
Since the early 90’s, realizing the emergence of China and India that could potentially disrupt its traditional electric and electronic manufacturing industries, Singapore systematically embarked on a program to build up its advanced manufacturing and deep technology capabilities, especially in the biotechnology sector. It invested billions of dollars to train over a thousand PhDs that would eventually feed the biotech sector with highly trained and skilled workers and to attract foreign companies to set up high-value manufacturing in the biomedical sector here. Initially deemed overly excessive with little ROI, the long wait has paid off in more ways than one. While already a significant contributor to the economy in the biomedical and biologics manufacturing sector, the upstream R&D has led to strong capabilities that have contributed to new therapeutics and diagnostics.
A vibrant startup ecosystem of biotech firms in its Biopolis has flourished and a number of innovative startups have already developed rapid, sensitive and specific diagnostic kits. In fact, at the time of writing, more than fifteen developers have already received provisional authorization with more expected to come through in the coming weeks.
And these were all done within weeks of the COVID-19 posing a threat, thanks to investments made over two decades ago to fortify its deep tech capabilities. Biolidics, for example, detects COVID-19 in ten minutes. It has already been launched, and now the firm is looking for ways to scale production even further.
Even its research labs, typically focused on developing early stage research that is normally tailored to peer-reviewed journals, has pivoted to looking at how to develop more practical technologies to combat COVID-19. Take Prof Jackie Ying’s Nanolabs in A*STAR, who’ve pushed the barrier even further by developing a test that can detect COVID-19 in early stages of infection within five minutes.
That being said, Singapore is not resting on its laurels yet. In fact, Singapore just announced even more restrictive measures, despite receiving praise from WHO on how it has dealt with the pandemic so far, as it has seen a sudden surge in the number of COVID-19 cases. Most of these were due to returning travellers and students. But the fact that Singapore has swiftly developed and deployed these technologies have helped mitigate pockets of outbursts that many parts of Europe and North America have seen. It is worth taking a leaf out of Singapore’s playbook, whether you’re a public sector organization or a private firm, into how you can think about mitigating risks and containing the impact of COVID-19 for your organization.
4.) Big data and more availability of digital resources available publicly – enabling quicker dissemination of information and enabling collaborative efforts to combat COVID-19
The Singapore government actively launches new digital platforms and resources for the public, from its contact tracing app that helps speed up figuring out community transmission patterns to sharing big data on data.gov.sg, where anyone can download information about outbreak patterns. This not only allows for quicker dissemination of information to concerned citizens, but also allows developers and organizations to access data for analysing and developing solutions. different.
What can we learn ?
While there are some aspects of what Singapore has been able to achieve that might be more challenging to replicate in other parts of the world (such as a centralized government, different views of privacy and individual liberties amongst others), there are a few lessons that we can take from its playbook on leveraging transformational technology to solve real world issues, in this case a global pandemic.
- Place the need above the technology itself. Despite Singapore’s ability to leverage transformational technologies, it has rarely adopted technology for technology’s sake. For example, when most of the world was getting into the 5G hype last year, Singapore chose to study the landscape first and is still carefully studying how to implement it and only just opened a tender earlier this year (likely to take longer with the COVID-19 situation, which is now higher priority). But it realized a need toinvest in robotics as its aging population continues to increase and more automated solutions would be needed as the health workforce becomes more stretched out. Its preparedness in this regard has enabled it to repurpose these tools to support the pressure COVID-19 has placed on its healthcare system.
- Public-private sector partnerships are a very potent tool in accelerating tech innovation. Combining resources and expertise in time of need helps move timelines considerably as we’ve seen with the automated screening tech that Singapore developed in two weeks. Your organization should place importance in fostering such relationships so as to leverage the best of both worlds.
- Strategic investments go beyond a 2-5 year timeline. Have a 10-20 year plan, because deep tech takes time to incubate and build, especially if there is little existing capabilities in your organization today. Singapore’s biotech investments spanned more than two decades, and now when it matters, it was able to tap into its capabilities to create solutions to contain this pandemic, without having to depend on foreign MNCs or organizations.
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