The Singapore Warning
Reopening the economy will be hard.
April 16, 2020
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This has been the week when everybody seems to be thinking about reopening the economy. Governors are talking about it. So are President Trump and leaders in much of Europe. Today, Trump plans to announcenew guidelines on social distancing that will move the country toward reopening.
But before anyone gets too excited, it’s worth taking a look at what’s happening in Singapore, which has been celebrated for a model response to the virus.
Singapore’s approach has certainly been aggressive — and more effective than the American approach. In January, as the virus was spreading within the Chinese city of Wuhan, Singapore officials began screening travelers arriving in their country and placing anyone who tested positive into quarantine. Singapore also quarantined some travelers who didn’t have symptoms but had been exposed to the virus. And Singapore tested its own residents and tracked down people who had come in contact with someone who tested positive.
The result has been only 10 deaths, out of a population of 5.6 million, despite the country’s close ties with China. “They never had a big outbreak, because they were ready and nimble,” Aaron Carroll, a professor at Indiana University’s medical school and a contributor to The Times, told me.
Thanks to that response, Singapore had been able to avoid the kind of lockdowns that other countries had put in place. Restaurants and schools were open, albeit with people keeping their distance from each other. Large gatherings were rare. Singapore, in short, looked as the United States might look after the kind of partial reopening many people have begun imagining.
But Singapore doesn’t look that way anymore. Even there, despite all of the successful efforts at containment, the virus never fully disappeared. Now a new outbreak is underway.
The number of new cases has surged, as you can see in the chart above. In response, the country announced a lockdowntwo weeks ago. Singapore’s “present circumstances,” Carroll writes in a piece for The Times, “bode poorly for our ability to remain open for a long time.”
Many public health experts agree. Moving toward reopening still makes sense. But it will need to be done with extreme care. Even if it is, as in Singapore, people should be prepared for a series of partial reopenings — varying from place to place — that will sometimes be followed by new lockdowns.
As Ed Yong writes in The Atlantic:
The only viable endgame is to play whack-a-mole with the coronavirus, suppressing it until a vaccine can be produced. With luck, that will take 18 to 24 months. During that time, new outbreaks will probably arise. Much about that period is unclear, but the dozens of experts whom I have interviewed agree that life as most people knew it cannot fully return. “I think people haven’t understood that this isn’t about the next couple of weeks,” said Michael Osterholm, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota. “This is about the next two years.”
If you want to understand more about what policies can minimize the number of future lockdowns, I recommend both Yong’s and Carroll’s articles. All of the best options involve aggressive testing, tracking and quarantining, as well as continued forms of social distancing even after some activities resume.
We’ve got a long slog ahead of us.