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Test, trace, track: how Singapore is winning the virus war

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Within days of China reporting the mysterious SARS-like virus on December 31, Singapore had increased screening at its borders with ruthless efficiency.

At this point, very little was known about the virus, but Singaporean laboratories immediately began to swing into action to bolster their mass testing capacity and develop their own test kits. A common tactic in the countries that have kept death tolls low and infection rates from spiralling out of control has been the widespread use of testing to identify and isolate carriers, some of whom may be asymptomatic, in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.

By March 20, the densely populated nation had conducted 38,000 tests, or about 6800 examinations per million of its population.

Testing alone has not been enough. The Asian financial hub has also had the benefit of a 6000-strong team that has meticulously tracked down the contacts of confirmed cases, ordering them to self-isolate until they have been tested and cleared.

The tracing team has used CCTV footage to find people. In recent days, a voluntary contact-tracing phone app, TraceTogether, has been launched to allow local authorities to quickly track those who have been exposed.

The app uses wireless Bluetooth technology to identify anyone within two metres of a diagnosed case for at least 30 minutes.

Fines, jail terms

Those in isolation are contacted several times a day and are required to send photographic evidence of their exact location. Stiff fines or even jail terms await offenders.

The technological intrusion to locate and track carriers has raised privacy issues and concerns about its possible abuse in the future.

However, Singaporeans also appear to be motivated by a strong sense of collective responsibility and they have quickly adapted to hygiene and social distancing measures. Life has maintained a sense of semi-normality: schools and businesses are still open.

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The ongoing success, however, has been dependent on Western countries holding up their end of the bargain.

Asian countries fighting the virus since January are now seeing an uptick of imported cases from the US and European countries that arguably failed to capitalise on their two-month head start to adequately prepare for the virus.

On Sunday, after another spike in cases imported from Britain and US, Singapore said it would no longer allow short-term visitors to enter or transit through its territory.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said: “These are very significant moves, especially for a small, open economy like Singapore that has always been connected to the world.”

Western nations may have missed their chance to block the entry of the coronavirus at their borders, but there is still much to emulate in Singapore’s robust approach.

The Telegraph, London

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