Singapore's investments in Digital Transformation may be helping as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds. Insights from Calum Handforth, UNDP's Thematic Lead on Digitalisation and Smart Cities at the Global Policy Centre in Singapore.
Singapore’s COVID-19 response is seeing early results. Here’s how.
March 20, 2020
Singapore was one of the first countries to see the COVID-19 virus enter its borders. The city-state’s early response – which included cash incentives to work from home, chatbots and a national Whatsapp channel to educate and inform citizens – has earned praise from the World Health Organization (and in scientific research).
The COVID-19 response has greatly benefited from Singapore’s extensive digital transformation work, which has accelerated since the launch of the Singapore Smart Nation initiative in 2014.
Singapore’s digital approach concurrently addressed the four stages of an epidemic: surveillance, prevention and containment, diagnosis, and treatment.
Surveillance is about identifying the source of disease. In Singapore, the government employed extensive contact-tracing – leveraging digital technology. ‘Digital signatures’ or the trail of tech-related crumbs we leave during the course of our daily life – including cash withdrawals and card payments – are being tracked to identify individuals who have been in contact with those infected with COVID-19.
Geographic and demographic data of confirmed cases is also published online in order to limit panic, and to encourage those concerned of potential exposure to proactively engage with healthcare services.
Extensive surveillance efforts aren’t always successful; therefore prevention of further transmission, and containment of those infected, is crucial in stopping wider spread of disease.
So Singapore has introduced a wide range of digitally-driven interventions to improve public health. This includes using online tools to direct citizens to locations dispensing government-issued surgical masks (MaskGoWhere) and highlighting healthcare facilities focusing on respiratory illnesses (FluGoWhere). These two sites received more than 1.4 million visits in a number of days.
A national WhatsApp channel has more than 630,000 subscribers – whilst chatbots for citizens and businesses have answered over 75,000 queries relating to COVID-19. The government has also mandated usage of SMS and web-based platforms to[C1] ensure that quarantined individuals comply with Stay-Home Notices.
In diagnosing individuals affected by COVID-19, technology and digital approaches have played a key role. Trialling of an AI-driven smartphone-based temperature checker – which drastically increases the amount of possible simultaneous temperature measurements – moved from initial to larger-scale trials in major public areas in a matter of days.
The government also targeted R&D efforts to develop their own nucleic acid testing kits which, due to shortening the length of time taken to process results, allows testing of suspected cases at priority locations such as airports. Effective communications have also been important, particularly in tackling misinformation.
Finally, Singapore’s COVID-19 treatment efforts can be split into the near- and longer-term. More immediately, the country is focusing on research into effective treatment options (including remaining alert to novel drug candidates) and potential vaccine candidates.
These efforts align with Singapore’s focus on becoming a global leader in DeepTech (a strategy being driven by the Global Centre’s partner, SGInnovate).
Over the longer-term, the government is also engaging with the consequences of COVID-19 – including relaxing hiring restrictions for the manufacturing and services sectors, and expanding reskilling efforts into sectors particularly affected by the disease. They’ve even developed a Pacman-esque online game to discourage panic-buying.
The UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development – based in Singapore – has seen this response up-close.
We are partnering with the Smart Nation Programme Office in Singapore to better understand the fundamentals of the city-state’s response plan, and the potential implications for UNDP’s work around the world.
The real time lessons being learned as Singapore confronts COVID-19 will continue to shape the global disease response – particularly as the pandemic continues to spread.
In this context, further scientific research has highlighted that potentially 2.8 times the number of imported COVID-19 cases globally could have been recognised – and therefore managed better - if all affected countries had the identification and management approach of Singapore.
Singapore’s response has been particularly enabled by the city-state’s robust digital foundations. It has also been driven by the incredible efforts of individuals, start-ups and institutions in Singapore – in healthcare, the public sector, and elsewhere. Technology is not a panacea in any situation. But when applied strategically it can support, amplify, and catalyse human talent, dedication, and leadership. Such an approach is important to consider as countries continue to tackle COVID-19 – and in future responses to other global challenges.