'All it takes is 1 superspreader event': Lawrence Wong & Gan Kim Yong share challenges in managing Covid-19

Co-chairs of the Multi-Ministry Taskforce, Lawrence Wong and Gan Kim Yong, reflect on a year with Covid-19.

Ashley Tan | January 21, 2021, 06:31 PM

It's been roughly a year since Covid-19 first reached Singapore's shores, and while the situation has improved drastically since the days in March and April 2020, constant vigilance is still encouraged.

Speaking to the media on Jan. 19, co-chairs of the Multi-Ministry Taskforce Lawrence Wong and Gan Kim Yong reflected on the past year handling the crisis.

"I don't think any words can fully describe what 2020 was like," Wong said, recounting the past year and being one of the people helming the efforts against the virus as "surreal".

Gan added that the National Press Centre, the place where press conferences announcing news on Covid-19 were held, had become his and Wong's second home.

Both stated that the crisis and how Singapore dealt with it was a reflection of how resilient the people here can be.

Communication and mood shifts were biggest challenges

Looking back on the past year, Gan mentioned that despite their experience with previous viruses like SARS and H1N1, Covid-19 still caught Singapore off guard.

This was due to two factors — the asymptomatic nature of Covid-19, as well as the fact that the virus was infectious before it becomes symptomatic.

This made it harder to prevent the virus' transmission in the early days.

These uncertainties however, were not the MTF's only concerns.

When asked what was the biggest challenge Wong and Gan personally faced while handling the pandemic, both mentioned public communications as their answer.

Gan highlighted the unknown nature of the disease at the start of the pandemic, which forced the government to continuously adjust their approach.

Aside from mobilising various agencies, these changes would need to be explained to the public as well.

"Circuit breaker, DORSCON Orange, all these are difficult decisions. The unknown is also a main worry, at the same time, communication is [one of the] biggest challenges," Gan said.

Wong echoed his sentiments:

"Communicating to the public the necessity for the measures amidst this whole environment, where it's so easy for people to get caught up in the latest mood — whatever that mood is. This has been extremely challenging."

He described the mood shifts among the people as very volatile — at the start of the pandemic, people clamoured for Singapore to tighten its restrictions, whereas in October 2020, the mood had shifted, with people clamouring for Singapore to open up faster.

"This is not unique to Singapore, you see this everywhere in the world. But in that kind of environment, where the public mood gets caught up very easily depending on the latest viral news, the latest situation, the latest count of cases — then how to maintain a steady course... Yes we certainly have to take into account public feedback, but it ultimately has to be based on scientific evidence and expert opinions, and then to explain that to the public and get support for the measures, that's the biggest challenge so far."

Looking forward

Now, with Singapore's main aim of rolling out the vaccines as soon as possible, to as many people as possible, Wong said that he was experiencing a sense of deja vu.

"We're now in the new year, but it's not over. Yes, we have better tools, testing abilities, tracing capabilities, vaccinations. But it's almost like we're back at where we started one year ago," he said.

Looking forward though, both acknowledged that for Singapore, and the world, normalcy would not return within a year.

At the very least, the "pandemic mood" would remain for the next four to five years, until the world population gets vaccinated and achieves herd immunity, or the virus attenuates, Wong said.

The situation in Singapore would have to depend on the situation in the rest of the world as well, Gan added.

The pandemic is not forever

Both ministers highlighted the need to remain vigilant as well.

Despite making it through one year of the crisis, they reiterated that the fight was not over yet and that the situation remains unpredictable.

Wong also noted the rising number of community cases — on Jan. 20, there were four cases in the community, one of whom is unlinked, as well as three local clusters.

"Despite our measures, nothing will ever be water tight," Wong said. "All it takes is one superspreader event and you can get clusters emerging. And then you will be running around trying to chase after the virus all over again."

Meanwhile, Gan also stated that he was "quite sure" another pandemic would occur in the next four to five years, and highlighted the need to remain vigilant.

Wong, on the other hand, maintained a more positive attitude — "Who knows exactly when, but at some point the pandemic will pass, surely. No pandemic is forever," he said.

He continued that the world would likely see new changes and new norms in the post-Covid-19 landscape — perhaps in the form of lesser physical interactions like handshakes or more permanent work-from-home system.

"In this new post Covid-19 world, there will be some changes, exactly what they are I think it remains to be seen. We just have to be prepared for it and gear ourselves to try and survive and excel in this new world."

Top photo from Andrew Wong