'We could've done some things differently': Lawrence Wong on S'pore's Covid response

Wong acknowledged that with the benefit of hindsight, many aspects of Singapore's pandemic response could have been different.

Matthias Ang | March 08, 2023, 12:00 PM

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If the government, with the benefit of hindsight, had its current knowledge about Covid-19 at the start of the pandemic, many things would "obviously" have been different, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said in a doorstop interview at the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) on Mar. 7.

Government had to make decisions amidst incomplete information

"Possibly, we would have been able to get through the pandemic with a lot less spending...even fewer mortalities than what we have today, and with even less disruption than what we had to go through," the former co-chair of multi-ministry task force (MTF) said.

"But that's asking for the impossible because no one would have been able to have that perfect information at the very start of the pandemic, nor would we have the solutions at hand."

Wong highlighted that at the beginning of the pandemic, the government had to operate in a "fog of war" and make decisions amidst incomplete information.

"We had intense debates on what actions to take and these were often not binary choices but gradations of options with very difficult tradeoffs," he said.

The government thus proceeded with the best judgment that it could at that point in time, he added.

"All in all, I would say Covid-19 has been a very complex and wicked problem on a grand scale, with many twists and turns and disruptions and surprises along the way."

Can't give the government a grade on performance of its Covid-19 response because he was one of the examinees

Wong, who is also Finance Minister, was responding to a question about how much better off Singapore would be in terms of "tangible indicators" if the government had done certain things in its Covid-19 response better.

On Mar. 8, the government released a White Paper on Singapore's response to Covid-19.

According to Wong, it consolidates the findings of several sources, including a review undertaken by the former head of the civil service, Peter Ho, which focuses on the longer-term strategic lessons for Singapore.

The White Paper also covers after-action reviews undertaken by government agencies, including ground perspectives and specific within these agencies' specific domains.

The paper detailed, among other things, what Singapore did well in its response such as maintaining the resilience of the healthcare system, rendering assistance to businesses to help them stay afloat and vaccinating the population.

Where it could have done better

It also examined areas where the response could have been better.

This included the outbreak in the migrant worker dormitories in the early period of the pandemic, the disclosure that Trace Together data would be used for criminal investigations following earlier reassurances that the data would only be used for contact tracing, and how the government could have been more aggressive in closing borders in response to the virus' rapid spread elsewhere.

Wong further highlighted, "All the things that we could have done differently are in the report. We have stated things that we have done well, we have also stated things that we could have done better."

When asked if he could also give a grade or score for how Singapore has performed during the pandemic, Wong replied: "I can't possibly give a grade because I was being examined. It's for people to examine me and give me a grade."

Vaccinations were key to Singapore's exit from the pandemic, dormitory outbreak was a major challenge

In highlighting how vaccination had been the key to Singapore's exit from the pandemic, he said:

"But if you look overall at the experience, vaccination was clearly such an important way out of this pandemic, for the world and for Singapore. And overall, our whole vaccine strategy, from procurement, to the rolling out of vaccines, to the communication, to actually delivering jabs to people, I think we have generally done well and that has enabled us to get through this pandemic.

Wong also described the Covid-19 outbreak in the migrant worker dormitories as one of the biggest challenges that had to be overcome during the pandemic.

He said, "It could have possibly have been a major disaster for us. But fortunately, with the help of the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces), (and) everyone working very hard, we were able to manage the situation and keep our dorm workers safe."

Government could have gone bigger on the campaign for improvising face masks

When asked about what the government could have done to encourage more community and ground-up efforts to devise their own face masks, rather than just relying on government-directed efforts, Wong replied that there had been a number of ground-up initiatives to improvise one's own face mask.

Such initiatives did help in the early phase when there was a shortage of surgical masks and there was a need of such masks for essential health workers, he said.

Wong added:

"So yes, if we had...with the benefit of hindsight, recognised the usefulness of masks, recognised also the risk of asymptomatic transmission at the early days — which incidentally even the WHO (World Health Organisation) had not identified as a risk — if all that had been clear from the outset, then I think we would have gone on a bigger campaign to encourage more ground-up efforts for such face masks to be deployed."

Lessons learned from Covid-19 should not harden into a form of doctrine

As for Singapore's confidence level on handling future pandemics following Covid-19, Wong replied that while the government is prepared, it is "never complacent."

"We know that the next pandemic will be different from what we have gone through, just as Covid has been different from SARS," he elaborated.

Hence, while the lessons drawn from Covid-19 will give Singapore a better sense of preparedness, it must never fight the "last war", or allow the lessons to be "hard-coded" into a certain doctrine that leads Singapore down the wrong route in response.

This is especially so if the next virus turns out to be very different in character and nature from what has been experienced so far, he added.

"So that's the balancing act we will have to do. Learn from this well, build capabilities, but at the same time, always be adaptable and nimble, and plan ahead, anticipate what new scenarios might emerge down the road."

Top collage left photo by Mothership, right photo via Jurong Health Campus/Facebook