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Singapore and the pandemic

Having lived and worked in Singapore throughout the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, Resident Partner Torgeir Willumsen shares his take on how things unfolded and the effect on the city-state.

In January 2020 the first signs of Covid-19 were of a commercial nature. Business activity related to China – which is a large part of the maritime industry in Asia – started slowing down considerably. Projects experienced delays, new ventures were postponed and a general slowdown could be felt throughout the maritime business world.

As February and March came around, the first Covid-19 cases started being reported in Singapore. As the numbers grew, the Singapore border was from midnight 23 March 2020 closed to all short-term visitors and all residents returning to Singapore were subject to a 14 day quarantine. I remember this well because I had a trip to Europe booked with a return flight scheduled to land in the afternoon of 23 March. However, due to all the uncertainty in the weeks prior I decided to postpone the trip. Indeed, the trip is still pending as I have not been to Europe since.

Following an increase in infections, in early April the Singapore Government announced a nationwide partial lockdown, known as a “circuit breaker”, to contain the spread of COVID-19 in Singapore. All non-essential workplaces closed from 7 April, and all schools transitioned to home-based learning from 8 April. Along with other people around the world, my wife and I were forced to juggle jobs and child care, while only being allowed to leave our apartment for specific purposes.

The circuit breaker was originally scheduled to last 4 weeks. However, 2 weeks in the number of cases did not decrease as expected and the government announced that it would be extended for another 4 weeks, meaning 8 weeks in total. This was a major mental setback for the population at large, and in particular for people with young children in schools and kindergarten (including myself). Thankfully despite some ups and downs in the time following the initial circuit breaker, no later measures have involved the closing of kindergartens.

After the circuit breaker, life returned to somewhat normal with schools and restaurants being open. However, work from home became the new default, strict quarantine measures were in place for travelers, the number of people allowed to gather was limited, and all large-scale events were prohibited. Life as we knew it in Singapore changed dramatically as the usually buzzing social scene would grind to a halt.

Workwise the show must nevertheless go on. People rolled up their sleeves and got on with things, working from home and moving meetings to Zoom. But securing new business has become challenging and existing business relations are more valuable than ever.

Whereas many countries have provided support to companies based on reduced revenue, or simply cash payments to individuals, the Singapore government has provided cash support to companies as a percentage of the local employees’ salaries. This was an effort to incentive employers to retain local talent and has proven successful.

The attractiveness of Singapore as a place to live and work for expats has unfortunately taken a big hit. For expats coming to Singapore for a shorter stay of 2+ years, much of the attraction has been the quality of life in Singapore, combined with ease of access to other destinations. There was always a plane to catch to explore Asia, or to visit family at home.

Following the circuit breaker, borders have to a large extent been closed. Short-term visitors are not allowed and long-term residents (apart from citizens and permanent residents) need a re-entry permit. Many people have unfortunately been stranded overseas for months, being separated from their families. My own family has not been out of Singapore for almost two years: a two weeks hotel quarantine with a toddler is an effective barrier to travel.

The current restrictions on both life and travel have made many people reluctant to move to Singapore and thus made it very difficult for companies in Singapore to recruit personnel from overseas to fill positions. It has also not helped that the Singapore Government has become more restrictive in issuing Employment Passes for foreigners. The demand for local labour has consequently increased and made it difficult and expensive to recruit qualified personnel. Ultimately this will hurt Singapore-based businesses.

Thankfully there are signs that things are improving. More than 80% of the population is vaccinated and Singaporean authorities now take the view that Covid-19 must be considered endemic, meaning that “zero covid” is not something that can be realistically achieved. In line with this approach, case numbers have recently risen steadily to around 1,500-2,000 per day without a new circuit breaker being implemented. Countries have been ranked in different categories determining how easy it will be for travelers to get a re-entry permit and what quarantine measures they have to comply with. Travel corridors without quarantine for vaccinated passengers have also been opened up, so far only with Germany and Brunei, but with other countries to follow.

Singapore has managed the Covid-19 pandemic well, but at a large cost to the local and foreign communities. Going forward we will hopefully see a return to normality for the benefit of everyone living in this unique city-state.