I have been locked in a luxury hotel room 24 hours a day for two straight weeks, as part of Singapore’s strict anti-coronavirus regime.
Singapore’s approach to preventing the spread of COVID-19 is one of the most successful in the world.
Since the start of the pandemic, the city-state of more than 5 million people has had around 59,000 cases and just 29 deaths.
It’s a system that has saved countless lives, but it would never fly in the US.
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Greetings from Singapore.
My husband and I are currently confined to a hotel room, unable to go out into the city until we’ve quarantined for a full two weeks and received negative COVID tests. We’re not allowed to leave our one-bedroom suite under threat of punishment of heavy fines or deportation.
It’s a strange type of purgatory. Singapore’s stringent COVID prevention rules and policies would likely outrage many Americans who believe that personal liberty is at the core of what it means to live in the US. The notion of liberty has been at the center of so many American protests about lockdowns over the last few months.
But the reality is: Singapore’s lockdown is working, and the American approach to the coronavirus is not.
Confined to a hotel room 24 hours a day
In February, Singapore instituted its Stay-Home Notice program. It requires everyone coming into the country – visa holders or permanent residents – to serve out a compulsory 14-day closely monitored quarantine.
We lucked out and were given a junior suite to quarantine in. Julie Gerstein/Insider
After you arrive in-country and make your way through customs, you shuffle off to a bus and are driven to one of the dozen or so hotels taking in quarantining travelers. You do not get a choice of hotels.
The quarantine rules here are strict: You are confined to your hotel room 24 hours a day. All food is provided by the hotel and delivered outside your hotel room door to ensure contact-free delivery. Anything you order to your room – like takeout or groceries – is sent to you contact-free, too. Upon arrival, you’re asked to record and monitor your temperature (with a hotel-provided thermometer) three times a day.
Your key card is programmed to only work one time, so if you venture out of your room, you’ll be locked out and at the mercy of the authorities.
On the eleventh day of the quarantine, we’ll be given PCR coronavirus tests, which will determine whether or not we’ll be able to leave three days later.
We were required to take our temperatures several times a day and record it both on a piece of paper and via an app called Homer. Julie Gerstein/Insider
For the last week and a half, our lives have been limited to the confines of a 200-square-foot hotel room. It’s not prison. But it is prison-like. It’s certainly not freedom. We cannot leave.
And it works
The SHN program has been paying off. In the past week, Singapore health authorities have discovered 19 cases of coronavirus among incoming SHN participants. Eighteen of those cases were asymptomatic and, had they gone untested, could have infected countless in the community.
Singapore has a population of 5.69 million people crammed into an area only slightly larger than New York City. But it has had just under 59,000 cases – and only 29 deaths – since the pandemic began. Compare that to Los Angeles, a city with 4 million people, which has had 611,000 cases and 8,800 deaths.
It would seem ridiculous to try to implement a plan like Singapore’s in a country that’s nearly 14,000 times larger in landmass and has 326.4 million more people. But looking at their success in stanching the flow of COVID cases across its border does offer a few hypotheses on why the US’s plans – or lack of plans – haven’t worked.
For one, Singapore was able to effectively shut down and closely monitor its borders during the pandemic. There are only two ways in and out of the country. You can travel by air into its one airport, or you can travel overland via two causeways from Malaysia, and either way, your movements across borders are closely monitored. The country’s ability to tightly monitor and track people has helped vastly reduce its COVID case numbers.
Some of the meals we were served while in quarantine. Julie Gerstein/InsiderAmerican exceptionalism has poisoned its ability to react to a crisis
Singapore is one nation operating under consistent policies, but the US is not. Instead, the localization of response and the lack of unifying message from the federal government has meant that every state is essentially acting as its own country – even though there are no border controls between states in place and states rely heavily on federal funding and federal agencies for information. With no consistent policy, states have been left to fight amongst themselves for resources.
But beyond that, the American attitude of exceptionalism has poisoned the country’s ability to react to a crisis like this. The American belief that personal liberty and freedom trump social responsibility has created a narrative in which personal choice is more important than the public good. These notions have not been just tacitly encoded into the core of what we believe it is to be American. They’ve been called up time and time again in the arguments about whether coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions impede the American way of life.
The free flow of people across what are essentially arbitrary borders of city and state, along with the resistance to contact tracing and monitoring, has all but guaranteed that more people than necessary will die.
‚Choice‘ has meant a failure to protect public health
For Americans, the idea of choice – the choice to even put yourself in harm’s way for the notional belief in what it means to be „free“ – has engendered, at best, a scenario in which cities and towns have failed to enforce COVID safety policies, and at worst, propagated the idea that the creation of any policy at all, even for the public good, is anti-American.
Right: Upon completion of our 14-day SHN we were issued certificates in recognition of our stay. Right: These QR code signs are outside of nearly every building. They’re connected to the Trace Together app. Julie Gerstein/Insider
For proof of that attitude, you can cite any number of anti-lockdown advocates whose commitment to personal freedoms over public health is almost pathological.
„The fact I am protesting does not mean I think it is a good idea to have gatherings,“ one Washington state anti-lockdown protester told the BBC in April. „I just believe that the government has no authority to prohibit them.“
Openly flouting masking rules – despite overwhelming evidence that masks prevent transmission – has practically become a national pastime.
‚Americans have been actively discouraged by their leaders from making sacrifices‘
Donald Trump is the apotheosis of this mentality, leading by the example of hosting myriad White House celebrations while not enforcing masking – even after contracting the virus himself.
„Americans have been actively discouraged by their leaders from making sacrifices in support of larger efforts – including wars, fossil fuel consumption, global warming, the Great Recession, and the current pandemic,“ wrote Brandon Jett and Christopher McKnight Nichols in a December op-ed for the Washington Post. „Confronting the looming public health, economic and climate challenges today requires a wholesale change in how citizens and the state conceive and construct a rhetoric as well as a practice of collective sacrifice.“
This inability for some Americans to curb their individual freedoms in the face of this virus, and against basic common sense, seems to belie a lack of faith in the very concept of personal liberty. If it’s such a foundational American value, then why are we so afraid that it will disappear if we temporarily put the greater good over the rights of the individual?
The concept of liberty has become a type of currency – a way for the government to pretend that they’re giving you more when they’re actually giving you less.
Trace Together keeps track of every place you’ve visited via QR code and alerts you if you’ve been some place where someone with COVID has been. Julie Gerstein/Insider’Emergency measures do not simply work. They work when a populace has been conditioned for years to accept instruction‘
Singapore has often been referred to as a „nanny state“ because of the government’s intervention in so many aspects of its citizens‘ lives.
You famously cannot chew gum, or spit, or „fly a kite that interferes with public traffic.“ Connecting to your neighbor’s WiFi without their permission could land you a $10,000 fine. Forgetting to flush the toilet will cost you $150. Punishment for jaywalking can be as high as $1,000 and three months in jail.
The curbing of personal freedoms seems largely antithetical to the American way of life. And yet, it’s likely what has prevented the coronavirus from taking more lives here.
„Singapore is able to respond quickly and efficiently in times like this because its government has always wielded absolute control over the state, with an iron fist and a whip in it,“ wrote Jerrine Tan in an April 2020 editorial for Wired. „In times of crisis, when this form of authoritative instruction saves lives, we might call it good. But in order for it to work in times of crisis, one must be willing to always live under this yoke. This, it seems, is the price many Singaporeans are willing to pay.“
Right: The view from the 55th story of the Marina Bay Sands. Right: An on-the-ground view of the 2,600-room hotel. Julie Gerstein/Insider
„Emergency measures do not simply work. They work when a populace has been conditioned for years to accept instruction,“ she continued.
The Singaporean government, which has been ruled by one party since 1959, actually embraces its „nanny state“ label. Its founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once wrote, „If Singapore is a nanny state, then I am proud to have fostered one.“
Restaurants, stores, movie theaters, and schools are all open
The city-state has returned largely to normal. People are required to wear masks in public and limit the size of groups in public spaces. But restaurants, stores, movie theaters, and schools are all open. On December 28, the country entered Phase 3 of its recovery plan, and citizens are now permitted to gather in larger groups. Things like live concerts have resumed (though concerts of spittle-producing wind instruments are apparently still verboten).
The move to Phase 3 was only permitted after the widespread adoption of Singapore’s TraceTogether contact-tracing program. The app uses Bluetooth technology to identify and inform people who are within a six-foot radius of a person who has tested positive for coronavirus. Another app, SafeEntry, uses QR codes to track people entering and exiting businesses, and it’s been made compulsory by the government.
A sampling of the cocktails and meals we had when we finally got out of quarantine. Julie Gerstein/Insider
Some Singaporeans expressed privacy concerns, and adoption of the app took much longer than the government and hoped, but in the end, nearly 70% of residents have registered with the app. Early on, the government announced that lying to COVID tracers about your whereabouts could result in a $10,000 fine and up to six months in jail. Just last week, a 65-year-old woman was sentenced to five months in jail after investigators found that she’d lied to contact tracers about her whereabouts when meeting a friend for lunch, dinner, or tea while her husband played badminton.
Trace Together recently came under fire because the government announced they would be using it to track criminal activity.
The metro has signs up encouraging people not to talk while riding, as both a courtesy and to prevent possible COVID transmission via saliva. Julie Gerstein/Insider
But Singapore sees these privacy curbs as worth it: In the past week, there have been zero cases of COVID in the community.
And there’s the rub: Do you want more government oversight if it’ll save people from coronavirus? Or do you want more freedom at the cost of more lives?
I know which choice I’d make.
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