I began writing this at Raffles Hotel, a gleaming white pinnacle of Singapore’s British colonial past. Immaculately renovated over the past two and a half years, it is truly one of the world’s most luxurious hotels. In many ways, it epitomizes what Singapore has become since it asserted itself as an independent city-state in 1965.
Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of Singapore, was a visionary statesman, both strongman and technocrat. Revered here as founder, leader, truth-teller, and symbol of the young nation, he created the playbook for modern Singapore, including among other things a commitment to transparency, a belief in the power of reason over superstition, and a love of cleanliness. All these have combined to create Singapore’s world-leading response to the coronavirus that emerged in China at the end of last year, spreading rapidly around the globe over the past two months.
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Singapore was hit early, as one of China’s key trading partners. Within a few weeks of the first official notice of “Wuhan flu,” it had a dozen cases. But it very quickly realized that this was more than the seasonal flu, and took rapid action. Primed by experience with the SARS virus of 2002-3, Singapore began carefully tracking cases to find the commonalities that linked them. Within a day, sometimes two, of a new case being detected, the authorities were able to piece together the complex chain of transmission from one person to another, like Sherlock Holmes with a database. As of February, everyone entering a government or corporate building in Singapore had to provide contact details to expedite the process.
It’s not simply the ability to detect the cases and explain why they happened that makes Singapore such a role model in this epidemic; nucleic acid testing kits were rapidly developed and deployed to ports of entry. Within three hours, while individuals are quarantined on-site, officials can confirm whether or not they are infected with the virus before allowing them to enter.
The response in the US has essentially been the opposite. Early on, most people seemed to assume it was a “Chinese,” or perhaps an “Asian,” issue—pandemics don’t happen in the US! This arrogant complacency allowed the public health authorities to let down their guard. Dozens of infected people, perhaps more, were allowed into the US and allowed—even encouraged—to go to work sick, hastening the spread of the virus.
When some of these people became ill with symptoms of Covid-19 and asked to be tested, they were refused because they didn’t have a direct connection to China, or they weren’t sick enough. It was a bit of a moot point, though, since the testing kit developed and distributed by the CDC was faulty and couldn’t be used. This unconscionable delay in testing, coupled with the fact that 25% of American workers lack sick leave, effectively forced people to return to work, spreading the infection further.
As I finish writing this, I am far up river in the remote southern part of Borneo, near Camp Leakey, Biruté Galdikas’s 50-year-old orangutan research center. I’ve been “off the grid” for the past two days, and am posting this via satellite. When I left, things were not looking good for the US, and (predictably) the virus had further polarized our already deeply divided country. The funny thing about viruses, though, is that they don’t care about political parties, or national boundaries, or net worth. All they care about is reproducing. And this one seems to be particularly good at it.
When I decided to go through with my travel plans to Southeast Asia, many people told me I was crazy. “You’re flying into the eye of the storm!” some said, looking at the infection numbers as of a few weeks ago. Now I can’t help but feel the same sense of surprise and horror at what’s unfolding back at home. The US and Europe are now the centers of the storm. Good luck to us all.
Spencer Wells is a geneticist, anthropologist, and a former Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society.