Speech by Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat at the Temasek Shophouse Conversations on "COVID-19 Lessons for Disease X" on 20 January 2021.
It is almost a year to the day since Singapore reported our first COVID-19 case. Back then, no one expected that this virus would take the world by storm. One year in, the pandemic is still raging in many parts of the world. Almost 100 million people have been infected. More than 2 million have died. Many countries seemed to “bend the curve” at first, but then saw new waves of infection. The rapid development of effective vaccines has allowed us to start 2021 with a glimmer of hope, but we must not assume that it is the silver bullet. Time will be needed to produce, distribute and administer the vaccine. The discovery of more infectious strains is a reminder that this pandemic is far from over.
We must be prepared for more twists and turns before the pandemic ends. We must continue to remain vigilant and adapt to the situation. But the one-year mark is also a good time to reflect on the lessons we have learnt so far.
This will enable us to strengthen our fight against COVID-19 and increase our preparedness for the next outbreak. Because Disease X is not a matter of if, but when. The lessons from SARS in 2003 put us in a better position for COVID-19. We trained healthcare and frontline workers to better deal with infectious disease outbreaks. We expanded and upgraded our medical facilities. COVID-19 also taught us that the nature of each virus, and indeed, of each crisis, is different. There will be more lessons to be learnt, and some to be unlearnt, before this crisis is over. The key is to stay nimble and learn as we go.
But as Mr Richard Magnus said earlier, we must work together and learn together. As I reflected on my initial takeaways from COVID-19, let me share three fundamentals that will strengthen our overall resilience to take on Disease X.
Role of Science and Technology
First, is the critical role of science and tech around the world in combatting COVID-19. The rapid development of test kits and therapeutics allowed for effective detection and treatment. The deployment of digital solutions augmented contact tracing efforts. Many other innovations enabled businesses and people to adapt and maintain some degree of normalcy during this crisis. Several vaccines have been authorised for use in record time, providing a means to shorten the pandemic.
In Singapore, our capabilities in biomedical sciences and infectious diseases supported our pandemic response, and also enabled us to contribute to this global effort. For example, we developed several diagnostic test-kits, including: The Fortitude PCR test kits, which is now used in more than 45 countries, and cPass, the first serology test for neutralising antibodies to be authorised for emergency use by the US FDA. These capabilities did not happen by chance. The technology platforms that we have built up over the decades, helped accelerate the development and productisation of these solutions.
Science and tech will continue to give countries an edge in recovering from this pandemic and tackling the next one. The lesson here is that countries must continue to invest in R&D, even during an economic downturn. Drawing from our experiences over the past year, the global community will need to anticipate and plan ahead. For example, learning from the role of asymptomatic transmission in the spread of COVID-19, we can more quickly develop and scale diagnostic testing. AI can be harnessed to develop better modeling and early warning systems, and also identify potential treatments from existing medical databases. At the same time, it is equally important to sustain basic research and broaden our research foundations, because we can never fully anticipate what Disease X will look like, and the scientific expertise needed to combat it.
Singapore is committed to investing in science and technology. Last month, I announced that we will be investing S$25 billion in research, innovation and enterprise over the next five years. This includes a strong commitment to basic research and a key focus on biomedical sciences, health, and human potential.
By growing our scientific bases, countries will be better able to confront Disease X. And by working across borders, the impact of these efforts will be greatly amplified and accelerated.
This brings me to my second point – the importance of global cooperation in fighting a pandemic. Earlier this week, the WHO independent review panel highlighted how governments and public health organisations worldwide could have done much better at the start of the crisis. There are important lessons that we should learn from, so that we can react more swiftly, and with greater coordination for the next pandemic. This is critical given how inter-connected and inter-dependent we are as a global community.
Despite these shortcomings, there were still bright spots. For example, we witnessed an unprecedented level of information sharing and cooperation in science and technology. The first genome sequences of COVID-19 were shared by China’s scientists through the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data or GISAID. Since then, GISAID has received more than 380,000 genome sequences of the virus from 145 countries.
Singapore played a useful role in setting up and maintaining the genomic database for COVID-19, together with others around the globe. As the volume of submissions increased, our team developed new algorithms and computational tools to facilitate curation. GISAID provided a critical foundation for understanding the virus, and the development of tests, therapeutics and vaccines. Continued cooperation also enables scientists to study mutations and the implications to epidemic spread, and assess whether diagnostic tests and vaccines remain effective. Learning from this example, we must do more to further strengthen and institutionalise the exchange of information across borders for future pandemics.
Another encouraging development is the strengthening of multi-stakeholder global partnerships. The COVAX Facility is the most prominent of such partnerships. It brings together governments, global health organisations, manufacturers, civil society and philanthropy, to ensure that vaccines are distributed in a fair and equitable manner. This global cooperation has built remarkable momentum, with 190 economies participating. The COVAX Advance Market Commitment has raised more than US$2 billion so far, to ensure equitable access to vaccines for low-and-middle income economies. Notably, this funding effort is anchored not just by countries but also by philanthropic organisations. For example, the third largest donor is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The lesson here is that such global cooperation, comprising multiple stakeholders and at such scale and complexity, is possible when we are united around a common purpose. It is worth remembering that the COVAX initiative was started early in the crisis, when vaccine nationalism appeared to be rising.
Going forward, we must recognise that no one is safe until everyone is safe. We should therefore work together to ensure that there is swift, safe and equitable access to vaccines.
With a unity of purpose, I am hopeful that we can build on the momentum of COVAX in support of vaccine multilateralism. This partnership model is also an important template to help address funding and access shortfalls for future health pandemics.
We must encourage and nurture such global multi-stakeholder partnerships. This will strengthen the resilience of the current global order in overcoming the present crisis, and puts us on a stronger footing to confront Disease X and other global challenges.
Solidarity of our People
Beyond expanding the breadth of our partnerships across countries, we must also strengthen our collective response at home. My third point is on strengthening society’s response to the pandemic.
COVID is not just a crisis on the public health front, it is also a crisis on the economic and societal fronts.
The solidarity of many societies has been tested – the crisis deepened fault-lines in some societies, even to the point of triggering riots along racial lines. But in others, people have come together with a renewed sense of purpose to combat the crisis.
COVID-19 has been an extremely difficult year for Singapore and Singaporeans, especially during the circuit breaker. But I am heartened that our people showed unity and solidarity in the face of adversity. Singaporeans demonstrated tremendous generosity, care and initiative – from sewing masks for the community to reaching out to our seniors. When clusters broke out in our migrant worker dorms, many stepped forward to provide food and essentials, translate advisories, and extend a hand of friendship. Despite the recession, Giving.SG reported a record amount of donations last year, and ComChest received more donations last year than in the previous year.
Many companies have also risen to the challenge. Several Temasek Portfolio Companies and their network of partners turned 10 empty halls at Singapore Expo into an 8,000-bed community care facility in just four weeks. And their contributions extend to many other areas. Temasek Foundation distributed reusable masks to all residents, face shields to schoolchildren, and hand sanitizers to all households.
The lesson here is that we must work on strengthening our unity as one people in good times, so that we can stand strong, and stand together and weather future crises and pandemics when they strike.
This is especially important for Singapore, as we are more diverse than ever before. Differences are often sharpened in times of crisis, making us more vulnerable to the forces of division.
To enhance our sense of unity, I launched the Singapore Together movement two years ago to harness our diversity as a vital source of strength, and encourage more Singaporeans to come forth and contribute to nation building.
Each of us can do our part to make a difference. Together, we can make a bigger difference. I am glad that the Singapore Together movement has gained momentum, before and during the crisis.
I invite all of you to join us in this effort, to build a brighter future that is more resilient to the next pandemic and other future crises that may erupt.
The fight against COVID-19 will be long drawn, as it is a crisis on so many fronts, affecting the entire global community. We must remain vigilant and continue to adapt, and expect the unexpected. There will be many more lessons to be learnt before the pandemic ends. COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic.
As we mark the first anniversary of COVID-19 in Singapore, it is useful to reflect on what the pandemic has taught us so far, and the fundamentals that we will need to strengthen. COVID-19 has shown us that global cooperation involving multiple stakeholders at significant scale and complexity is possible, if we have a common cause. The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of collaboration at home, so that we can face crises with unity and solidarity.
I call on all of you – including companies and philanthropies – to further step forward to overcome COVID-19 and build a more resilient future, for Singapore and the world. I hope you will find greater inspiration to do so today.
Stay safe, stay healthy, and have a fruitful conference.
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