United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
By Calum Handforth, Thematic Lead on Digitalization and Smart Cities, UNDP Singapore
Singapore was one of the first countries hit by the coronavirus, COVID-19. The city state’s early response, which included cash incentives to work from home, chatbots and a national Whatsapp channel to educate and inform citizens, has earned praise from the World Health Organization and in scientific research.
The COVID-19 response was greatly helped by Singapore’s extensive digital transformation work, which has accelerated since the launch of the Singapore Smart Nation initiative in 2014.
Singapore’s digital approach addressed all four stages of an epidemic; surveillance, prevention and containment, diagnosis, and treatment.
Disease surveillance is about identifying the source. In Singapore, the government employed extensive contact-tracing using digital technology. ‘Digital signatures’ or the trail of tech-related crumbs we leave during the course of our daily life, including cash withdrawals and card payments, are being tracked to identify individuals who have been in contact with those infected with COVID-19. However, any such monitoriing must be founded on a commitment to accountability and transparency.
Geographic and demographic data of confirmed cases is also published online in order to limit panic, and to encourage those who think they’ve been exposed to the virus to seek healthcare.
Extensive surveillance isn’t always successful; so you must also prevent further transmission, and containment of the infected to stop wider spread.
Singapore has introduced a wide range of digital interventions to improve public health. This includes using online tools to direct citizens to locations dispensing government-issued surgical masks (MaskGoWhere) and highlighting healthcare facilities focusing on respiratory illnesses (FluGoWhere). These two sites received more than 1.4 million visits in just a few days.
A national WhatsApp channel has more than 630,000 subscribers, whilst chatbots for citizens and businesses have answered more than 75,000 COVID-19 related queries. The government has also mandated use of SMS and web-based platforms to ensure that those in quarantine stay at home.
Technology has played a key role in COVID-19 diagnosis. The trial of an AI-driven smartphone-based temperature checker, which drastically increases the amount of possible simultaneous temperature measurements, moved to larger-scale trials in major public areas in just a matter of days.
The government also targeted research and development to develop their own nucleic acid testing kits which shorten the results processing time, and allows testing of suspected cases at priority locations such as airports. Communication has also been important, particularly in tackling misinformation.
Singapore’s COVID-19 treatment efforts can be split into the short and long term. More immediately, the country is focusing on research into effective treatment options, including remaining alert to novel drug candidates, and potential vaccine candidates.
These efforts align with Singapore’s focus on becoming a global leader in DeepTech, a strategy being driven by the Global Centre’s partner, SGInnovate.
In the longer term, the government is also engaging with the consequences of COVID-19, including relaxing hiring restrictions in manufacturing and services industries, and expanding reskilling efforts into sectors particularly affected by the disease. They’ve even developed a Pacman-esque online game to discourage panic-buying.
The UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainable Development, based in Singapore, has seen this response up close.
We are partnering with the Smart Nation Programme Office in Singapore to better understand the fundamentals of Singapore's response plan, and the potential implications for UNDP’s work around the world.
The real time lessons will continue to shape the global disease response, particularly as the pandemic spreads.
Scientific research has highlighted that potentially 2.8 times the number of COVID-19 cases could have been recognized worldwide, and therefore managed better, if all the countries coping with the virus now had taken this approach.
Singapore’s response was built on robust digital foundations. It has also been driven by the incredible efforts of people, start-ups and institutions. Technology is not a panacea in any situation. But when applied strategically it can catalyze human talent, dedication and leadership. Such an approach is important to consider as countries continue to tackle COVID-19, and in future responses to other global challenges.
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