You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Coronavirus: Singapore should encourage working from home over closing schools, report says

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 6 days ago Dewey Sim in Singapore
a large body of water with a city in the background: The Merlion Park waterfront stands empty in Singapore on March 24. Photo: Bloomberg © Bloomberg The Merlion Park waterfront stands empty in Singapore on March 24. Photo: Bloomberg
  • Researchers writing in The Lancet recommended the distancing measure as a ‘continually high’ percentage of infections occurred in the workplace
  • Singaporeans are of the mentality that commitment to their jobs means spending longer hours in the office, according to a health expert

Singapore authorities would be better off encouraging half the country’s employees to work from home rather than closing schools if the coronavirus situation worsens in the city state, as a “continually high” percentage of infections occurred at the workplace, according to a report in The Lancet medical journal.

The proposal was among the suggestions in a March 23 report funded by the country’s Ministry of Health and the Singapore Population Health Improvement Centre that investigated the use of four intervention methods to tackle the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

The methods were isolating individuals diagnosed with Covid-19; quarantining family members of those infected; closing schools; and workplace distancing, in which 50 per cent of the workforce is encouraged to work from home for two weeks.

After examining Singapore’s first 243 infections – of which 68 were imported and 175 locally acquired – and running a simulation based on low infectivity or transmission levels, the report’s authors found that combining the four intervention methods could help the Lion City prevent a national outbreak.

If infectivity levels were high, the methods could “reduce the number of total infections considerably”, the report said.

“Despite heightened surveillance and isolation of individuals suspected to have Covid-19 and confirmed cases, the risk is ongoing, with the number of cases continuing to increase in Singapore,” it said. “Immediate deployment of interventions will be required to contain the outbreak in the event that significant secondary local transmission is observed within the community.”

There are currently 558 cases and two deaths in Singapore, which has maintained that most of its recent cases are imported ones and are mostly Singapore citizens or residents who have returned from virus-hit areas such as the United States and Britain.

In the Lancet paper, the researchers said the high employment rates among working-age individuals in the city state – at around 98 per cent – could make workplace distancing a more effective measure than school closures, without elaborating as to what such measures would entail.

The paper highlighted how at this “early stage” of the coronavirus outbreak, symptomatic children had higher withdrawal rates from school than symptomatic adults from work – meaning that adult workers were more likely to go to the workplace when they were unwell.

Jeremy Lim, co-director of the Global Health Programme at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said one reason for this behaviour was many Singaporeans’ mentality that they were showing commitment to their jobs by spending longer hours at the workplace.

“This is why adults are more willing to just mask up or take some paracetamol so they can get through the temperature screenings [when entering workplaces],” he said.

In schools, however, the education ministry has enforced regular temperature screenings to identify those who were unwell. “Schools, from a very early stage, have also been practising social distancing so there were limited opportunities [for the infection] to spread among them,” Lim said.

Singapore has put in place various social distancing measures in a bid to curb the spread of the virus. On Tuesday, it announced that it would ban gatherings of more than 10 people outside work and school, in addition to shutting bars, cinemas and other entertainment venues from Friday until the end of April.

While the health ministry said tuition and enrichment classes would also be called off, the country has yet to shut schools, with hundreds of thousands of students returning to school on Monday after a week of school holidays.

Despite growing calls for schools to be closed – in keeping with the likes of Hong Kong, parts of Indonesia, and Thailand – Singapore’s education minister Ong Ye Kung reasoned that the city state’s enhanced social distancing measures would allow daily activities, including attending school, to carry on as usual.

Singapore’s 558 cases include 17 people below the age of 20, including a 12-year-old student from Raffles Institution.

“With the virus being around for several months now, there is a body of scientific evidence showing that Covid-19 does not affect the young very much as compared to adults,” Ong wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday, citing Dale Fisher, the chair of the World Health Organisation’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network.

“Neither is there evidence to show that the young are vectors or spreaders of the virus. The reverse appears to be the case, where the young get infected by adults at home.”

The Lancet paper noted that school closures had been used in the past to limit the spread of hand, foot, and mouth disease “because children generally have high contact rates with their peers in the school environment”.

“However, at present, data on the susceptibility of children to [Covid-19] infection, the number of infected children in Singapore, and the probability of children becoming symptomatic are limited, making school closure less desirable than workplace distancing.”

Lim from the National University of Singapore also said some workplaces were not prepared to take on major virus outbreaks such as Covid-19, and did not have checks or social distancing measures in place.

“Numerically, there are many more adults in the workplace than there are children in school and workers spend much more time interacting with each other over a workday including meals, thus leading to higher likelihood of transmission among workers rather than children.”

Even so, Singapore’s national development minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs a multi-ministerial task force that deals with the virus, on Wednesday said closing schools would be an option if the country needed to take further action.

“We have already put in place quite strict place measures recently. The next step, if it’s necessary, would be suspension of schools, which has to also go together with the closure of some workplaces, except for those providing essential services,” he said in parliament.

Wong explained that school closures would likely take place alongside workplace closures as many parents would have to look after their children.

“If we see more locally transmitted cases, particularly unlinked ones, and that continues to rise despite all that we are doing with strict, safe distancing measures, then we may well need to activate the next step of brakes to slow down the spread of the virus,” he said.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. 

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

More from South China Morning Post

South China Morning Post
South China Morning Post
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon