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5,000 Covid-19 cases a day: How should we rate the Multi-Ministry Task Force as it pivots to a new “normal”?

P N Balji, my former SPH colleague, has given the Multi-Ministry Task Force on Covid-19 a six out of 10 rating for its handling of the pandemic so far. He said in his Facebook blog, The New Singapore, headlined, “Singapore’s patchy Covid-19 report card”: “I gave the leadership a seven out of 10 rating when I started thinking of writing this commentary. After speaking to many concerned Singaporeans and thinking about it more intensely, I am giving it a six.” What’s your assessment?

Balji’s main argument, which in my opinion reflected the sentiments of some of the more discerning social media crowd besides the concerned Singaporeans he had been talking to, was “whether the MTF had the confidence to take decision action. They are civil servants moved to senior positions based on their scholastic achievements and their track record in a risk-free environment. Even their entry into ministerial positions came through a silver platter. So when it comes to making decisions in an uncertain situation and with so little information, they make decisions that won’t affect their career progression.”

On top of that, because Lawrence Wong and Ong Ye Kung, two of the co-chairs, were perceived to be leading 4G contenders to take over the national leadership since Mr East Coast Plan and Mr Cotton had gone sideways, why would they want to jeopardise their golden paths by being too clever by half?

This was what I wrote two weeks ago: “The MTF’s record since December 2020? A mixed bag of results. Low fatalities but at a price – a patient but restless community and a disrupted economy.

“I believe it is also in some kind of dilemma…the MTF is risk-averse…The government’s hope is that this battle against Covid-19 would be the crucible on which the 4G leaders earn their bond with Singaporeans. Because they are being watched, Lawrence Wong and company would understandably be less inclined to take big risks. Or should they – now?”

The real test for Wong and Ong (and Gan Kim Yong) is now taking place as they prepare Singaporeans for a new phase of the battle.

Ong said on Friday (Sept 25): “Singapore’s current case count of 1,600 cases a day translates to about 26 cases per 100,000 population. In contrast, countries such as America and Britain are seeing about 40 to 50 cases per 100,000 population, while the corresponding figure for other European countries that have reached an equilibrium is about seven to 10.”

The MTF’s strategy for arriving at a “new equilibrium” is being presented as an unavoidable best-case scenario. If I may interpret: “We have avoided the cost of many lives, we are now well vaccinated and better protected, the economy has to get back on its feet and move on or we will suffer permanent damage, we will ramp up healthcare facilities. We will experience large waves of cases in the four-figure range (with 5,000 a day not ruled out) as we undergo the rite of passage to the new endemic normal of living with the virus.”

Sounds sensible and rational? After all these months of circuit-breaker, heightened alert, stone-by-stone calibrated approach, no Big Bang, the MTF is prepared to bite the bullet – or face the consequences of being excessively cautious.

Two very big stones or obstacles will test the MTF’s resolve and wits. These have been quietly left out of the main narrative of returning to a new normal.

What are we going to do with the 300,000 migrant workers in the dormitories? For the time being, the government says it will release 500 workers to specific location in a trial re-entry programme. MTF daily updates have mentioned a number of virus cases already detected among dormitory workers (unclear where).

And there are the reported 350,000 Malaysian workers who used to move up and down the Causeway every day. Unconfirmed reports say half of these have returned. What are the virus risks here?

These two groups of people are not small. What are the long-term plans for their re-entry and re-integration?

At the same time, the search for the New Equilibrium would be a great opportunity for the 4G leaders to spell out what kind of post-pandemic Singapore they have worked out or envisioned for younger Singaporeans. What has dealing with Covid-19 taught these leaders? The healthcare system, education, economy, jobs, caring for the less fortunate fellow citizens, social responsibilities, problem-solving – what have they learnt to make them better leaders as they work for a better Singapore?

If it is not possible to do all this at the MTF press conferences, they can and should use other platforms to talk about their experiences.

The MTF should not be just about numbers. The Coronavirus pandemic must surely be one of the most pivotal events in history.

Hence, I am not giving the MTF any rating just yet. History – or maybe the 2025 general elections – will be the final arbiter.

Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.Follow us on Social Media

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