Much ink has been spilt on the devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic. At the height of the pandemic, countries were forced to lock down their economies, which wrecked businesses and workers alike.
In Singapore, the pandemic had forced us to rethink how we live, work, and play.
Work-from-home became the default working arrangement overnight as employees were barred from returning to the office. Schools and tuition centres had to opt for online lessons in place of physical lessons. Mask-wearing became mandatory, as was the practice of safe distancing.
Then, in late April, the Singapore government relaxed massive restrictions, removing group size limits, making mask-wearing optional outside, and allowing all workers to return to the office. In addition, Singaporeans may feel liberated by no longer having to check-in to malls using their TraceTogether tokens. For a moment, it seemed as if things were getting back to normal.
While such developments point to a semblance of normalcy, the notion that life is ‘back to normal’ narrowly assumes that we have returned to pre-pandemic times.
This is simply not the case.
In fact, even if the Covid-19 pandemic were to end (with some predicting that that’ll likely happen this year), we cannot afford to go back to how things were before. It’s in our nature to respond to new threats and challenges through constant improvement. The pandemic has challenged us to think about new ways of living — ways that help us to bounce back stronger from a crisis.
This way of thinking is in line with what the public intellectual Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to as antifragility.
According to Taleb, a system is antifragile when it’s able to adapt to adverse circumstances in order to become more resilient the next time a similar crisis occurs. In short: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Antifragile systems are observed in just about every facet of life, from social systems like the economy to natural systems like the human body. Without shocks or stressors, antifragile systems can never be developed.
With that said, while the pandemic may have had a deleterious impact on our lives, we can rise above the occasion and build back better in a post-Covid-19 world.
Take healthcare for example. During the peak of the Omicron wave, public healthcare institutions had been strained (although not completely overwhelmed) thanks to a massive surge in infections and hospitalization cases that went into the thousands.
Patients had to be relocated to public hospitals as nursing homes, community and private hospitals lacked the capacity to manage them. To add to the problem, healthcare workers were resigning in droves as the pandemic wore on.
So, what would an antifragile healthcare system look like?
Ramping up bed capacities and personal protection kits (PPEs) would be one way to go. In the event of an unpredicted surge in hospitalizations, there would be an adequate number of beds for patients and PPEs for healthcare workers.
In his book Capacity-building and Pandemics, Jun Jie Woo writes about the importance of systems to develop excess capacity — or what he calls ‘slack’. In normal times, an excess supply of beds and healthcare equipment may seem inefficient or even redundant, but these would be greatly beneficial in times of crisis.
Additionally, healthcare workers deserve more recognition, and what better way to show public appreciation than by increasing their salaries? To combat attrition rates, healthcare workers could (and probably should) be paid higher wages. Fortunately, this is already happening, with public health nurses seeing their monthly salaries rise by up to 14 per cent, while other workers in the public healthcare sector receive pay increments of up to 7 per cent.
Besides healthcare, education is also another area of concern. It’s no surprise that the pandemic has disrupted student learning tremendously; overseas studies found that school closures can set students back one-third to a half years’ worth of learning, with long-term effects suggesting that these students could lose up to $17 trillion in lifetime earnings.
An upside to all of this is that the pandemic has led to the widespread uptake of digital communication technologies to foster home-based learning.
To this end, the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) launched the Singapore Student Learning Space (SLS) in 2018, which seeks to “empower students to have self-directed and self-paced learning.” In addition, MOE accelerated its plan to provide all secondary school students with a personal learning device by the end of 2021 rather than 2028. This is to ensure that no child falls behind in today’s increasingly digitized society.
While home-based learning (and digital technology, for that matter) may not be a perfect substitute for physical-based lessons, such efforts are critical to ensure that learning continues despite pandemic-related disruptions.
For teachers, a great deal of social support is needed to preserve and strengthen their overall well-being. To this end, MOE launched the Wellness Ambassador Initiative, which entails wellness ambassadors checking up on teachers who may be at risk of poor mental health. However, it remains to be seen how effective a ‘controlled’ peer support network like this will be in the future.
The fact that our public healthcare and education systems continued to function amid the pandemic owes itself largely to good governance. Trusting the government is certainly crucial to building a strong and healthy social compact. Yet, as we move into an increasingly uncertain and ambiguous world, governance — and to a large extent, policymaking — has to be constantly renewed in order to tackle future threats and crises.
Drawing up and communicating policies that substantially affect people’s lives and livelihoods require deep knowledge of how seemingly disparate systems (like education and healthcare) work, as well as their capacity to handle disruptions.
For instance, how can we ensure that when a crisis hits, our education system is still able to maintain its core functions (such as teaching)? Better yet, what government policies can be developed to strengthen the education system such that it will be less prone to similar disruptions in the future?
Policymaking can be a daunting task. Given that we live in a complex and unpredictable world, it is harder for policymakers and experts alike to create effective policies that cater to the needs of everyone.
Moreover, social issues are cross-cutting in nature and often do not have straightforward solutions. While providing students with a personal learning device may plug the gaps in learning, students from lower-income backgrounds may not have access to the internet. How then, do we address the systemic issue of digital poverty in Singapore?
Governance in the 21st century requires broad cooperation and collaboration from experts in diverse fields. Thus, a concerted effort should be made by governments and relevant stakeholders to formulate strategies and contingencies that spell out the trade-offs and risks involved. And of course, transparency is key when articulating policy-related matters.
By doing so, policymakers can tap into a broader range of resources, knowledge, and perspectives to deal with intricate and multifaceted issues.
Civil servant Peter Ho calls this a ‘whole-of-government’ approach. He encourages government agencies to cooperate and collaborate with one another by sharing relevant information rather than keeping it within bureaucratic silos, since no single agency alone has the capacity to tackle a complex and wicked problem.
Moving Forward and Onward
There are plenty of lessons that can be learned from the Covid-19 crisis. Still, it is impressive that the Singapore government has worked with relevant stakeholders to help mitigate the fallout from the pandemic.
But, will Singapore become antifragile in the wake of the current pandemic? Only time will tell. From the looks of it, the country seems to be heading in the right direction.
That being said, Covid-19 will not be the last crisis humankind has to face — future pandemics, climate change, terrorism, and other wicked challenges will continue to loom on the horizon. It is therefore incumbent upon us as a society to learn from our mistakes whenever a crisis hits and remain antifragile in the face of future threats.