Since the onset of the pandemic, Singapore’s leadership has taken an active approach to manage the outbreak. This has meant swift responses, like border closures, stimulus packages, and the ‘circuit breaker’ measures imposed in April. Combined with the global toll that the novel coronavirus outbreak has taken, these interventions have led to unprecedented changes in Singaporeans’ way of life. While some of these changes are temporary, others are structural and will ultimately continue to impact the nation for years to come.
Still, there is a bright side to this dire situation: the resilience and ingenuity of Singaporeans.
With record-setting economic recession underway and likely to continue into the near future, the creative solutions that ordinary people and small business owners, in particular, have wrought to adapt to this new normal, are encouraging. Though it may be some time until the dust settles and we uncover the true impact of COVID-19 on Singaporeans, here are some of the high and low points thus far.
Who has been the hardest impacted by COVID-19?
Like most developed nations, Singapore has experienced high levels of economic contraction. The Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) noted in its Economic Survey of the First Quarter, several industries have been significantly hurt by coronavirus restrictions. With borders and several Changi airport terminals closed for some time to stop the spread of the virus, the hospitality, tourism, and aviation industries have been particularly hard hit.
When Circuit Breaker restrictions came into effect on April 7 to keep people at home, food and beverage providers and those providing in-person services have suffered massive losses. That two-month period marked a series of extreme challenges for many.
Small business owners were forced to make difficult decisions. Mr. Pan owned the five-year-old Boufe Boutique Café. Ultimately, the Circuit Breaker restrictions were too much for his restaurant to survive beyond the end of their lease set to expire in June. “We definitely did not foresee that things would deteriorate so rapidly,” he said. Instead of capitalizing on plans to expand in 2020 as they had looked forward to pre-COVID-19 impact, Mr. Lim of events space room2f is now focused on “survival for the rest of this year.”
Like many business owners without substantial savings, the task of continuing to pay expenses in the face of massive losses of income has been difficult. Many initially worked with salary cuts, then let part-time staff go, finally relieving full-time staff when they could no longer afford to keep them on. In the worst cases, thousands of businesses in Singapore have already closed for good.
Singapore’s government developed the Jobs Support Scheme to stem job cuts, sought rent relief from landlords, and other forms of economic intervention totaling tens of billions of dollars. Still, Singapore anticipates that the ranks of the hundreds of thousands of people unemployed within the first few months of the pandemic will continue to grow. If historic trends give any indication, periods of record unemployment lead to even more business closures.
Those who have borne the brunt of the impact from this pandemic are undoubtedly those who were already at the bottom of the ladder without the resources and reserves to cushion the blow and survive the transition to COVID-era operations.
Alarming outbreaks among migrant workers employed in construction marked the worst of the coronavirus resurgence. They exposed their vulnerable positions in society. Living in cramped, close quarters and without sufficient hygiene measures, COVID-19 spread quickly through migrant workers’ dormitories. To halt further exposure, drastic measures were employed. As a result, Singapore experienced significant construction delays and notable contraction within that sector of the economy.
Many who relied on Singapore’s robust domestic and international travel industry are now grappling with historic job losses. Hotels are empty, and with country borders tightly shut, aviation, responsible for almost 12% of Singapore’s GDP, is likely changed forever. Jobs in retail and tourist attractions look much different from what they did at the start of the year.
Though recovery may take a long time, we are optimistic that Singapore’s business model’s adaptability and strategic influence on global logistics, combined with Singaporeans’ resilience, will be what gets her through this.
Who has been the least impacted by COVID-19?
Several pockets of the economy were able to continue with business as usual, surviving the pandemic’s economic impact. The key markers of companies who have weathered the storm are their ability to digitize, adapt, or remain foundational to the economy. Finance, insurance and manufacturing firms performed better than expected. Thanks to biomedical manufacturing, including pharmaceutical and biological products, that sector has done well.
Other entities, like grocery stores, e-commerce, and IT solutions, have thrived despite the overall financial impact of COVID-19. As employers sent people to work from home, computing, telecommunications, and household equipment sales, like furniture, have surged. Domestic transportation fell sharply as people adopted to working remotely.
The Singaporeans who can work from home have carried on with little economic impact as their work continues.
The people and businesses that will survive are the ones who have the tools and ability to rapidly adapt to changing circumstances. Binary Style, who markets a signature collection of over 60 scarves, mainly to tourists, decided to pivot to producing reusable fabric masks. Santhi Tuna, one of the co-owners, says that “ the response has been very good so far—through the masks, new audiences are discovering our brand.”
Like the few restaurants which remain open, Ryan Clift, chef-owner of the Tippling Club, was caught up in the pandemic frenzy and forced to make some quick, hard decisions. Instead of serving his traditional upscale menu for delivery, he and his staff “went back to our roots in classic gastronomy.” Instead of wagyu beef entrees, his menu was now comprised of sandwiches, salads, desserts, Sunday roasts, and his mother’s leek and potato soup.
With savings to cover a few necessary expenses, Clift and his staff got creative. They, like many other restaurants, revamped their website, and made the shift to delivery. Initially, it was a disaster, but the team got the hang of it. They crafted cocktails for delivery and, in partnership with liquor companies, hosted special virtual events on zoom. The Virtual Tattoo Party, a margarita making class, and a sake master class with food demonstration met with resounding approval from their customers.
Lifestyle businesses, like Balanced Living, a wellness boutique, and their sister-restaurant, The Living Café, who offers plant-based foods, used the pandemic to support their community with dramatic success. Owner Emma Paris said that her staff began offering yoga classes and seminars on Zoom. They covered topics like how to optimize immunity, manage stress and anxiety that were popular with clients.
Though restaurant operations scaled back significantly, some took the opportunity to offer island-wide delivery jobs. Businesses that embraced technology such as e-commerce have fared better than their peers.
As restrictions are being lifted phase by phase, retail jobs and activity have continued to pick up. However, health and safety measures still in place make it hard to say when normal activity levels will resume for many businesses.
The COVID-19 pandemic has touched every part of Singapore. Some have remarked earlier in the year that nature was thriving for the first time in recent history. Without meticulous landscaping during the lockdown, rarely seen wildflowers cropped up, bringing a noticeable increase in butterflies along with them. As a result, people began calling for more and wilder green spaces to serve as destinations during this era of the coronavirus.
Though the losses are still racking up around the world, it is easy to take solace in the fact that Singaporeans will work hard to revive their industries. Though that will call for significant changes, the pause and reset that COVID-19 has demanded of Singapore will be met with purpose, ingenuity, and the knack for capitalizing on opportunity that her people have.
The impact of COVID-19 on Singaporeans and Singapore jobs is dramatic, forever altering the ways that they do business and move through the world. But the spirit of creativity, consistency, and adaptability that pervades will hopefully be the tenacious seed for future growth.
Have you or anyone you know been impacted by Covid-19?
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