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Tag: Singapore

What Can We Learn from Covid-19

(Source: Duke Health)

I’ve been reflecting a bit on what government officials & policymakers should learn from the Covid-19 crisis. While history, with the benefit of hindsight and data, will be the ultimate judge, a few things jump out to me as obvious:

  1. A few decades lucky streak of no major pandemic should not make anyone complacent on the importance of public health. Many Americans, at the onset of the crisis, simply assumed that pandemics were like the bubonic plague or ebola: concerns for a faraway time and place. But the unpleasant reality is infections have been with us since before civilization and will continue long after the current crisis ends. All our modern conveniences and sophistication don’t mean a damn to a microbe. As a result, making sure public health leadership and infrastructure is in place and has the emergency powers and resources it needs when crisis hits is absolutely vital.
  2. I think there are very good reasons to want a single payer healthcare system, and plenty of reasons to be wary of one. But, despite the efforts of pundits, I think Covid-19 is largely irrelevant to this debate. The practical reality is many countries with single payer systems (like those in Europe) appear to have been completely incapable of managing this while some without it (ie China) have. This is not to say China did everything perfectly (obviously they didn’t and I pray they’ve learned this time to permanently shut down wildlife wet markets) nor that single payer systems are to blame for whats happening in places like Italy (it’s not). But even holding aside how the term “single payer” papers over important nuances about how different “single payer” systems mix different levels of private coverage in, the truth of the matter is that countries that have been able to control and contain the disease share more around bold actions by public health officials than they do around how exactly healthcare is provisioned. The “Medicare for all” debate needs to be had and resolved — I’m not cheapening that — but I just don’t think Covid-19 is particularly relevant for either side of it.
  3. Sick leave is critical for public health. People who are sick need to feel like they can stay home and not jeopardize their financial well being. Otherwise economic activity (which we can’t all avoid: everyone eventually needs food even when locked down on quarantine) becomes increasingly the domain of those who are sick but forced to be working from economic desperation.
  4. Confused and contradictory messaging from government officials is NOT helpful. When different officials give wildly different responses (see Devin Nunes encouraging people to go out for dinner earlier Sunday vs. the Director of NIAID advocating for a national lockdown), is it any wonder that the public can’t tell how seriously to take this? On the one hand, we have toilet paper shortages at stores and on the other hand people in this club in Nashville last night are partying as if nothing was happening).
  5. I’ve had a number of conversations with smart people I respect who have commented on the difference in reaction to the crisis in “the West” (US, UK, Europe) vs “the East” (China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore). Its hard to have this sort of conversation without racial undertones creeping in, but its also hard to ignore the chorus of commentators who believe that East Asian countries were able to more quickly implement systems and policies many in the West initially thought were harsh and excessive because they have the type of governance systems & culture to support it — individual rights and preferences be damned. I’m sure a big part of this is that these governments had “practice” with SARS at the turn of the century, but I think we’ll need to think long and hard about some of the tradeoffs a highly federated governance system oriented around the rights of the individual have.
  6. The internet may not have been this before but its certainly now a utility that is necessary for education and the modern workforce. We should act accordingly as it pertains to increasing access and maintaining it as an open platform for all.

Stay safe everyone — here’s to being able to pontificate more with you all (online or in-person when the crisis is over)! đźŤ¸

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Singapore to Combat Dengue with Social Media

(Cross posted to Bench Press)

Singapore is a fascinating country – despite the lack of what most in the West would recognize as democratic freedom, it consistently ranks well in terms of lack of corruption and high and growing standard of living for its people.

It is also one of the boldest when it comes to instituting policies and reforms: they were the first to implement a congestion tax to help manage traffic. Unlike most countries, Singapore is open to competition and investment from foreigners in strategic areas like telecommunications, power generation, and financial services. Singapore has also been extremely active in attempting to build up its capabilities as a center for life sciences excellence.

So it shouldn’t surprise me that they are among the first countries to actively utilize social media applications like Facebook and Twitter to help deal with a public health risk like Dengue Fever (from The Jakarta Globe):

The city-state’s National Environment Agency (NEA) plans to roll out … providing information on the latest dengue clusters or areas that have been earmarked as high-risk – on these new media platforms within the next three months … Through Facebook and Twitter, the public will also be able to post feedback or provide tip-offs. For example, if Singaporeans notice an increase in the number of mosquitoes in your neighbourhood or find potential breeding sites, they can alert NEA officers by posting on the agency’s Facebook page or tweeting the NEA account. “We need to put more information out in the public space, so more people can be informed and take action,” said Derek Ho, director of the environmental health department at NEA. “Leveraging on new media channels such as Facebook and Twitter is a good way to do that.”

A refreshing understanding of the uses of social media by a government agency – more interesting than that, though, is the work Singapore’s NEA is doing to build image recognition capabilities into smartphone apps like the NEA’s iPhone app to help field workers (and potentially the public) track and identify mosquitos and mosquito larvae!

The NEA is also in the process of developing a mosquito-recognition program that can identify the species of mosquito from a photograph of its pupae or larvae. With such software, and with the help of a mini microscope that attaches to the camera on a personal digital assistant or cellphone, NEA officers will be able to take photographs of larvae or pupae found in mosquito-breeding sites and instantly find out if they belong to the Aedes species, which spreads dengue … When it is ready, the agency hopes to be able to integrate it with the NEA iPhone application, so that the public or grassroots members conducting checks around the neighbourhood can use the technology as well.
Early identification will allow the NEA to act more swiftly to curb the spread of dengue in potential high-risk zones.

Very cool demonstration of the power of smartphones and of a government that is motivated to try out new technologies to tackle serious problems.

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Russia dreams of Silicon Valley sheep

image The Economist has an interesting article on the Kremlin’s latest push to modernize Russia’s economy and kick-start a wave of innovation which would supposedly lead to a “Russia with nuclear-powered spaceships and supercomputers.”

Far-fetched as this premise sounded, the article raised many thought-provoking questions on whether or not (and how) Russia could hope to build an innovation hub similar to the US’s Silicon Valley. One tidbit I found very interesting was that this isn’t the first time the Kremlin has tried something like this. Apparently, the Soviet Union, had attempted something similar in the past with very interesting political ramifications:

In the 1930s leading Soviet engineers arrested by Stalin laboured in special prison laboratories within the gulag. After the war, when Stalin required an atomic bomb, a special secret town was established where nuclear physicists lived in relative comfort, but still surrounded by barbed wire. Subsequently hundreds of secret construction bureaus, research institutes and scientific towns were set up across the Soviet Union to serve the military-industrial complex. They also spawned a technical intelligentsia. In the 1980s it was this class of educated people—permitted more freedom and better food than the rest of the country, but still poorly paid and not allowed to go abroad—that became the support base of perestroika [former Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to liberalize/open up the Soviet Union which ultimately resulted in its collapse].

Russia’s rulers, however, seem keen on breaking this link between political openness/democracy and innovation:

Yet the experience of Mr. Gorbachev’s perestroika—which started with talk of technological renewal but ended in the collapse of the Soviet system—has persuaded the Kremlin to define modernisation strictly within technological boundaries. Hence Mr Medvedev’s warning not to rush political reforms. His supporters argue that only authoritarian government is capable of bringing the country into the 21st century. “Consolidated state power is the only instrument of modernisation in Russia. And, let me assure you, it is the only one possible,” said Vladislav Surkov [the Kremlin’s “chief ideologist” who put forth the current plan]

Is Surkov right about the lack of importance of democracy and political freedom? It’s hard to say for sure, but the success of the Asian tigers (esp. Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and China) in this arena suggests that, at first glance, Surkov is right. Innovation and rapid economic growth do not require democracy so much as:

  1. effective and (relatively) un-corrupt governments
  2. free market systems which allow for consumer/business choice and property rights protection
  3. government investment in “innovation hubs” (e.g., Silicon Valley) where companies/universities/individuals readily share insights and collaborate

Of course, the flip side of the argument, is that its pretty rare for (1) and (2) to exist without democracy and at least basic political systems in place around due process and the respect for individual rights.

imageA successful attempt on (3) is difficult, regardless of the type of government authority (think of the countless failed attempts by cities, states, and countries to replicate Silicon Valley), but is especially difficult for “command regimes” in attempting to encourage innovation. It’s much simpler for an authoritarian government to find ways to double steel production (a la the Soviet Union’s Five-Year Plans) than it is for an authoritarian regime to encourage the trial & error, open exchange of ideas, and “disorganized” development which is necessary to drive innovative technology disruptions (which by definition can’t be “commanded”).

I’ve even heard it theorized that one reason the Soviet military elite allowed the perestroika which helped lead to its eventual collapse was their recognition that authoritarian regimes were not effective at encouraging the sort of innovation needed to build the computer technology which was giving (and still gives) the US its military advantage over the rest of the world.

But the harshest (and snarkiest) indictment of Russia’s short-sighted strategy here comes at the end of the Economist piece:

Mr Surkov is quite right when he argues that democracy would not stimulate technical innovation. The reason for this, however, is that under democracy a country with a declining population, a frighteningly high rate of birth defects, crumbling infrastructure and deteriorating schools might find a better use for taxpayers’ money than pouring it into Mr. Surkov’s Silicon Valley dreams.

Russia’s economy will likely grow quickly, regardless of the success of the Kremlin’s latest plans, by virtue of its resourceful population and economic convergence, but I suspect its future in terms of quality of life and innovation depends on whether it ever gets around to its much-needed political reforms.

(Image credit) (Image credit)

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