The Straits Times says

Adapting to Covid's unexpected surges

The experience with Covid-19 around the world over the last six months has shown that the outbreak tends to have multiple waves or can resurge unpredictably. This has happened in several countries. Even those that had been successful at containing the spread of the virus at first, such as China, South Korea, Australia, Japan and Germany, unexpectedly experienced a wave of new infections subsequently. Premature reopenings of economies in some parts of the United States led to a surge of new cases.

The unpredictable nature and trajectory of Covid-19 raises important issues for businesses and governments as well as societies, in terms of how they need to respond and adapt. One of the lessons of the last six months is that every re-opening of an economy entails some amount of risk, and will need to be calibrated, tentative and subject to abrupt reversal with little warning. This means that businesses will need to keep all options open on how they operate. For example, food and beverage and retail businesses will need to build in the flexibility to be able to switch back and forth between serving customers in person as well as online. Factories and offices will need to split their production or activities between different locations, or operate in multiple shifts, with different groups of workers segregated from one another. Service providers will need to keep open options to serve customers on-site as well as remotely, and be able to switch seamlessly from one mode of operation to the other.

This will mean that businesses will have to build redundancies in their operations, as well as set aside financial resources for adverse contingencies - which will entail higher costs. Public policies will also need to adapt to the unpredictability of Covid-19 outbreaks and their unexpected resurgences.

While responding aggressively to contain the resulting economic damage - as many have done - governments must also ensure that they keep some of their fiscal ammunition in reserve. Firing all their bullets at the start of an outbreak could leave them under-resourced to cope with subsequent waves. Their agencies must also remain vigilant and continue with measures such as testing and contact tracing, even if Covid-19 appears to have been contained - and be prepared to roll out and reimpose lockdown measures or restrictions at short notice.

This is one lesson from the experiences of cities in South Korea and China. Seoul, for instance, had infections down to single digits for weeks and Beijing had 50 virus-free days before new outbreaks unexpectedly surfaced in both cities. Societies must also be prepared for unexpected setbacks in the battle against Covid-19. As the global experience suggests, the reopening of economies is not necessarily a straightforward, linear process.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2020, with the headline 'Adapting to Covid's unexpected surges'. Print Edition | Subscribe