Dear Epidemiologist..

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The US has the “White House Coronavirus Task Force”, and Singapore has our own “Multi-Ministry Taskforce on Wuhan Virus”. Sweden, on the other hand, has Dr Anders Tegnell, their top epidemiologist leading the response to Covid-19. (Sweden probably has their own task force comprising political leaders too)

The US and Sweden, despite the different approaches to dealing with Covid-19, especially in relation to locking down their countries, have something in common; they give airtime to their top scientists on infectious diseases. In all likelihood, these countries’ responses and policies are heavily influenced by the scientific leanings of these individuals. While the taskforce in the US is led by Mike Pence, their infectious disease experts Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx frequently appear in front of the press to explain policies, reasoning and approaches to the public.

I have always wondered who Singapore’s top epidemiologist or infectious disease expert is. It’s not Lawrence Wong or Gan Kim Yong for sure. They are Ministers, and it is understandable, given Singapore’s bureaucratic state, that they are the poster boys of the taskforce.

A quick glance at the composition of Singapore’s Multi-Ministry Taskforce reveals that the entire team is made up of ministers. Very high-powered, sure. But wouldn’t it be nice to know who is fronting the epidemiology team, or where the science-based advice is coming from? The simple assumption would be that MOH, and its relevant agencies, is playing that role. But that’s just an assumption somebody looking in from the outside makes, and assumptions can be wrong.

For the longest time, I assumed the Director of Medical Services from the Ministry of Health, a certain A/P Kenneth Mak, was the epidemiologist-in-charge. He frequently appears with the Ministers in front of the press, he’s from the Ministry of Health, and he has an A/P attached to his name. To a casual observer, surely he’s the expert in infectious diseases right?

Well, a bit of googling revealed that his medical speciality is in general surgery and he has a clinical interest in “Hepatobiliary Surgery,Pancreatic Surgery, Surgical critical care and Trauma”. Lots of stuff there, but no epidemiology. So, no, he is not exactly Singapore’s go-to person for advice on the spread of infectious diseases.

In India, health experts, including those from the Indian Association of Epidemiologists, wrote a letter to the PM chastising him for his government’s response to Covid-19. One of the gripes was that the Indian government did not consult epidemiologists. In the letter, they wrote:

“The incoherent and often rapidly shifting strategies and policies, especially at the national level, are more a reflection of an afterthought and catching up phenomenon on part of the policymakers rather than a well thought cogent strategy with an epidemiologic basis,”

Whether this description applies to Singapore is debatable. But what’s certain is that there is no Anthony Fauci or Anders Tegnell to publicly explain our strategy from an epidemiological perspective. Or at least to show face and give some ‘cred’. And that institutional choice can be worrying sometimes.

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