Viet Nam is creating its first zero plastic waste city: Here's how

03 July 2020 - Only 10-15 % of collected waste in Viet Nam is reused or recycled. A new Zero Plastic Waste City project will model local solutions. The project is centred on a social business-driven approach. The chosen pilot city will be announced later in 2020.

03 July 2020 - Five South-East Asian countries are responsible for more marine plastic waste leakage than the rest of the world combined - and Viet Nam is one of them. While the Mekong River plays a crucial role in the socio-economic development of the region, it also ranks among the 10-most impactful sources of global marine litter.

The main causes behind Vietnamese land-based marine litter can be attributed to a combination of rising consumption and poor national waste management. Alongside Viet Nam's rapid economic development over the past decades, the country's solid waste generation has also increased consistently at annual rates of around 10%. Only about 10-15% of collected waste in Viet Nam is reused or recycled; much of the remainder is sent to dump sites and incineration facilities, underlining the necessity of more sustainable approaches to solid waste management in the country.

With currently more than 2,000 small-scale enterprises and high industrial growth rates, plastic recycling constitutes a very promising industry in Viet Nam. However, until recently, most of the plastic material recycled in Viet Nam was imported from other countries such as China. In an effort to avoid a dramatic increase of global waste streams to the country, the Vietnamese government banned the import of material for recycling in 2018, an act that has boosted demand for recyclable domestic plastic waste. Accordingly, the most severe barriers that hinder an improvement in Vietnamese plastic waste management are found in the inadequate or non-existent disposal, collection and segregation of waste at household and provincial level. Due to insufficient investments in waste recycling technologies and resources, most Vietnamese provinces are not adequately equipped for the separated collection of waste at source.

On-the-ground studies show that neighbourhoods that enjoy regular waste collection benefit from an effective and cost-efficient service. However, many communities remain unreached by regular collection services. In response, local households dispose of their municipal waste independently via measures such as incineration or dumping. While these informal and uncoordinated activities not only cause harmful direct effects such as air pollution and the spread of mosquitoes, they also indirectly foster marine litter along the entire Mekong Delta.

It is precisely against this backdrop of much-needed capacity building in strategic municipal waste segregation, collection and recycling that the Zero Plastic Waste City project was initiated as a collaboration between The Grameen Creative Lab and The Alliance to End Plastic Waste. Consisting of a modular social business approach, the programme aims to increase the waste collection rates of currently unconsidered waste types and increase the amount of waste being reused for new purposes, while simultaneously empowering local waste pickers. The modular approach allows for the development of a social business based on the needs of local communities as well as the gaps in the waste value chain, and which is integrated into the existing ecosystem of local waste management stakeholders. Social businesses - a concept developed by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and co-founder of The Grameen Creative Lab, Muhammad Yunus - base their business activities not on the maximization of profits but on solving their customers' specific social or environmental problems. They combine the best of two worlds: the social mission of a charitable organization with the business acumen of traditional for-profit businesses, ensuring long-term financial self-sustainability.

To ensure the successful implementation of the Zero Plastic Waste City approach in terms of both a long-lasting socio-environmental impact within the project region as well as a contribution to the global effort to reduce marine plastic litter, the project’s specific locations will be identified according to a variety of factors such as their proximity to rivers or the sea, and a current high volume of solid waste leakage. Furthermore, in order to specifically target municipal waste collection schemes, the project will be primarily implemented in small and medium-sized urban areas. In Viet Nam, these criteria should ensure a high probability of success for the Zero Plastic Waste City programme. Furthermore, the project is potentially scalable along the entire Mekong Delta as well as through an extensive local network of partner organizations.

In the Mekong Delta particularly, the price sensitivity of existing informal schemes of waste collection and recycling constitutes a remarkable finding by our on-site investigations and a particular challenge of local waste management schemes. In many municipalities, informal waste pickers collect and recycle household waste in addition to governmental waste management services or as full substitution of them. However, interviews with local waste pickers indicate that their informal collection and recycling services highly depend on local market prices for recyclable materials. If revenues on secondary materials are low, informal collection and recycling rates drop. These findings not only stress the importance of market mechanisms in understanding informal sector value creation; more importantly, they underline the need for formal employment opportunities and stable wages for waste collectors from the informal sector – one of the major contributions of the Zero Plastic Waste City project.

Grameen Creative Lab is currently identifying local partners for implementation, aligning other stakeholders in the areas and initiating pilot assessments. The city will be announced in early 2020 and Grameen Creative Lab will also explore approaches to scale these social businesses to additional cities in 2021. We look forward to working with platforms like the Global Plastic Action Partnership, which launched its first pilot in Indonesia and will soon partner with the Government of Viet Nam, to drive effective action against plastic pollution in Viet Nam and its neighbouring countries, paving the way towards a more sustainable and pollution-free ASEAN region.


Image: Grameen Creative Lab

World Economic Forum - Race to Zero Dialogues

The Race to Zero is a global campaign to rally leadership and support from businesses, cities, regions, investors for a healthy, resilient, zero-carbon recovery that prevents future threats, creates decent jobs, and unlocks inclusive, sustainable growth.

Race To Zero is a global campaign to rally leadership and support from businesses, cities, regions, investors for a healthy, resilient, zero carbon recovery that prevents future threats, creates decent jobs, and unlocks inclusive, sustainable growth.

Dates: 10-12 November 2020

Location: Cologny, Switzerland

It mobilizes a coalition of leading net zero initiatives, representing 452 cities, 22 regions, 1,101 businesses, 45 of the biggest investors, and 549 universities. These ‘real economy’ actors join 120 countries in the largest ever alliance committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest. Collectively these actors now cover nearly 25% global CO2 emissions and over 50% GDP.

Led by the High-Level Climate Champions for Climate Action – Nigel Topping and Gonzalo Muñoz– Race To Zero mobilizes actors outside of national governments to join the Climate Ambition Alliance, which was launched at the UNSG’s Climate Action Summit 2019 by the President of Chile, Sebastián Piñera.

The objective is to build momentum around the shift to a decarbonized economy ahead of COP26, where governments must strengthen their contributions to the Paris Agreement. This will send governments a resounding signal that business, cities, regions and investors are united in meeting the Paris goals and creating a more inclusive and resilient economy.

As part of the Race to Zero Dialogues, the World Economic Forum is hosting a three-day event to spur greater climate action on industry, transport, and oceans.

Content is split across 3 key themes that allow you to explore the diverse topics addressed during the meeting:

  1. Industry
  2. Transport
  3. Ocean

Sessions under Industry will take place on Tuesday, November 10, 2020, and include:

  1. Global Outlook: The Road to COP26 | Speakers: Anthony Robert Hobley, Sharan Burrow | 08:15 - 09:00 CET
  2. Realizing Mission Possible: Decarbonizing Heavy Industry | Speakers: Anthony Robert Hobley, Harry Brekelmans, Nigel Topping, Bo Cerup-Simonsen | 18:00 - 19:00 CET

Sessions under Transport will take place on Wednesday, November 11, 2020, and include:

  1. Accelerating the Race to Zero-Emission Shipping | Speakers: Kitack Lim, Randy Chen, Veronica Scotti | 12:10 - 13:10 CET
  2. Building a Path to Net-Zero Aviation | Speakers: Christoph Wolff, Kevin Soubly, Jennifer Holmgren, Dick Benschop | 13:20 - 14:20 CET
  3. Fast Forwarding the Race to Zero-Emission Trucking | Speakers: Cristiano Facanha, Angie Farrag-Thibault, Rachel Muncrief, Monica Araya, Stientje van Veldhoven, Ashish Joshi | 14:30 - 15:30 CET

Sessions under Ocean will take place on Thursday, November 12, 2020, and include:

  1. Setting the Stage for the Ocean-Climate Nexus | 11:00 - 12:00 CET
  2. Fighting Climate Change: Ocean as Part of the Solution – Nature-Based Solutions | 14:00 - 15:30 CET
  3. Innovating for a Sustainable Ocean: Technologies to Tackle Climate Change | 17:00 - 18:30 CET
  4. Resilient Ocean for a Global Recovery | 20:00 - 21:30 CET

Learn more here:

How digital inclusion made Bangladesh a standout South Asian economy

8 September 2020 - Bangladesh is growing rapidly due to the smart use of technology to drive a digital transformation. The digital inclusion strategy aims to promote the uptake of mobile money. Technology is improving the accessibility, quality, and affordability of health services.

8 September 2020 - Bangladesh is continuing its strong development trajectory, marching ahead of other South Asian countries in terms of its ranking on the Inclusive Development Index (IDI), GDP growth rate, and other human development achievements.

The current government’s efforts to use technology to reduce poverty, and transform the lives of the general population in Bangladesh has played a key role in this growth. The government recognizes digital inclusion as the only way to facilitate rural economic activities, and enable rural workers to capture a larger piece of the economic pie. The government very carefully designed digital services to ensure they are relevant for all three groups of Bangladeshi citizens: digital natives – younger, tech-savvy, generations growing up with technology; digital adapters – middle-aged individuals who have adopted technology; and outliers – the minority who stay away from technology.

The government has made a concerted effort towards achieving the Digital Bangladesh Vision by 2021, marking the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh's independence. The Digital Bangladesh philosophy of the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is to protect people's democracy and human rights, ensure transparency and accountability, establish justice, and ensure delivery of government services to the citizens of Bangladesh through maximum use of technology, with the ultimate goal being the overall improvement of the daily lifestyle of the general population.

The Government has been proactively pursuing the digital penetration of all government portals by the year 2023. The country developed the National Portal in 2014, which now houses over 45,000 websites and services of different government offices, with about 60 million hits a month on average.

Over 5,000 Digital Centres have been set up across the country to cover the “last mile” and ensure the various digital services reach all citizens, addressing the issue of the digital divide. To ensure interoperability, the Bangladesh National Digital Architecture was established.

Digital services like Smart NID, the biometric database of unique IDs, fingerprints and iris scans has been successful in making citizen services run more smoothly, and negating problems like fake IDs and impersonation.

We have issued over 100 million digital IDs to our citizens, which is one of the highest in the world. Machine readable e-passports were launched early this year to enable faster immigration processes, greater accuracy, and better data matching against immigration databases and watch lists.

The “My Village My Town” initiative is one of the notable examples of the Prime Minister's bottom-up vision. Under the initiative, modern city amenities are being expanded to every village of Bangladesh. For the first time in the history of Bangladesh these marginalized people have been recognized as the centre of economic activity.

Public spaces and urban services are being designed to make cities more inclusive for women and groups of people with special needs. Digital services, access to information and technical and vocational training for less privileged women have been playing a major role in empowering them.

As part of the Digital Island initiative, Moheshkhali, a remote and impoverished island of Bangladesh has been turned into the nation’s first “Digital Island”. The government connected Moheshkhali to the mainland by 14 miles of fibre optic cable and also established an e-commerce centre for the artisans of Moheshkhali to sell their products and earn a living. The island will soon be home to a sea port and power plants.

The government plans to replicate this on other remote islands that dot the country’s Bay of Bengal coastline. Fibre optic connectivity has been established, providing high speed Internet connectivity. The government plans to roll out the fifth-generation cellular network technology (5G) in Bangladesh by 2021, ensuring faster and more reliable internet coverage across the country.

A key component of the government’s digital inclusion strategy is to promote the uptake of mobile money and other digital payment platforms. Efforts are being made to boost the popularity of Mobile Financial Services (MFS) to ensure higher penetration at the bottom of the pyramid.

In recent years, MFS has made a significant impact on reducing the unbanked population, rural-urban capital flow, and growth of online e-commerce transactions. In the last five years, growth of mobile financial services in Bangladesh has skyrocketed, with bKash leading the way. In 2018, registered users of Non-Banking Financial Institutions (NBFIs) were more common among the rural poor than among the adult population as a whole. Mobile money transfers were the most popular digital use case in Bangladesh and uptake of mobile money transfers was three times greater than bank transfers.

Digital health services, including telemedicine, have already been effective in health services delivery as well as diagnostic, promotive and preventive measures. From the private sector, many digital health service startups have come up with innovative solutions including remote diagnostic capabilities, cloud-based health monitoring systems, web portals that disseminate basic health information, etc., to help bridge shortages of trained medical professionals in rural areas.

The country initiated a National Digital Health Strategy last year as an essential step for using technology to improve the accessibility, quality and affordability of health services. The digital health strategy will provide direction for efforts to use digital technologies in a more coordinated way to further strengthen the health system.

The government is implementing a number of mega projects to establish an integrated and uninterrupted communication network in the country. To capture manufacturing investors from home and abroad, the government has taken the initiative to establish 100 special economic zones and 28 IT parks in various parts of the country; many of these are already operational or under construction. These economic zones and IT parks will play an effective role in improving the employment and quality of life of people in every region of the country.

Bangladesh has experienced tremendous growth in the last decade under the leadership of our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her ICT Adviser Sajeeb Wazed. Today, we experience nearly 8% GDP growth, as one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Bangladesh was ranked 34th in the WEF's Inclusive Development Index, 2018. By 2030, Bangladesh is projected to become the 24th largest economy in the world. The key factor behind this growth has been smartly utilizing ICT to spur growth in all sectors.

Article Link:

Image: Bangladesh has issued over 100 million digital IDs to its citizens. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain.

COVID-19 will hit the developing world's cities hardest. Here's why.

23 June 2020 - The world's poorest cities aggregate factors that facilitate the spread of COVID-19 easier - and make it harder to contain. These include high population densities, overcrowded accommodation, and lack of access to basic services. Here's what national governments must prioritize to prevent a worsening of this growing health crisis.

23 June 2020 - The COVID-19 pandemic has brought some of the world's wealthiest global cities to their knees. In the current epicenter, New York, roughly one-fifth of all residents are infected and more than 20,000 have died. London has reported more than 55,000 cases and 6,000 fatalities. Yet the spread and impacts of the disease are an even greater threat to poorer cities and slums in developing countries.

Informal settlements like Orangi Town in Karachi, Payatas in Manila, Kibera in Nairobi, or Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro have witnessed a silent surge in infections. Without proper interventions, they could become urban morgues. Combined with heavy-handed lockdowns and rising food prices, steep rises in excess deaths, and social unrest could follow.

Mega-slums are incubators of disease transmission. Although some cities in Latin America, Africa and South Asia have learned the lessons of past pandemics and have at least temporarily dodged the first wave of COVID-19, many others are exposed. The world's poorest cities and their informal settlements aggregate risk factors that accelerate the spread of infection.

One such risk is extreme density. Informal settlements are typically 10 times more dense than similarly located formal areas of a given city. The Dharavi slum in the centre of Mumbai has more than 270,000 residents per square kilometre. This compares to around 43,000 people per square kilometre in Manila, the world’s densest city.

Even worse than density is severe overcrowding and uneven access to basic services. In many lower- and middle-income cities, the poor are crammed into substandard and poorly ventilated buildings, making disease easier to spread. Far too many lack access to clean water, basic sanitation and even regular electricity. They are often squeezed into packed buses to get to and from work. Insecure property rights ensure that the urban poor lack access to many basic public services or banking and credit facilities.

Because they have few savings, the world's roughly 1 billion slum dwellers - both young and old - are forced to work to survive, despite the stay-at-home orders. Today, developing countries account for 70% of the planet’s population aged 60 or over. Many of them suffer from pre-existing health conditions including obesity, diabetes and hypertension as well as cholera, dengue, hepatitis, malaria, pneumonia, tuberculosis and HIV. Chronic health problems are aggravated by poor nutrition and constant exposure to pollution.

New hotspots

With Brazil en route to becoming the global epicentre of COVID-19, its favelas will suffer most. In Rio de Janeiro, where at least 1.6 million people live in around 1,000 informal settlements, over 70% of households have already experienced a decline in income since the outbreak. The city government is advising the population to stay at home and take health precautions, yet the poorest residents lack piped water with which to wash their hands. Hundreds of residents have tested positive, but the queue for ICU facilities is in the thousands. Deaths are rising, though these are still vastly under-reported.

The situation is equally complicated in Lagos, Africa’s largest city, which has just over 3,500 reported COVID-19 infections to-date. Roughly 60% of Lagotians are poor, many of them packed into the city's 100 slums. Almost 70% of the city’s residents depend on informal jobs – as street vendors, waste recyclers and artisans, for example – with no safety nets. Local buses run well beyond capacity, cramming 80 into spaces reserved for less than 20.

A similar scenario is playing out in Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital, which has recorded more than 4,000 registered infections. There, at least 90% of the population relies on the informal economy. But Dhaka has less than 100 public ICU beds for a population of more than 8.5 million. Due to weak vital registration data, no one knows the real death toll of COVID-19.

Governments in some developing countries are responding to the spread of disease in slums as they often do – with top-down measures and a heavy fist. In city after city, lockdowns and curfews are imposed without regard to the impossibility of adhering to basic physical distancing. Where they are provided at all, food handouts are insufficient to meet local demand. In Kibera, the distribution of relief assistance has triggered riots and police violence.


Image: REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Cities are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. These organizations are leading the urban response.

23 June 2020 - The things that make cities dynamic also make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus. Organizations around the world are helping cities share knowledge and best practices so they can better respond to COVID-19. Connecting with experts, tech like AI and Big Data and innovative design will all play a role in helping cities survive and thrive in the post-pandemic world.

23 June 2020 - As the coronavirus spreads throughout the world's urban areas, governments, businesses and civil society are springing to action to help cities manage this crisis and mitigate the fallout.

Share knowledge, save lives

As COVID-19 has traveled around the world, city after city has seen eerily similar patters of viral spread and the necessary drastic policy responses. The ability to share knowledge and best practices is crucial for cities to avoid mistakes and optimise the response, particularly in the early stages of the spread. It’s invaluable for metropolitan areas to explore the implementation of successful strategies deployed by other cities – like social distancing are vital to slow the spread of the virus and "flatten the curve.

The City Possible network, managed by Mastercard, has organised regular meetings of municipal decision-makers around the globe to exchange strategies on how to address the crisis in their communities. Similarly, C40 – a network of megacities committed to addressing climate change – launched a dedicated COVID-19 portal for cities to share knowledge and best practices for managing the crisis.

These city-to-city connections made in the short term will be vital to the necessary transition to a more sustainable, low-carbon economic system in the long term. Cities for Global Health, led by Metropolis and supported by UCLG, allows cities to share successful local initiatives to respond to health emergencies – COVID-19 or otherwise.

Connecting with experts

As some national governments struggle to respond, cities can be left to face the COVID-19 threat alone. This is why it’s critical to connect local decisionmakers to health experts.

Bloomberg Philanthropies is closing this information gap with the Coronavirus Local Response Initiative, which connects US cities with public health experts, researchers and clinicians from across the Johns Hopkins University network to relay the most important and up-to-date information from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The organization is also working with the US Conference of Mayors and the National Association of City Transport Officials on the Transportation Response Program to provide rapid-response tools, real-time updates and technical assistance with providing essential urban services.

As another example, Cities for All, a global network focused on creating inclusive and accessible cities, is hosting an expert webinar series to help cities devise and coordinate strategies to protect the elderly and persons with disabilities. Global Resilient Cities Network, a Rockefeller Foundation-backed initiative dedicated to supporting urban resilience, has likewise organised a weekly speaker series with the World Bank on global responses, as well as a program to facilitate long-term resilient recovery plans among member cities.

Armed with the latest information from experts, cities can effectively plan and implement the strategies needed to slow the virus's spread – and come back even stronger.

Disease vs. Data

The technological transformation of cities hasn't slowed during the pandemic. Organizations focused on the "smart cities" boom have simply expanded areas of exploration to include ways to mitigate the COVID-19 crisis. Quantela, an artificial intelligence start-up focused on urban services, has created CoVER, an AI-powered emergency response platform to assist government officials with diagnosing, monitoring and tracking people with the disease as well as with communicating and collaborating with communities.

However, the benefits of technologies like AI and Big Data also come with major risks. From February to March, COVID-19-related cyber-attacks increased 475%, with hospitals and health ministries among the primary targets. SecDev, a Canadian risk consultancy, responded by launching a Cyber Defense Force. The all-volunteer group of IT professionals will be matched with Canadian healthcare providers, critical infrastructure and municipalities to help defend them against these attacks. The goal is to ensure that hospitals remain open, patients can continue to be treated and essential services remain functional for the duration of the crisis.


Image: REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo

The impacts of COVID-19 around the world, as told by statistics

02 June 2020 - A new report offers statistical insights into the changes COVID-19 has wrought on the world. The pandemic poses its own problems for statisticians, however. A global effort is needed to support statisticians - especially those in low-income countries, who may be struggling.

02 June 2020 - We are living through unprecedented times. The impact of the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, has reverberated through every corner of the globe — taking lives, destroying livelihoods, and changing everything about how we interact with each other and the world.

At a time of crisis, governments more than ever must rely on timely, reliable data to make decisions to mitigate harm and support their citizens. What’s more, given the grave impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on our interconnected world, decisions made today will have consequences that will last far into the future, affecting people in every region and community.

That’s why the Committee for the Coordination of Statistical Activities (CCSA), a partnership of international and supranational organizations, has just released its new report: How COVID-19 is changing the world: a statistical perspective. The report aims to share information on the impacts of the novel coronavirus across a range of areas, including its economic, social and statistical impacts on regions and countries.

The trends seen over the past few months would have been unimaginable in 2019. New statistical records are being set on an almost weekly basis. On the economic side, for example, the aviation industry is facing its deepest-ever crisis, with 90% of the global fleet grounded. Meanwhile, global commodity prices have seen their largest fall on record, dropping 20.4% in the month to March 2020. Global trade for the second quarter of 2020 is now forecasted to drop by a precipitous 27% compared with the same quarter last year. Tourism is forecasted to fall this year by between 58% to 78%.

In terms of social costs, the education of 1.6 billion learners has been disrupted; that is 9 out of every 10 students in the world. Unsurprisingly, urban areas - which account for more than 90% of COVID-19 cases - are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. The Lockdown measures have reduced violence in countries with a relatively low homicide rate, such as Italy, but has had little or no impact on violence in countries with high levels of organized crime and gang violence driven homicide.

Meanwhile, efforts to eliminate extreme poverty are being set back immensely, with global poverty expected to increase for the first time since the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis. Nowcasts shows that 40 to 60 million people are expected to be pushed into extreme poverty in 2020—that is, living on less than $1.90 a day—as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, the threat to children who are already impoverished is expected to be catastrophic, given the expected long-term impacts tied to lack of access to life-saving vaccinations, increased risk of violence, and interruptions to education.

The reason that the international organisations can share this snapshot into the impacts of COVID-19 is because of the existing investments that have been made by the international community in the field of statistics.

Unfortunately, the pandemic poses a significant challenge to this vital information stream. Statistical capacity is being squeezed around the globe, particularly in low-income countries that have limited resources to invest into their public goods. Furthermore, the 2020 round of censuses which were scheduled to take place in more than 120 countries are at grave risk of falling behind or being cancelled, limiting our collective ability to ensure representative data to guide policies.

The collaborative effort involved in putting together this new statistical report—bringing together 36 international organizations to provide high-quality statistics on COVID-19 and its impacts is as an example of the kind of collaboration that will be critically needed going forward.

The Chief Executives Board of the United Nations has reinforced this point. At their virtual meeting of May 14, board members "welcomed How Covid-19 is Changing the World: a Statistical Perspective, published by the CCSA, as a strong example of what the international statistical community can achieve when confronted with a dire global challenge".

It is essential that the international statistical community continue to work closely together, particularly to support struggling statistical offices in low-income countries. In the troubled times that lie ahead, timely and accurate statistics are our best bet to ensure that no one is left behind.


Image: An empty wharf in the Port of Los Angeles in April is a reminder of the collapse in global trade (REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson).

Singapore contained Coronavirus. Could other countries learn from its approach?

30 March 2020 - Singapore has reported just 96 cases of coronavirus and no deaths, while the recoveries are outpacing the rate of infection. But not all countries could replicate the conditions for Singapore's containment success, which include a top-notch healthcare system.

30 March 2020 - As the novel coronavirus starts to gather speed in Europe, the Middle East, and the U.S., there’s one place it is seemingly being contained: Singapore.

With no reported virus-related deaths despite 96 cases, and a slowing rate of infection that’s been outpaced by recoveries, the Asian city-state is emerging as a litmus test of whether the deadly pathogen can be, if not contained, then neutralized.

The answer is maybe, and perhaps only with the unique combination of factors that Singapore brings: a top-notch health system, draconian tracing and containment measures, and a small population that’s largely accepting of government’s expansive orders. Few other countries battling an outbreak that’s now infected more than 83,000 globally and killed over 2,800, can replicate these circumstances.

Singapore’s tally of cases is still inching up but it’s no longer the worst-hit nation outside of China after South Korea saw an over 30-fold increase in a week. Italy, with at least 650 confirmed cases, has now become the epicenter in Europe while Iran has reported an alarming jump in numbers of those infected and dead.

“There seems to be more of a willingness to place the community and society needs over individual liberty and that helps in a public health crisis,” said Kent Sepkowitz, an infectious disease control specialist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

‘Not Hesitate’

Singapore was aggressive out of the gate and has continued to be. It was one of the first countries to impose restrictions on anyone with recent travel history to China and parts of South Korea. It has a strict hospital and home quarantine regimen for potentially infected patients and is extensively tracing anyone they may have been in contact with.

It’s charging a couple who gave false information on their travel history and taking away residency status from a person who breached his quarantine, among other punitive actions.

Singapore “will not hesitate to take strong action” against rule breakers, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said in a statement Thursday. “The deliberate breaking of the rules, in the current situation, calls for swift and decisive response.”

The country started a text and mobile web-based software solution on Feb. 10 through which people placed under home quarantine could report their location to the government, according to a statement Thursday from the Prime Minister’s Office.

“This served as the first level of verification of compliance for close to 12,000 foreign employees,” the office said in statement.

The consistently forceful posture is in contrast to other Asian nations, who despite being closer geographically to China, have been slower to act. Japan and South Korea are both facing criticism for lax and delayed containment measures that have led to mounting virus cases.

As the epidemic that emerged from China threatens to become a global pandemic that could wipe off $1 trillion from the world’s gross domestic product, Singapore used its early infections to establish an advanced contact tracing system.

It’s now using a new serological test developed by Duke-NUS Medical School that can establish links between infected cases, which will allow authorities to map out the chain of transmission and therefore try to break it. Local researchers had earlier successfully cultured the novel virus within a week of Singapore confirming its first case.

A historically “very strong epidemiological surveillance and contact-tracing capacity” in Singapore led to a high detection rate initially, according to a yet to be peer-reviewed study published by researchers at the Harvard University.

The country’s experience with the 2003 SARS outbreak in which 33 people died in Singapore, and the 2010 swine flu known as H1N1 where an estimated more than 400,000 people were infected, meant that precautions were already in place. These included ready-made government quarantine facilities and a 330-bed, state-of-the-art national center for managing infectious diseases that opened last year.


Image: REUTERS/Feline Lim

6 lessons from China's Zhejiang Province and Hangzhou on how countries can prevent and rebound from an epidemic like COVID-19

29 March 2020 - As COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, the measures implemented in China may be instructive for other countries now struggling to control the virus.

29 March 2020 - As COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, the measures implemented in China may be instructive for other countries now struggling to control the virus.

Hangzhou, the capital city of Zhejiang Province, more than 1,000 miles away from Wuhan, the epicenter of COVID-19, implemented multiple control and prevention measures from the very beginning of the outbreak.

Here’s what we learned.

1. Speed and accuracy are the keys to identification and detection.

Within a week of identifying the unknown virus, China successfully sequenced it and reported the genetic information to the World Health Organization (WHO).

In comparison, it took a couple of months for SARS to be identified and sequenced in 2003, and a few years in the case of HIV in the 1980s.

The identification of a virus’s genetic sequence is critical to developing a vaccine and therapeutic treatments. The rapid identification of COVID-19 allowed scientists around the world to immediately start developing test kits, treatment options, and vaccines.

One of the critical tools in controlling a major epidemic is having specific, reliable, accurate and fast detection methods to screen infected and non-infected people. During the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan, there were no test kits available, and screening depended on laboratory nucleic acid sequencing analysis, a labour-intensive and costly method. The National Medical Products Administration of China took immediate action to speed up the work of biotech companies to develop detection kits. The first kit was introduced on 13 January, with a sufficient supply available two weeks later.

2. Make the right decisions at the right time, the right place, for the right people.

The experience in China reinforced the importance of listening to science and public health experts during pandemic events. And overreacting is better than not reacting.

China’s unprecedented systematic and proactive risk management, based on collaboration between government officials and health experts, has proven to be effective in containing and controlling COVID-19. The timely release of disease-related clinical data to the public and WHO helped many around the world prepare for the spread. For example, analysing more than 40,000 cases in China, we know 80% of COVID-19 infected patients won’t need medical intervention, while 20% would need medical treatment and care.

Zhejiang Province was the first to raise the risk management response to the highest level in the early days of the outbreak when there were no confirmed cases.

Here are lessons from Hangzhou’s work to control the spread of COVID-19:

  • Provide clear guidance about the degree and scope of lockdowns.
  • Track implementation down to individuals, apartments, houses, communities, organizations, public facilities, and city management.
  • Keep essentials like food and supplies flowing through organized, government-controlled arrangements.
  • Designate infectious disease care and management facilities to isolate, monitor and treat positive cases.
  • Establish electronic recording and tracking systems and local response teams to handle identified cases 24/7.
  • Establish centralized reporting and communication channels to keep citizens informed.

3. Big data and information technology are important to avoiding a rebound.

Hangzhou, where Alibaba is headquartered, was one of the first cities to use big data and information technology in the prevention and control of COVID-19. They named the approach “one map, one QR code, and one index.”

It’s been two weeks since select businesses and organizations have been allowed to reopen to workers. Here are the policies they implemented:

  • Businesses reopened in several phases based on priorities. For example, healthcare-related facilities were allowed to open first.
  • Restrictions were eased based on track records.
  • Health QR codes were established for everyone in the city and everyone who entered the city. The green code allows you to move freely. The yellow code requires a seven-day self-quarantine. The red code requires a 14-day self-quarantine. The yellow and red codes can be turned green after the quarantine time. This health surveillance system has been applied in most cities in Zhejiang Province and will be implemented in other provinces.
  • Each individual must monitor and record their temperature and update their profile daily in order to maintain their health status level.
  • The health database is closely monitored by Hangzhou’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention.



What slums can teach us about building the cities of the future

14 Jan 2020 - The expandable house project is part of ongoing research by the Urban-Rural Systems (URS) team at the Future Cities Laboratory (FCL) (a research unit of the ETH Zürich in Singapore). It identifies and builds upon the successes of forms of informal housing, and tries to improve upon their weaknesses.

14 Jan 2020 - Informal housing, be it in the barrio, tugurio, favela, bidonville, gecekondu or kampung, supports the majority of rapidly urbanizing populations in cities of the global South. Yet, many city planners and housing policymakers still regard such urban vernaculars primarily as evidence of backwardness, social malaise, economic involution and planning failure. When lumped together as “slums”, they are seen as a threat to the wider project of sustainable and resilient city development – a problem that must be overcome.

Viable alternatives remain thin on the ground. Most current options lie in the fairly narrow space between mass public housing, relying on industrial modes of production and centralized delivery and management systems, on one hand; and laissez-faire, often low-density and land-hungry suburban models, on the other. In the context of rapid urbanization, mass housing models tend to be too expensive to meet soaring demand, while the private sector only meets demand by cutting corners – on space planning, transport integration, water, energy and waste management – that they accelerate many of the worst effects of urbanization. This includes destroying productive land, traffic congestion, and water and air pollution.

Given this impasse, the obvious point is increasingly hard to ignore: informal housing is not always a problem to be solved, but can be treasure-trove of city solutions. In other words, we must take the time and energy to learn from the kampung, and the barrio, and the gecekondu, and so on. This involves learning to see past the spatial irregularity, the surface grime and the patchy aesthetic to understand the economic resilience, the social cohesion, the autonomy, the technological ingenuity, the remarkable skills of everyday living that can flourish in informal quarters of cities of the global South.

A new design project called “the expandable house” (rumah tambah in Bahasa Indonesian, or rubah for short) tries to do just that – learn from the kampung. It identifies and builds upon the successes of the kampung and other forms of informal housing, and tries to improve upon their weaknesses. In so doing, it addresses the minimum criteria that the UN Habitat defines for adequate housing, such as security of tenure, availability of services and infrastructure, affordability, habitability (ensuring physical safety), access to jobs and facilities, and is capable of expressing cultural identity. Kampungs often exhibit precisely these features already in their strong culture of self-reliance, economic resilience and a robust sense of community. They can be, but are not always, dense. But too many still do not have good water, energy nor waste management systems. And many are structurally unstable, have fragile tenure rights, and do not provide especially adequate public space.


Image by 晨 朱 from Pixabay 

3 reasons why Singapore is the smartest city in the world

19 Nov 2019 - Singapore is the world’s smartest city. That’s according to a new survey Published by Swiss business school IMD and the Singapore University of Technology and Design - the IMD Smart Cities Index - which looked at how well cities are adopting digital technologies and improving the lives of the people who live there.

19 Nov 2019 - It’s official: Singapore is the world’s smartest city. That’s according to a new survey Published by Swiss business school IMD and the Singapore University of Technology and Design - the IMD Smart Cities Index - which looked at how well cities are adopting digital technologies and improving the lives of the people who live there.

What is a smart city?

Looking at aspects such as public safety, mobility, governance, and health, the index measured cities’ performance on maintaining green spaces, improving existing local institutions, and digitalizing access to employment, all while maintaining the security of their citizens.

While there is no universal definition for the term ‘smart city,’ it is a concept that was devised at the advent of the internet of things (IoT). Smart cities are committed to improving the provision and development of urban services through the use of digital technology.

Here are three ways Singapore is smarter than the average city.

1. Healthier citizens mean healthier cities.

How a city’s leaders shape the future of healthcare will ultimately determine how the prosperity of the city itself and of its citizens. A healthcare ecosystem that celebrates continuous learning and innovation builds communities and offers reliable specialist care is essential. Moreover, how well is a city’s leadership putting empathy at the heart of its healthcare infrastructure?

In Singapore, a key example of this is the development of Healthcity Novena - a masterplan for community-focused health in which infrastructure such as pedestrian walkways, underground car parks, and outdoor green spaces exist to complement and ameliorate the citizen-patient experience. A city whose leaders proactively think about these aspects of healthcare provision will inherently be a healthier one.

2. A house with a heart is a home.

Singapore’s Housing Development Board (HDB) offers all citizens access to free public housing. Furthermore, the country’s leaders have created public housing that is more than just an apartment space; it also stretches into larger community areas that integrate liveability, sustainability and growth. More than 80% of the country’s population lives in public housing, which means the provision and administration of housing is pivotal to the identity and character of a diverse city like Singapore. The country’s leadership is not only integrating crucial principles of community generosity, building family ties and racial harmony, it must also consider pragmatic factors needed for inclusive housing such as financial planning, allocation and insurance. By planning for the future, the city’s leaders can take an active role in adding a heart to housing, ensuring that residents live in spaces characterized by vibrancy, self-sufficiency, and connectivity.

3. Mobility is a shared community experience.

Transportation determines much of the quality of life for residents in a smart city. In late October, the city’s Land Transit Authority (LTA) expanded a pilot area for autonomous vehicles (AVs) to cover the whole of western Singapore. The city’s leaders have realized that in order to build a resilient workforce and citizenry, mobility must be designed in a way that not only covers the last mile of a journey but also that allows everyone to participate in what the city has to offer.

In Singapore, the LTA is building a system of transport infrastructure in which daily commutes can integrate active mobility modes like walking and cycling with public transportation services like mass rapid transit (MRT) and buses. The ‘Walk Cycle Ride’ initiative offers national benefits: it encourages more liveable recreation spaces, promotes sustainable energy use and reduces pollution. By applying advanced technologies to mobility, the city enables citizens to lead more active lifestyles through convenient and cost-effective transportation.


Image: REUTERS/Edgar Su - GF10000358413