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Hong Kong (CNN)--Less than a month ago, Singapore was being hailed as one of the countries that had got its coronavirus response right.


Encouragingly for the rest of the world, the city-state seemed to have suppressed cases without imposing the restrictive lockdown measures endured by millions elsewhere.


And then the second wave hit, hard. Since March 17, Singapore''s number of confirmed coronavirus cases grew from 266 to over 5,900, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.


Life as normal


At first, Singapore''s status as a small island nation seemed to pay off.


It was able to contain the initial wave of cases from China by instituting quarantines and contact tracing to ensure that anyone arriving by air, who might have been exposed, was isolated and monitored.


At the same time, it ramped up public awareness campaigns to encourage people to take precautions. Isolation wards installed in hospitals in the wake of the 2003 SARS epidemic also meant that patients were treated in the safest way possible, preventing medical staff from becoming infected.


Most importantly, wrote Dale Fisher, chair of infection control at the National University of Singapore''s hospital in an opinion piece: "Singapore didn''t let positive patients back into the community."


People with few or no symptoms, but who had nevertheless tested positive for the virus were hospitalized until they returned a negative test, rather than put in home quarantine, Fisher said.


By testing widely and isolating all those who were potentially contagious, Singapore was able to remain relatively open and continue functioning as usual.


"In Singapore, we want life to go on as normal," Fisher wrote last month, before the latest spike in cases. "We want businesses, churches, restaurants and schools to stay open. This is what success looks like. Everything goes forward with modifications as needed, and you keep doing this until there''s a vaccine or a treatment."


That approach stood in stark contrast to Hong Kong: another Asian self-governed city with a similar size population. In Hong Kong, public schools have been closed since February and government employees were encouraged to work from home, though people still traveled around the city relatively freely. New measures were also introduced following an increase in imported cases last month.


Hong Kong has been much more successful in dealing with a second wave.


The more relaxed attitude taken in Singapore compared to other countries was only viable if infections from overseas were kept out, and new potential cases were detected and dealt with quickly.


Once this measure failed, the speed at which the virus could pass from person to person was greater than it would be in a place with heavy lockdown and social distancing measures.


Many of the new clusters have been connected to Singapore''s vast migrant worker population, in particular those workers -- most from South Asia -- living in cramped dormitories, who appear to have been overlooked in the initial wave of testing. Multiple dormitories have been quarantined and the government is ramping up testing for all workers.


It''s unclear whether those infections were from migrant workers coming in from outside, or if the virus was circulating among the largely-untested population for some time. What is evident is that the conditions that workers live in made effective social distancing -- or "home" quarantine -- next to impossible, making it easy for the virus to spread.


"The dormitories were like a time bomb waiting to explode," Tommy Koh, a Singapore lawyer and former diplomat, wrote in a widely-shared Facebook post earlier this month. "The way Singapore treats its foreign workers is not First World but Third World. The government has allowed their employers to transport them in flat bed trucks with no seats. They stay in overcrowded dormitories and are packed likes sardines with 12 persons to a room."


Koh added that "Singapore should treat this as a wake up call to treat our indispensable foreign workers like a First World country should and not in the disgraceful way in which they are treated now."


Since the recent spike in cases, Singapore has instituted what the government is calling a "circuit breaker," a package of restrictions and new rules, combined with harsh punishments, designed to stymie the new wave of cases and allow the city to get its outbreak back under control.

自最近病例激增以来,新加坡政府开始实施所谓的“断路器”(circuit breaker),一系列限制措施和新规定,再加上严厉的惩罚,旨在阻止新一波病例的发生,并使该市疫情得到控制。

Singapore has a good chance of getting things under control, thanks again to its small size, strong government, and well-funded healthcare system. But the recent spike in cases in Singapore has lessons for the rest of the world.


No time to relax


Both Singapore and Hong Kong were only able to maintain relative normality while they kept a tight lid on potential imported infections. Once a wave of cases did arrive from overseas, both had to react quickly to prevent a new epidemic.


Hong Kong was able to do this more easily because the city has never completely relaxed, while Singapore has been forced to institute the "circuit breaker," and it remains to be seen how successful that will be.


But this relax-tighten-relax approach to coronavirus restrictions is only really viable in places like Hong Kong and Singapore, where the population size is small enough to be managemable and the specific geography enables authorities to maintain a tight control on who comes in and out, and track their movements if necessary. Hong Kong in particular has instituted mandatory quarantines for those arriving from overseas since mid March.


As Singapore''s experience shows, relaxing too soon can backfire disastrously.