SINGAPORE — As Singapore embarked on its strategy to live with COVID-19, supported by one of the world’s leading vaccine programs, the wealthy city-state saw a spike in infections, leaving many wondering if the time was right.
But with the numbers now falling as quickly as they rose, there is cautious optimism that the widely watched plan has helped Singapore turn the corner in the pandemic, even with the discovery of the new worrying variant omicron, and has increased understanding. given of what is effective, and what is not.
“Everyone gets used to it; it seems like if you have COVID, it’s the norm now. COVID appears to be a curable disease.”
Part of that confidence comes from Singapore’s numbers.
Singapore managed to get so many people vaccinated by ensuring that there were few barriers to getting the injection, making it more difficult for the unvaccinated – such as forbidding them from dining at restaurants or going to shopping malls – and a general confidence in the government and its approach, said Alex Cook, a specialist in infectious disease modeling and statistics at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.
“Perhaps the most important lesson we can take from Singapore is to make it easy to get vaccinated, and hard not to be,” he said.
Early in the pandemic, the major Southeast Asian business and trade center kept the spread of coronavirus cases in the single or low double digits for nearly a year by imposing a hard “circuit breaker” lockdown.
It was part of a decision to start treating COVID-19 as an endemic disease, acknowledging that it would not be possible to reduce the number of cases to zero in the long term and that it was time for people and businesses to slowly resume their normal lives.
In addition to a widely vaccinated population, Singapore calculated that the testing was extensive enough to quickly identify and isolate new outbreak clusters, and that the health care system had the capacity to handle more severe cases.
The highly transferable delta variant accelerated the plan and the government again tightened some lockdown measures in September, such as reducing the group size for social gatherings and dining in restaurants.
By the end of October, Singapore hit a seven-day moving average of nearly 700 cases per million people, by far the worst rate of the entire pandemic.
This week it had fallen to 258 per million; still well above the worst peak at the start of the outbreak in 2020 but in a clear downward trend. In absolute numbers, it peaked at more than 5,300 daily infections and is now below 1,000.
The death toll peaked on Nov. 10 at a 7-day moving average of 2.57 per million people and is now just above 1, according to Our World in Data.
By contrast, neighboring Malaysia peaked at 12.71 deaths per million during its latest surge in September. She too has seen those numbers drop dramatically and is now at about the same pace as Singapore, aided by a move that has now seen nearly 80% of people fully vaccinated.
If a mistake was made, Cook said it would allow home isolation for mild or asymptomatic patients, rather than in hospitals or special facilities, by the end of August, just as the number of cases began to rise rapidly. The intent was to ease the strain on the health care system, but it instead led to the rapid spread of the virus in communities, he said.
“For future outbreaks of similarly dangerous viruses, countries should seriously consider the wisdom of allowing infected patients to recover at home, no matter how mild their symptoms are,” he said.
Restrictions have since been eased again, but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Sunday that with the appearance of the omicron variant, the easing may need to be reversed and Singaporeans should be prepared for “more bumps along the way” as the virus evolves.
“We may have to take a few steps back before we can take more steps forward,” he said. “But despite all this, I am confident that we will eventually find our way to live with the virus and safely resume all the things we love to do.”
For starters, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung announced on Tuesday that it would delay more reopening measures while it evaluates the omicron variant, as well as increase testing for travelers and frontline workers.
However, the country went ahead with the partial reopening of the Causeway Bridge, which connects Singapore to the Malay Peninsula on Monday, which had been closed for nearly two years.
On Orchard Road, housewife Lee Ching Yee said the rise of the omicron variant was worrying as the youngest two of her three children have not yet been vaccinated.
Still, she decided it was safe enough to take her family on a short shopping trip to pick out a new Apple watch for her oldest, age 12, as a reward for doing well on recent exams.
“We’ll go to the store and then eat outside because we can eat in groups of five,” she said. ‘But for safety reasons, we’re looking at a place in the open air. You have to balance things out.”
With such precautions and the high number of vaccinations, Singapore is still well positioned to cope with the emergence of new variants, which are to be expected, Cook said.
“As long as vaccination continues to provide strong protection against serious diseases, I do not expect the emergence of the new variant to lead to a fundamental rethink of the strategy for living with COVID,” he said.
Sitting with Glacier Chong by the fountain along Orchard Road, her boyfriend, Marcus Yeo, said he wasn’t too concerned about the rise of ommicron based on Singapore’s track record to date.
“This variant is still relatively unknown to us,” he says. “But if I look at how we have grown out of the delta variant phase, I think it will be fine.”
————— Turnout reported from Bangkok.