Singapore's 2021 will be lived under the long shadow of Covid-19

A healthcare worker receiving a Covid-19 shot on Wednesday at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases.
For Singapore, the key challenge of this year will be the roll-out of the vaccination programme.PHOTO: ST FILE
The first batch of Covid-19 vaccines to reach Singapore being unloaded at Changi Airport on Dec 21. Singapore was the first country in Asia to receive doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.
A healthcare worker receiving a Covid-19 shot on Wednesday at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
A healthcare worker receiving a Covid-19 shot on Wednesday at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases.
The first batch of Covid-19 vaccines to reach Singapore being unloaded at Changi Airport on Dec 21. Singapore was the first country in Asia to receive doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. ST FILE PHOTO

If 2020 was the year of the coronavirus, 2021 will be the year Covid-19 continues to cast a long shadow.

Even as news of effective vaccines cheers the world, the reality is that the journey to a post-Covid-19 world will be long drawn, and the months ahead will remain darkened by the scourge of the pandemic.

For Singapore, the key challenge of this year will be the roll-out of the vaccination programme.

While Singapore is well schooled in such mass operations, nothing is certain in this unprecedented global exercise.

Take access to vaccines. Despite advance purchase orders, Singapore is still competing with many other countries to get hold of the vaccines. It has hedged its bets by purchasing vaccines from three sources: On Dec 21, it was the first country in Asia to receive doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine; it has also placed orders for the vaccines by Moderna and Sinovac, and is in talks on a few others.

But between placing orders and delivery, many things can happen.

Supply may not be enough; some countries may resort to commandeering the vaccines for their own population; shipments may be delayed, or lost due to piracy; distribution may destroy or corrupt the vaccines' effectiveness, especially given that some need to be stored at very low temperatures.

Once in Singapore, another set of challenges arises: the logistics of distributing the vaccines and then the communications challenge of getting 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the population to be vaccinated, when it is not compulsory.

The Government has said all Singaporeans and long-term residents should be able to get vaccinated by the end of this year. Vaccination is free.

A successful transition to a post-Covid-19 world hinges on the ability to get the vaccination programme under way smoothly. Doing this will keep Singapore safe from the extreme effects of this virus, allow the economy to function, and permit opening of borders. A cautious return to normalcy will then be possible.

This is the best-case scenario.

However, risks remain.

Already, health experts are bracing themselves for a resurgence of infections.

In Europe and America, the virus seems to be rebounding with a vengeance with a new, more transmissible strain circulating. Singapore has already had cases of this imported strain, but has kept them under control so far. It is likely that more imported cases will slip into Singapore and eventually into the community.

So even as Singaporeans enjoy the greater freedoms under phase three measures that kicked in on Monday, the irony is that such loosening may hasten the spread of future community outbreaks.

One key event to watch out for this year is the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting here, from May 13 to 16. The WEF chose Singapore to host its annual talkfest of leaders, traditionally held in the snow-capped ski town of Davos in Switzerland.

Singapore won confidence among business travellers during the pandemic for its protocols that include segregated travel lanes. These provide a "bubble" to bring travellers from airplane to dedicated facilities where they stay and work, with Covid-19 tests pre-departure, on arrival in Singapore and throughout their stay.

A successful WEF meeting with no infection cluster will attract more convention travel into Singapore.

Meanwhile, the long tail of the coronavirus will continue to lash businesses, with more expected to flounder when government grants taper off. The Jobs Support Scheme's last two payouts to co-pay salaries are in March and June. Already, analysts warn of rising bankruptcies this year.

Jobs will remain a major preoccupation, with more losses feared as companies close down. With herd immunity gradually being achieved, thousands of Covid-19-related jobs like those of safe-distancing ambassadors will disappear, adding to the job crunch. However, foreign worker quotas are being tightened, which might boost demand for local labour.

Meanwhile, an activist government will continue with the pace of policy changes.

In health, national health insurance plan MediShield Life will expand coverage but raise premiums by up to 35 per cent in 2021. (Subsidies will cover 70 per cent of this increase this year.)

In housing, a novel form of assisted living for seniors is being launched in the public housing town of Bukit Batok in March. Housing subsidies will also be tweaked to make new flats in central areas more affordable. Both are major policy innovations to meet evolving needs.

On the private housing front, my colleague Grace Leong, who covers housing, says: "En bloc sales may start to make a comeback after a three-year hiatus. As new home sales continue to surprise on the upside despite the uncertain economic environment, and unsold inventory continues to deplete, analysts say this could trigger a reactivation of collective sale tenders.

"The current unsold inventory stands at 26,600 units. The start of the previous en bloc cycle was in Q2 2016 when inventory fell to 23,300 units."

But much depends on the Government's land sales programme, she adds: If it keeps up a steady supply of land, it may ease the demand.

In education, the revised Primary School Leaving Examination scoring system kicks in this year. Pupils will be graded based on their absolute scores, not on how they fare relative to others. So a pupil with 90 marks is given an Achievement Level 1 score, just like the pupil with 98 marks.

Previously, every mark attained affected a pupil's rank relative to his peers, and determined the T-score used to allocate secondary school choice.

This led to competitive pressure to chase after the next available mark. The change in scoring will ease this pressure and have a trickle-down effect on the education system cascading down to primary school.

Home-based learning will become a common feature of secondary and junior college education, taking up at least two days a month from the third term this year.

In transport, stage two of the Thomson-East Coast Line, with six stations from Springleaf to Caldecott, which was due to open late last year, is expected to finally open in the third quarter of 2021.

On the political front, expect discussions on race issues following the 2020 General Election, and on gender equality, with the tabling of a White Paper reviewing women's issues.

Succession remains an ongoing concern, with some anxiety over whether Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will step down this year, before February next year, when he turns 70 - an age he had once suggested was too old for a prime minister. But with Covid-19 likely to dominate, a change of PM in 2021 looks unlikely.

Longstanding priorities of this Government will continue to draw policy attention, including efforts on climate change and sustainability, and social policy tweaks to reduce inequality.

The key to a successful 2021 will be controlling Covid-19 while preparing for recovery in the post-Covid-19 world, and continuing with the ongoing journey of transformation.

With Singapore hailed in recent months as a model, gold standard or some kind of bellwether of Covid-19 management, it is not only Singaporeans, but the world, expecting this tiny city state to be first off the mark when the post-Covid-19 recovery whistle blows.