Thinking Aloud

Covid-19: Time to have new mindset in endemic phase

Individuals and their organisations must take greater responsibility for their own and others’ well-being

Singaporeans are getting increasingly weary of this drawn-out pandemic and long to get back to some measure of certainty.PHOTO: ST FILE

Singapore is set to enter a new phase in the fight against Covid-19, now that the number of people vaccinated is steadily reaching the Government's target.

I hope I have not said that too soon.

It has been a yo-yo year here and elsewhere, with things looking up one minute, then full of despair the next, as yet another new cluster breaks out.

Singaporeans are getting increasingly weary of this drawn-out pandemic and long to get back to some measure of certainty.

You only have to look at the reaction to the recent outbreak linked to KTV outlets and the Jurong Fishery Port to feel the frustration - anger initially over the irresponsible behaviour of a few, but mostly distress at yet another disruption to business and daily life.

People are tired because the cost of these restrictions is cumulative, piling up on top of the previous rounds.

If you've already incurred business or income losses, or suffered from mental stress because of the social isolation and from being cloistered at home in cramped living spaces, the pain becomes greater with each successive restriction.

It is this accumulation of misery that saps the spirit.

Singaporeans can't wait for the Government's plan to kick in when the disease can be treated like the seasonal flu, and the country learns to live with it.

That means accepting the reality that there will be infections in the community but not being overly alarmed, as vaccinated people are likely to suffer only mild symptoms.

In such a scenario, restrictions will be progressively lifted, and activities such as dining in, events with larger groups of people and travel can resume, as has just been announced.

Credit to the Government for securing the vaccines and getting vaccination numbers up - now at close to 70 per cent for the fully vaccinated - which has enabled the country to move towards this possibility.

But more important than the measures themselves and what to relax is to approach this new phase with the right mindset and attitude.

This change in the battle plan requires a different strategy.

In the early part of the war, with limited knowledge of the virus and with serious cases and deaths mounting, the message was to hunker down, stay at home and avoid going out.

When businesses closed, the Government poured in emergency funds to keep them afloat and livelihoods secure.

It was necessary then, but this very defensive posture cannot continue into the new phase.

If Singaporeans are to live with the virus, like the flu, the new message has to be to go out, socialise, patronise shops and dining places, and try to live as normally as possible, but all the time keeping safe with masks on and practising personal hygiene.

It is the only way to get the economy and livelihoods going.

After a major terrorist attack in a city, citizens are told to get on with life and not be cowed into submission by the fear of another attack.

If they are, the terrorist wins.

Similarly, in the endemic part of this disease, people cannot be living in fear and hiding in their homes.

Nor can the Government keep funding a shuttered economy from its limited reserves.

In fact, the message to stay at home in this new phase can be counterproductive, especially for seniors.

Many believe home is the only safe place and if they stay put, they do not need to be vaccinated. So, a fair number remain unvaccinated.

It is also a socially stigmatising message that does nothing to lift their spirits.

When this new phase begins, I hope they will be told to go out and live life as fully as possible, provided they are vaccinated. Life will not be worth living otherwise, in my view.

So too the dictum to work from home - it belongs to the old, frightened world.

In the new, people should be encouraged to go back to work, but only if they are vaccinated.

This way, the vaccination message becomes much stronger and clearer and there are no mixed signals.

The only safe thing to do is to get vaccinated (along with wearing a mask and practising good personal hygiene) - not stay at home and be afraid to go out.

One other change in strategy is required: Get businesses and other organisations involved in the effort, so they take ownership of the battle.

Restaurants, gyms, theatres and offices should take a stand on vaccination and be allowed to devise their own rules, for staff and customers.

Some might want to have only vaccinated staff in the office or allowed to attend meetings in closed rooms. Theatre groups might want to allow unmasked performers on stage, provided the audience is fully vaccinated.

Each organisation should know best how to manage its own business and take responsibility for it.

A one-size-fits-all rule that applies to all, which has been the approach in the old war, is too blunt and tends to be overly conservative because you worry about the recalcitrant rule breaker.

I hope that in the new phase, there is greater involvement by the citizenry and their organisations to keep safe.

The message should be that when Singapore opens up and most people are vaccinated, the individual has to take greater responsibility for his or her well-being.

It has to be, because in the new phase when restrictions are relaxed and many more activities resume, it is up to every person to do his or her part to keep everyone safe.

Without this level of individual social responsibility, there will be no safe future, as variants of the virus are bound to appear and break through the vaccination protection.

It will require a knowledgeable and civic-minded people who understand what this fight is about, are aware of the risks, and know how to mitigate it.

Are Singaporeans up to this? I believe so.

Happy National Day!

  • Han Fook Kwang is also a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.