Around the world, the pandemic has stirred frustration and discontent. People have faced economic hardship for over a year now. Some chafe at continued restrictions, while others fret about the risks associated with opening up. Singapore, which could further ease Covid-19 curbs later this week or next week, has seen a decline in new daily cases and hospitalised cases, although a proportion of residents remain unvaccinated, including children under 12 as they are ineligible for jabs. While the majority are safe from severe illness, some are still at risk, raising questions if there will be another cycle of tightening of measures followed by a loosening up, and what Singapore's endemic Covid-19 road map will look like.
By September, four-fifths of Singapore's population would have received both doses of vaccines that are useful against even the deadlier Delta variant. Even so, measures will be lifted in phases rather than completely at one go. Two key sticking points are children under 12 - for whom clinical trials are under way to understand the safety and efficacy of the mRNA vaccines on them - and unvaccinated seniors, many of whom refuse to be vaccinated either due to indifference, incapacitation or personal beliefs. Pushing the vaccination uptake in seniors above 60 years old by another five percentage points can dramatically reduce the number of deaths in this age group by nearly 60 per cent.
But the reality is that vaccine-differentiated measures can do only so much to blunt these numbers. The vaccinated majority too, can transmit the Delta variant onward to vulnerable unvaccinated seniors. Also, Delta's extreme transmissibility can negate some of the community-level protection that vaccines offer. Vaccines may be the best way for individuals to protect themselves, but countries cannot treat vaccines as their only defence. Emergent clusters can still grow large enough to produce surges that can overwhelm hospitals and schools, and create more chances for worse variants to emerge. Rapid tests to catch early infections, better ventilation and mask wearing will still have to be the order of the day.
Societies that are near-fully vaccinated and inching towards a state of endemic Covid will have to make hard decisions: how much longer to stay cocooned, cut off from travel and whether opening up gradually, but more fully, are acceptable risks. There will be new variants, clusters will emerge, and there will be deaths. It requires people to stay alert, measures that are adaptable, and being open to consider the need for vaccine boosters. Moving forward also requires an open and frank assessment as to whether, after some two years, it is time to take the plunge - but with the knowledge that society here is in a far better position today to deal with the challenges than when the outbreak first hit and took hold.