Divergent lives from Tuesday for the vaccinated and unvaccinated in S'pore

For the vaccinated, daily life will resume, allowing them to dine out at restaurants and participate in indoor sports classes or large events.
For the vaccinated, daily life will resume, allowing them to dine out at restaurants and participate in indoor sports classes or large events.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - As Singapore eases its strict rules on social gatherings starting on Tuesday (Aug 10), its population will begin living two divergent lives.

For the vaccinated, daily life will resume, allowing them to dine at restaurants and participate in indoor sports classes or large events.

Those who are not vaccinated - a much smaller group - will have to take Covid-19 tests for all such activities. Without these pre-event tests, they will have to limit themselves to dining in pairs at hawker centres or coffee shops, and keep to much smaller gatherings.

This approach is to protect the unvaccinated as the consequences of their contracting the virus can be much more severe, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Friday.

But the policy has proven contentious, with an online petition calling on the Government to drop such differentiated rules garnering more than 10,000 signatures since it was started two weeks ago.

Some members of the public have lambasted the rules as an act of discrimination, while others expressed discomfort with the way they had been communicated.

"You can look at it as protecting the unvaccinated, or as a big stick to punish them for declining the vaccine," Mr Peter Heng, a 41-year-old lawyer, told The Straits Times. "The same measure could be perceived very differently by different groups of the public."

He is not vaccinated - partly because he is worried about potential serious side effects he may develop, but also because he believes in the primacy of personal choice.

Ms Macalia Fong, who has serious allergies to several drugs and has been advised by a specialist doctor to hold back on getting jabbed, added that many restaurants have already told her they will not accept unvaccinated customers - even though she is more than willing to pay for a test.

"It's not that I don't want to take the vaccine," said Ms Fong, who is in her 60s and works for a multinational firm. "I also want to protect myself. But under these circumstances, I cannot do that - I will put myself at risk."

What impact can such differentiated policies have on society?

Such policies can be divisive if people who stand to lose feel that they are being unjustly penalised, said National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser.

These could include those who are ineligible for vaccination, as well as those who have legitimate reasons to fear potential side effects despite official advice giving them the green light - for example, pregnant women, he added.

"After all, they and their spouse or partner... are the ones who have to be responsible for raising the child," Associate Professor Tan said. "However, I am less sympathetic towards those who perceive vaccination as a form of oppression."

He hoped that the calibrated rules would feel "more like a nudge" for those who are hesitant to get jabbed.

Infectious diseases specialist Paul Tambyah suggested that one way to think about this issue would be to take reference from the healthcare sector, where workers who cannot show proof of immunity to hepatitis B are typically deployed to roles where they will not have contact with patients or be involved in "exposure-prone procedures".

"This is a bit different, but a reasonable analogy, as the principle is protection of patients with a safe and effective vaccine which has been used in this country for more than 20 years," said Professor Tambyah, who is president of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection.

Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, also suggested that people who are not vaccinated stay in a "social bubble" where they only interact with others who are ready to restrict their own movements and social interactions. This is to prevent the virus from spreading to those with weaker defences, as vaccinated people can still become infected and transmit the virus.

"What this means is that if you are vaccinated but there is someone in your household that is not vaccinated, especially an elderly person, then there is a need for you to minimise your social interactions with others," he said. "The intention is never to discriminate, but to protect the unvaccinated people from severe disease and deaths."