SINGAPORE - The Chinese in Singapore are all set to celebrate the upcoming Chinese New Year, while others are looking forward to a long weekend.
Concerned that too much mingling could lead to Covid-19 clusters forming and spreading rapidly, the Government has put new rules in place to minimise this. For example, households can have no more than eight visitors a day.
Not everyone is willing to fall in line. My mother, who is Chinese and 97 years old, has been busy planning ways to circumvent these measures. On the other hand, I have been busy trying to ensure that her plans don't pan out.
Some may say the rules are a bit of a wet blanket, given that Singapore appears to be on top of the Covid-19 situation now. Really?
There have been six locally infected cases in the past week - up from three the previous week.
Admittedly, this is not as high as the four local cases a day for three days running we had in the middle of last month - but it is also nothing to sniff at, given there were a total of 38 locally transmitted cases last month.
Any one of them, if not contained quickly, could have sparked an outbreak. There is the very real possibility that, one day, one case might be missed until a cluster forms.
And if the case happens to be of the B117 mutation from Britain that spreads about 70 per cent faster than the other strains, containing it might prove a challenge.
Such a resurgence has happened in countries like South Korea, Vietnam and Japan, which had all previously brought the pandemic under control within their borders.
Associate Professor Alex Cook of the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, who specialises in disease modelling, said: "We might well catch and ring-fence it before it spreads further, in which case, no problem.
"If it gets established, though, then we'd have a race on between our vaccination programme and the spread of the virus."
There are also other signs that raise some concern.
The number of people down with acute respiratory infections (ARIs) has been going up since early December, an indication that measures here to prevent viral spread are no longer as tight as before, and Covid-19 could spread more easily should community cases arise.
Professor Dale Fisher of the National University Hospital said: "I think it's fair to see the increase in non-Covid respiratory illness as sentinel and could translate to Covid-19 spread if any cases enter the community."
ARIs - which include the common cold, bronchitis and pneumonia - are viral or bacterial infections that spread from person to person.
Prof Fisher explained why, if cases of ARI are spreading more easily, so will Covid-19 if it's in the community: "These diseases are all spread predominantly by droplets."
The Ministry of Health keeps track of the daily number of certain infectious diseases - such as ARI, diarrhoea and chickenpox - treated at polyclinics, as part of its national surveillance for possible outbreaks.
Another infectious diseases expert, Associate Professor Lim Poh Lian of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, also sees these infections as "a leading indicator for the potential risk for community spread of Covid-19".
But she was not surprised by the recent rise in the number of cases.
"The numbers going up is not unexpected, given the gradual opening up in phase three, not just (because of) increasing group sizes but also dining out, shopping, increasing capacity in malls and restaurants," she said.
Last year, Singapore recorded the lowest number of ARI cases in a long while. There were a total of 75,154 ARI cases treated at polyclinics. In 2019, that number was more than double at 156,339.
Polyclinics, which reflect the national trend, treat one in five acute ailments, with the rest seen by general practitioners.
Dr Asok Kurup, an infectious diseases expert in private practice, said the reason for the huge drop in ARI cases last year was "probably multi-factorial".
He said the social distancing and other public health measures taken because of the pandemic "definitely play a part".
But the number of ARI cases, which had dropped from early April last year when the circuit breaker came into effect, has been creeping up in the past couple of months. Average daily cases at the polyclinics have gradually gone up from 779 in the first week of December to 1,423 in the third week of this year. It went down a bit to 1,226 in the last week of last month.
Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang of the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health said: "Public areas - including parks, shopping malls, restaurants and hawker centres - have become increasingly crowded. These collectively may have facilitated the spread of other viral infections."
Both he and Dr Kurup said the mild upswing this year could also be due to the start of the school year and greater mingling among students.
All the experts The Straits Times spoke to anticipate a rise in numbers later this month.
Said Prof Lim: "I do think the numbers will go up after Chinese New Year gatherings of extended families and friends."
Referring to Covid-19, Prof Fisher warned: "The formula hasn't changed and the virus doesn't know it's Chinese New Year. We want cases to be low and, if there is a case, (to ensure) that it doesn't spread. The risk of letting our guard down is transmission."
So my mother will have to shelve her plans to thwart the measures. Singapore has fought too long and too hard against Covid-19 to let all those efforts go to waste.