SINGAPORE - Life will never return to exactly the way it was before the pandemic, experts told The Straits Times.
This view was shared by 28 per cent of respondents in an online survey of 1,000 people, commissioned by The Straits Times and conducted by market research firm Milieu Insight from Jan 6 to 10.
The respondents, who are all Singaporeans, are representative of the Singaporean population aged 16 and above by age and gender.
Nine per cent said they believed life in Singapore in 2022 would return to the way it was before the pandemic, while 32 per cent believed this would happen in 2023.
Another 31 per cent thought this would happen later than 2023.
Separately, 52 per cent said that at the start of 2021, they had believed that life would have returned to a pre-pandemic normal by the end of 2021.
Associate Professor Natasha Howard from the National University of Singapore Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, and her colleague, Assistant Professor Hannah Clapham, both said that life would not fully return to the way it was before the pandemic.
But Prof Howard added that not all changes are bad.
"For example, normalisation of flexible and remote working, education and healthcare increases access for those who might otherwise be excluded due to caring responsibilities, disabilities (and so on)," she said.
Prof Clapham said: "We are heading to a new normal, where Covid-19 will have fundamentally changed much of how we live our lives, but we should expect to be able to resume more and more activities with fewer and fewer restrictions."
Professor Dale Fisher, senior consultant at the National University Hospital's Division of Infectious Diseases, said that he believed most things would return to the pre-pandemic way of life.
"I don't believe Singapore will mandate mask wearing forever nor prevent large gatherings indefinitely. Its just not the way people want to live and the absence of such restrictions overseas will influence public opinion here."
On the other hand, virtual meetings, telemedicine and work-from-home arrangements will persist - but not for pandemic reasons, added Prof Fisher.
"It's because these have a role in our lives now and their introduction was expedited by the pandemic."
The experts were also asked what they thought of the Government's handling of the pandemic in 2021.
Prof Howard pointed out that the Government's "evidence-informed and logical" approach had led to better public responses and outcomes than in some other high-income countries in 2021.
Prof Clapham felt that the Government had taken a rational and balanced approach which considered both public health and economic outcomes.
Meanwhile, 36 per cent of respondents to ST's survey said that compared with the start of 2020, they felt either slightly or much more confident in the Government's ability to handle the Covid-19 situation in 2022, while 29 per cent felt either slightly or much less confident.
Forty per cent of respondents felt that the impact of the pandemic here in 2021 had been worse or much worse than they expected, while 38 per cent said it had the same impact as they had predicted.
Compared with those aged 45 and up, those aged 44 and below were more likely to favour quicker reopening, even if it meant potentially more infections and deaths.
Overall, however, a majority - 63 per cent - favoured reopening more slowly to keep infections and deaths to a minimum, followed by 27 per cent who were okay with reopening at the current rate.
Prof Fisher said that several parameters should be considered when assessing a nation's performance against the coronavirus.
He noted that when the nation was still trying to contain the virus, it maintained its contact-tracing system - which some other countries had abandoned - as well as an aggressive testing regimen with easily accessible free testing.
"It was able to act on such early identification by maintaining supervised isolation of positive cases. This meant cases and clusters that occurred could be limited."
He added that while other countries "flipped in and out of harsh social restrictions", including lockdowns, throughout 2021, Singapore maintained a more consistent and moderate stance.
Noting that Singapore had quickly rolled out its vaccine programme, Prof Fisher added: "Arguably the major weakness in this effort was the delay in seniors' vaccine uptake. This resulted in greater mortality and morbidity in this vulnerable group. It could still be debated if mandating vaccine in this age group or an earlier more proactive effort, which eventually came, would have made a difference. There was a disappointing resistance to vaccination by some seniors not generally seen overseas."
Professor Josip Car, director of the Centre for Population Health Sciences at the Nanyang Technological University's Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, said he felt the Government had been "exceptionally efficient" in adapting to new developments during the pandemic.
"Safety management measures were promptly revised for relevance as and when informed by the latest scientific advances. From increased testing and contact-tracing precision to home-based recovery scheme, Singapore has emerged much more resilient to handling Covid-19 and its variants in 2021," he said.
Noting that Singapore had one of the lowest mortality and highest vaccination rates in the world, he added: "However, we must not forget the sacrifices made to achieve Singapore's progress and current success... Restrictions to stop or slow the spread of the virus often have (a) heavy toll on many aspects of life, economy, and society."