Easing of Covid-19 rules brings Singapore closer to normalcy

The step-by-step move towards normalcy has been the trademark of the multi-ministry task force tackling the pandemic. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - The latest easing of restrictions brings Singapore closer to treating Covid-19 as endemic – even though more than a third of the world’s population remains unvaccinated and some countries are still facing high infection rates.

For people here, it spells a major step towards normalcy.

Some measures remain in place - such as masking when on public transport and when in indoor public areas - but these, too, will hopefully be removed within weeks, barring any curveballs from the latest round of easing or the emergence of a new and virulent variant of concern.

Data over the past three weeks, since the last round of easing, looks promising.

The number of infections and people who became seriously ill did not jump, as some had feared.

While deaths still occurred - two on Friday (April 22) - there are currently 245 people in hospital, of whom 24 require oxygen and 10 are in intensive care units. So long as these numbers remain small, the healthcare system will have no problems coping - and these patients will also be given the best care possible, as the system is not overwhelmed.

The number of daily infections averages 3,100 - again, a manageable number since the Omicron variant in play today is not as virulent as its predecessors and most people have mild symptoms.

Removing all restrictions could well have been on the cards.

But that is not the way Singapore operates.

This step-by-step move towards normalcy has been the trademark of the multi-ministry task force tackling the pandemic here (MTF), so no one should be surprised that Singapore has not declared a Freedom Day.

In fact, segments of the population would have been alarmed had all restrictions been lifted. After more than two years of precautions, with a few setbacks along the way when first the Delta, then the Omicron variants swept across the globe, such concern is understandable.

In July last year, people here had looked forward to having most measures eased once 50 per cent of the population had been vaccinated.

But outbreaks at KTV lounges and the Jurong Fishery Port put paid to that when they caused a surge in cases, involving many seniors who were at higher risk of serious illness.

Hope again reared its head when 80 per cent of the population had been vaccinated by the end of August. But moves towards living with Covid-19 was again derailed when infection numbers topped 5,000 a day in October, with deaths hitting a new high with 18 dying on Oct 20.

In December, the world braced itself for the onslaught of the Omicron variant which had spread from Africa to Europe, and also to Singapore. What was known then was that it spreads much faster than the Delta variant - in many cases, needing only one day between exposure and symptoms.

Obviously, that was the wrong time to ease measures.

However, with 93 per cent of the population now inoculated, and the vast majority of higher-risk seniors having received their booster shots, Singapore is in a much stronger position today.

On top of that, Omicron has proven to cause a much milder disease in most, with 99.7 per cent having no or mild symptoms. Only three in 10,000 people infected need intensive care.

But given Singapore's chequered history with Covid-19, it was not surprising that even as limits on gatherings were lifted, TraceTogether done away with, and cross-border as well as international travel restrictions further eased, the MTF warned that things could change so, please, don't throw away your TraceTogether token.

From April 26, most venues will no longer require the public to check in using the TraceTogether application or token. PHOTO: ST FILE

The current situation could certainly change for the worse.

Influenza, which has been around for centuries, still occasionally causes widespread infections and deaths. The Spanish flu in 1918 killed more than 50 million people globally. The Hong Kong flu in 1968 killed between one and four million people.

Viruses mutate, often becoming less lethal, but there is no guarantee that a virulent and easily transmissible coronavirus variant won't emerge, and this could happen any time from tomorrow to decades in the future.

This is something the Ministry of Health needs to plan for, although it is not something people should needlessly worry about.

If Covid-19 infections, serious illnesses and deaths remain low in the coming weeks, then life in Singapore truly should return to normal.

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Hopefully, the painful lessons learnt over the past two years will instil greater social responsibility so people who are sick will continue to stay home or put on their masks when going out, so as not to spread the illness to others.

It should not matter whether they have Covid-19 or the common cold. That would be the responsible thing to do.

The healthcare system has also been strengthened over the past two years as hospitals struggled to balance the needs of Covid-19 patients and their usual load of patients needing medical care.

They have become more nimble, and many more healthcare workers have been trained to look after patients requiring intensive care. Nurses and doctors were trained and rotated from their normal jobs to take on such stressful roles to give their colleagues much needed breaks. Such rotations should continue to keep skills current against future needs.

Meanwhile, a few more weeks of caution might not be a bad thing.

It will give people who are at higher risk of serious illness - people aged 80 years and above, or who have significant underlying illness - time to get a second booster shot, and for that shot to become effective. So far, about 30 per cent of this group has done so.

There is also that 1 per cent of the population who have received only their first vaccine dose. This will give them time to get their second dose and the two weeks for it to become effective.

For the rest of us who are fully vaccinated and are longing for the day when masks are no longer necessary indoors, well, it should not be too long a wait. Touch wood.

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