SINGAPORE - It is up to each country to make the best choice for its people on how to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, and this must be based on the information available and a combination of both natural and social sciences, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Thursday (April 21).
For Singapore, this has meant a change in mindset - from thinking that Covid-19 is a deadly virus that must be avoided at all cost, to being able to live with the disease, he said during a panel session at the annual Boao Forum for Asia held in Hainan, China.
Mr Ong joined the session - titled "Science-Based Approach in Fighting Against the Pandemic" - via video call.
The minister said that Singapore's focus shifted from overall infection numbers to severe cases leading to intensive care or death, and ensuring sufficient healthcare capacity to manage these severe cases.
Today, after going through a major Omicron wave, case numbers here are relatively low, hospital operations are stable, borders are open, and social and economic activities are almost back to normal, Mr Ong said.
"Fortunately, our accumulated incidence of fatalities is one of the lowest in the world," he added. As at Thursday, 1,322 people here have died from Covid-19 complications.
Mr Ong said the journey was difficult and arduous, and Singapore had to feel its way forward like crossing a river one stone at a time.
This approach best suited the Republic's needs and circumstances as a globally connected city state that needs to tap into the world in order to survive, he added.
However, other countries will have to tailor their pandemic responses based on their unique circumstances, priorities, and societal cultures, he said.
Mr Ong did not directly address China's continued persistence with its "zero-Covid" strategy, even as most of the world has loosened pandemic restrictions.
But he said that many countries had the decision between lives and livelihoods taken out of their hands as they responded to Covid-19 like they would have with influenza, which is far less deadly.
While many of these countries have since acquired strong herd protection and can live life normally, this was only after paying a huge price in human casualties, Mr Ong noted.
He said Singapore had to make many critical decisions on health protocols, safe management measures, and whether to impose mask mandates and requirements for Covid-19 vaccinations and boosters.
Each of these decisions was guided by science and data, and when new findings became available, Singapore was prepared to change its position and policies, and explain the reasons to the public, he added.
Some decisions go beyond science, and require balancing health, economic and social considerations - a difficult juggling act that all governments have to go through, Mr Ong said.
"It was not easy but progressively we reopened our economy, occasionally stepping on the brakes to protect our healthcare system and our people."
A transcript of Mr Ong's speech was shared with the media by the Ministry of Health.
Other panellists at the session included Dr Rifat Atun, professor of Global Health Systems at Harvard University, Malta's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Health Christopher Fearne, and Thailand's former deputy prime minister Surakiart Sathirathai.