Thu. Jan 20th, 2022

When Singapore started its strategy of living with COVID-19, backed by one of the world’s leading vaccine programs, the affluent city-state saw an increase in the number of infections, which led many to question whether the time was right.

But as numbers now fall as fast as they rose, there is a cautious optimism that the highly-monitored plan has helped Singapore turn the corner in the pandemic, even with the discovery of the new worrying Omicron variant, and provide a better understanding of what is effective and what is not.

“Now it looks like COVID is just a normal flu for everyone,” Glacier Chong said as he took a break from shopping on Singapore’s popular Orchard Road to see people at a fountain and listen to the Christmas music being broadcast by large speakers. the street.

People wearing protective face masks walk along the Orchard Road shopping area in Singapore. (AP)

“Everyone is getting used to it; it seems that if you got COVID, that’s the norm now. COVID seems like a curable disease.”

Part of that confidence comes from the figures provided by Singapore.

With 94 percent of the eligible population fully vaccinated and a further 26 percent already with booster shots, even as the number of infected began to rise, about 99 percent had no symptoms or only mild symptoms, meaning health systems were under pressure but never overwhelmed . Deaths increased but remained low, and the majority were elderly people with underlying medical conditions, a disproportionate number of whom were unvaccinated.

Singapore was able to get so many people vaccinated by ensuring that there were few barriers to getting shot, increased difficulties for the unvaccinated – such as banning them from eating at restaurants or going to shopping malls – and a general trust in the government and its approach, said Alex Cook, a specialist in infectious disease modeling and statistics at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

“Perhaps the most important lesson to learn from Singapore is to make it easy to get vaccinated, and hard not to get it,” he said.

People wearing protective face masks walk along the Orchard Road shopping area in Singapore. (AP)

Early in the pandemic, the major Southeast Asian business and trade hub kept the spread of coronavirus cases at single- or low-digit digits for nearly a year by introducing a hard-line “circuit breaker” lockdown.

With its vaccination rollout in full swing, an aggressive testing and tracking regime and strict health and safety guidelines, the 5.5 million nation felt confident when it embarked in August on what it called a “transitional journey to a COVID-19 resistant nation. “

It was part of a decision to start treating COVID-19 as an endemic disease, admitting that in the long run it would not be possible to reduce the number of cases to zero and that it was time to slowly allow people and companies again to resume their normal lives.

In addition to a broadly vaccinated population, Singapore calculated that its testing was comprehensive enough that it would be able to quickly identify and isolate new outbreak clusters, and that its health system had the capacity to handle any more serious cases.

The highly transferable delta variant threw the plan a curve, and in September the government again tightened some lockdown measures, such as reducing group sizes for social gatherings and for dining at restaurants.

People wearing protective face masks walk along the Orchard Road shopping area in Singapore. (AP)

At the end of October, Singapore hit a seven-day moving average of almost 700 cases per year. million people, by far its worst rate of the whole pandemic.

This week it was down to 258 per. million; still well above the worst peak at the start of the eruption in 2020, but in a clear downward trend. In absolute numbers, it peaked with more than 5,300 daily infections and is now below 1,000.

The deaths peaked with a seven-day rolling average of 2.57 per. million people on November 10 and is now just over 1, according to Our World in Data.

In contrast, neighboring Malaysia, during its most recent rise, peaked in September at 12.71 deaths per capita. It has also seen these numbers drop drastically and is now at about the same rate as Singapore, aided by a rise that has now nearly 80 per cent of the people fully vaccinated.

If a mistake had been made, Cook said it was to start allowing home-based isolation in late August for mild or asymptomatic patients, rather than in hospitals or dedicated facilities, just as cases began to rise rapidly. The intention was to ease the pressure on the health system, but it instead led to a rapid spread of the virus in local communities, he said.

“For future outbreaks of similar dangerous viruses, countries should seriously consider making sense of letting infected patients get home, no matter how mild their symptoms are,” he said.

People wearing protective face masks walk along the Orchard Road shopping area in Singapore. (AP)

Restrictions have since been eased again, but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Sunday with the appearance of the Omicron variant that the easing may need to be rolled back, saying Singaporeans need to be prepared for “more bumps along the way” as the virus develops.

“We may well be forced to take a few steps back again before we can take more steps forward,” he said. “But despite all this, I am convinced that we will eventually find our way to live with the virus and surely resume all the things we love to do.”

For a start, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung announced on Tuesday that it would delay with more reopening measures as it evaluates the Omicron variant and increases testing of travelers and frontline workers.

However, the country moved on Monday with the partial reopening of the Causeway Bridge, which connects Singapore with the Malaysian Peninsula, which had been closed for almost two years.

On Orchard Road, resident Lee Ching Yee said the emergence of the Omicron variant was a cause for concern because the youngest two of her three children have not yet been vaccinated.

Still, she decided it was safe enough for a quick shopping trip with her family to pick a new Apple watch for her oldest, 12, as a reward for doing well at recent exams.

“We visit the store and have dinner outside as we can eat in groups of five,” she said. “But we are looking at a place that is al fresco for security reasons. One has to balance things.”

People are queuing from early morning to receive a shot of COVID-19’s vaccine at a clinic in Singapore. (AP)

With such precautions and its high number of vaccinations, Singapore is still well positioned to cope with the emergence of new varieties that can be expected, Cook said.

“As long as vaccination still provides strong protection against serious illness, I would not expect the emergence of the new variant to lead to a fundamental reconsideration of the strategy of living with COVID,” he said.

Sitting with Glacier Chong at the fountain along Orchard Road, her boyfriend, Marcus Yeo, said he was not so worried about the emergence of Omicron based on Singapore’s track record so far.

“This variant is still quite unknown to us,” he said. “But looking at how we’ve grown out of the delta variant phase, I think we’ll do just fine.”

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