The PAP government’s Covid-19 approach is about getting to the end without paying the high price

Our agile and practical approach to tackling the Covid-19 pandemic has prevented massive deaths.

When the pandemic erupted last year, we quickly learned that we were dealing with an unprecedented challenge.  We weighed our options very carefully and made the decision to adopt an eradication approach – through tight border and Safe Management Measures (SMM) (including a Circuit Breaker), aggressive contact tracing and widespread testing.  All these were drawn from our experience handling the SARS outbreak in 2003.

This allowed us to keep infection and hence casualties low while vaccines were being developed. 

We managed to sign purchase agreements with vaccine suppliers early.  So when vaccines became available, we could roll out national vaccination exercise quickly.  By early August in 2021, we have covered 70 per cent of our population with two doses of vaccines, which gives very good protection against Covid-19.  Our strategy then switched towards transiting to living with the virus like an endemic disease, and as a Covid-19 resilient nation.  

We need to make this transition, because as a global city relying on our connections with the world to survive, Singapore cannot afford to remain closed to the rest of the world.  Neither can schools and society remain void of interactions and activities.  Many young people, workers and families will suffer in many other ways.  The toll on mental and physical health is no less than the damage caused by Covid-19.  We do not have the option of large continental size countries who can afford to close their borders and yet live life quite normally. 

We pushed on with vaccinations.  As of Nov. 21, 2021, 85 out of 100 people are fully vaccinated — one of the highest in the world.  Amongst eligible population, 94 out of 100 people are fully vaccinated. 

The path toward endemicity is not a straightforward path.  As such, this approach is often misunderstood.

Because our earlier eradication approach worked well, some may have grown somewhat accustomed to the low number of cases.  But we were acutely aware that such a Zero-Covid strategy could not be sustained indefinitely.

Endemicity means that the Covid-19 virus will always be among us, just like any other seasonal flu strain, or the chicken-pox virus.  It is therefore unrealistic to expect zero cases.  

And so we must expect transmission rate to go up.  In fact, going through a big wave of transmission is a necessary rite of passage if we want to live almost normally with Covid-19.  With high vaccination rates, most people who contracted the Covid-19 virus suffer mild or no symptoms, and can recover from home.  Many will also recover safely from the infection, adding more antibodies and collective resilience against the virus.  

However, we have to adopt vaccination-differentiated SMMs to protect those who are unvaccinated, because they are vulnerable, and much more likely to fall very sick if infected with Covid-19. 

As Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society Asia-Pacific Conference:

“The path Singapore has chosen is unique in the world – we did not take a purist ‘zero Covid’ or ‘living with Covid’ approach.

“We adopted an eradication strategy when our population was vulnerable, mainly last year and earlier part of this year. After vaccines have given us a protective shield, we are opening up progressively, and avoiding a sudden lifting of all restrictions. Some may feel that this middle of the road approach is perhaps unclear, and may even appear to be a ‘flip-flop’.

But it has helped us avert the massive deaths that many countries have suffered. It is the correct approach for Singapore, and day by day, we are moving closer to the light at the end of tunnel.”

The plan for Singapore is to avoid paying the high price.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong summed up the plan perfectly at the recent Bloomberg New Economy Forum Gala Dinner on Nov. 17, 2021.

“The thing is this, we are trying to reach the end point without paying the high price which many other societies have paid, which got infected before they got vaccinated.”

He added “if we took the Freedom Day approach, cases will rise and that will be upsetting to the population because that means tightening up restrictions again.

So, I think it is better we take it step by step. I am not absolutely certain that I can do this without any misstep, I may have to step on the brakes again from time to time, but that is my game plan.”

At the end of the day, no one could have predicted the devastation that the Covid-19 virus has brought to the entire world.  Now we have a new Omicron variant before us.  We need to learn about it, and adapt our measures again.  

Ultimately, it is the ability to adapt and respond that makes our approach effective.  That in turn depends on the level of trust in our society – amongst people, and between people and Government. Fortunately, over the decades, we have built up a high level of trust in our society, by being an honest and competent government, delivering as we promise, and always having the people’s welfare at heart.    

Cover photo credit: Victor He on Unsplash