SINGAPORE — Singapore is a city-state in Southeast Asia. England has lifted nearly all restrictions on the spread of coronaviruses. Germany is allowing people who have been vaccinated to travel without being subjected to quarantines. In Italy, the requirement to wear an outdoor mask has largely been phased out. Singapore’s shopping malls are still open for business.
Governments in Asia, Europe, and the Americas are encouraging people to return to their daily routines and transition to a new normal in which subways, offices, restaurants, and airports are once again crowded, 18 months after the coronavirus was first discovered. The mantra is becoming more and more the same: we must learn to coexist peacefully with the virus.
Scientists, on the other hand, warn that the pandemic exit strategies may be too soon. Because of the emergence of more transmissible variants, even wealthy countries with a plentiful supply of vaccines, such as the United States, are still at risk of infection. Countries such as Australia, which shut down its border, are discovering that they are unable to keep the virus out.
Officials are beginning to accept that rolling lockdowns and restrictions are an unavoidable part of the recovery process, rather than abandoning their road maps altogether. In order to avoid severe illness and death during a pandemic, people are being urged to shift their perspective and concentrate on avoiding infections, which are more difficult to avoid. And countries with zero-COvid aspirations are rethinking their policies in order to achieve them.
In Singapore, Dale Fisher, a professor of medicine at the National University of Singapore who also serves as the chairman of the National Infection Prevention and Control Committee of the Ministry of Health, said, “You have to warn people that we are going to get a lot of cases.” We have to let it go, and that’s part of the plan,” says the author.
Many residents of Singapore, a small Southeast Asian city-state, spent months poring over the details of each new Covid case that came to light. When the number of infections reached double digits for the first time, there was a palpable sense of dread. A sense of defeat also pervaded the atmosphere as the borders were closed, as even the most stringent security measures failed to prevent the spread of infection.
In a June opinion essay published in the Straits Times newspaper, a group of Singapore ministers expressed their frustration with the country’s citizens: “Our people are battle weary.” “Everyone is wondering when and how the pandemic will be brought to an end.”
In Singapore, government officials have announced plans to gradually loosen restrictions in order to chart a course out of the current pandemic. It was proposed to shift away from monitoring infections and instead focus on counting the number of people who become critically ill, how many require intensive care, and how many require intubation.
That is already being put to the test through these measures.
Outbreaks have spread to several karaoke lounges and a large fishery port, prompting Singapore to tighten its quarantine measures on Tuesday, including banning all dine-in service at all restaurants. Gan Kim Yong, the country’s trade minister, insisted that the country was still on the right track, describing the latest restrictions as “roadblocks” on the way to achieving the ultimate goal.
Singapore has fully vaccinated 49 percent of its population and has pointed to Israel, which has vaccinated 58 percent of its population, as a model for its efforts. With the focus shifting to severe illness, Israeli officials have coined the term “soft suppression” to describe their strategy. It is also dealing with a significant increase in the number of cases, which has risen from single digits a month ago to hundreds of new cases per day. The country has recently reinstated the requirement for indoor masks.
It is important, but it is also irritating, according to Danny Levy, 56, an Israeli civil servant who was waiting to see a movie at a cinema complex in the Israeli capital of Jerusalem last week. Mr. Levy stated that he would wear his mask inside the theatre, but that he found it frustrating that restrictions were being reimposed at the same time that new virus variants were entering the country as a result of insufficient testing and supervision of incoming travellers, according to Mr. Levy.
Unvaccinated people were put at risk, according to Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, who said that countries that took shortcuts on their way to reopening were gambling with their lives.
In fact, Mr. Baker, who was involved in the development of New Zealand’s Covid elimination strategy, finds it surprising that governments would necessarily decide that they know enough about how this virus will behave in populations to choose, “Yes, we are going to live with it,” at this point in time.
The possibility of longer-term restrictions appears to have been accepted by the people of New Zealand. 90% of respondents in a recent government-commissioned survey of more than 1,800 people stated that they did not expect life to resume as usual after they had received the vaccine, in part because there were still unanswered questions about the virus.
“Long Covid,” or the long-term symptoms that hundreds of thousands of previously infected patients are still dealing with, is still a mystery to scientists to this day. They claim that Covid-19 should not be treated in the same way that the flu is because it is significantly more dangerous. Vaccines are also unreliable in terms of the duration of immunity they provide and the effectiveness with which they protect against variants.
Much of the developing world is also still dealing with an increase in infections, which provides the virus with a greater opportunity to rapidly replicate, increasing the likelihood of more mutations and further spread. According to the Our World in Data project, only one percent of people in low-income countries have received a vaccine dose.
In the United States, where state and local governments are responsible for the majority of decision-making, conditions differ significantly from one region to the next. Vaccination rates are high in states such as California and New York, but unvaccinated people are required to wear masks indoors in other states such as Alabama and Idaho, which have low vaccination rates but do not impose mask requirements. On-campus vaccinations are being considered by some colleges and universities, but such requirements are currently prohibited by law in several states, including California.
Several state legislators in Australia suggested this month that the country had reached a “fork in the road,” at which point it needed to choose between continuing to impose restrictions or learning to live with infections in order to survive. They predicted that Australia would be forced to follow the majority of the world and abandon its Covid-zero policy altogether.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian of the Australian state of New South Wales slammed the proposal immediately after it was presented to her. The Delta variant cannot be tolerated by any state, nation, or country on the planet at this time, she asserted, citing low vaccination rates in the United States. Over the age of 16, only about 11 percent of Australians over the age of 16 are fully immunised against Covid-19.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also backed away from calls for a change in the country’s Covid protocols, according to the Australian media. In spite of the fact that he announced a four-phase plan for returning to normal life on July 2, he has maintained that the strength of the Delta variant necessitates an indefinite postponement.
When it comes to places where vaccine shots have been widely available for months, such as Europe, countries have placed a high value on their immunisation programmes as a way out of the pandemic and a means of keeping hospitalizations and deaths to a bare minimum.
Germans who have been fully immunised within the last six months are permitted to dine indoors in restaurants without presenting proof of a negative rapid test result. They are permitted to meet in private without any restrictions and to travel without being subjected to a 14-day quarantine.
Despite the fact that masks are only required for entry into stores or crowded areas in Italy, many people continue to do so, even if it is only to protect their chins. “My daughters tease me about it because they claim I’ve been vaccinated and therefore don’t need to wear a mask, but I’ve grown accustomed to it,” said Marina Castro, who lives in the Italian capital.
The most drastic approach has been taken by England, which has vaccinated nearly all of its most vulnerable residents. Despite an increase in Delta-variant infections, particularly among children and adolescents, the country lifted virtually all Covid-19 restrictions on Monday, according to official figures.
Pubs, restaurants, and nightclubs all over the country opened their doors wide on “Freedom Day,” as the tabloids dubbed it. The restrictions on gatherings and the requirement to wear a mask were also lifted. People were seen dining al fresco and sunbathing together, cheek to jowl, in the warm weather.
In the absence of most rules, the government is urging people to exercise “personal responsibility” in order to keep themselves and others protected. Sajid Javid, the health secretary of the United Kingdom, who tested positive for the coronavirus last week, said in a statement last month that the country must “learn to live” with the disease. Despite the fact that polls indicate that the English public would prefer a more gradual approach to reopening, this is the case.
On Tuesday, the city-state of Singapore reported a year-high 182 cases of locally transmitted infections, with officials predicting that the number of cases will rise in the coming days. The outbreak appears to have put a halt to, but not completely halted, plans for a phased reopening of the facility.
As Singapore’s health minister, Ong Ye Kung, put it earlier this month, “you give people a sense of progression rather than waiting for that big day when everything opens and then going crazy.”