Coronavirus

COVID-19 Lessons From Singapore, Facing Its First Crisis So Late In The Pandemic

Its Zero-COVID strategy has mostly worked, and vaccinations are going well. Now a breakout spread is raising multiple questions for the Asian nation and global financial hub.

COVID-19 Lessons From Singapore, Facing Its First Crisis So Late In The Pandemic

Daily Life In Singapore Amid The Covid-19 Pandemic

zuma24.com Joseph Nair / NurPhoto / ZUMA
Meike Eijsberg

-Analysis-

When it came to COVID-19, Singapore had seemed to do everything right. Back in March 2020, the wealthy Asian city-state didn't hesitate to impose a strict lockdown. Indeed, Singapore officials took the risk so seriously, that they opted for a Zero-COVID strategy similar to the one countries like China and New Zealand used to stop the spread at virtually all costs.

It seemed to work: according to data from the Straits Times, a peak of 1,111 cases per day reached in April was quickly brought down to about 50 infections per day in August 2020.

Then, in early 2021, Singapore completely avoided the second wave that the majority of the world was dealing with. There were hardly more than 30 cases per day over the past year, boosted by a very high vaccination rate.

Limits of Zero-COVID

Yet over the past two months, Singapore currently battling its biggest surge in COVID-19 infections since the start of the pandemic, as reported by Reuters. It's a phenomenon that is puzzling many.

Since the beginning of September, the numbers have skyrocketed, reaching a new record of more than 5,000 cases per day at the end of October and forcing the country to reimpose some of its social restrictions, like limiting group sizes for social gatherings.

Compared to other countries, this may not seem like a lot but with a population of 5.7 million, it quickly adds up. The country is currently experiencing about 15 deaths from COVID per day, while there were none in the first seven months of the year. Why? And what might it mean for other countries?

Minimize the risk of large clusters

The answer may lie in Singapore's change in COVID strategy earlier this year. Back in June 2021, three ministers wrote an op-ed in the country's national newspaper, The Straits Times, announcing a roadmap out of COVID-19. Gan Kim Young (Trade and Industry Minister), Lawrence Wong (Finance Minister) and Ong Ye Kung (Health Minister) argued that it was impossible to bring down the number of infections to zero, and instead explained their "aim to minimize the risk of large clusters forming." They stressed the importance of vaccination, mass testing, and maintaining social responsibility.

Natural immunity matters

According to the French daily Le Monde, which recently published an analysis on Singapore's spiraling COVID situation, the ministers forgot one important factor: as a result of the Zero-COVID strategy at the beginning of the pandemic, a relatively small number of people became infected. Due to this lack of natural immunity, a lot of people are testing positive for the first time, now that the virus has finally been permitted to roam free.

Despite this explanation, those reluctant to vaccinate consider Singapore as proof that vaccination does not work. And yet Le Monde explains why the opposite is true: "The rise in cases is not an illustration of the failure of vaccines — they do not always prevent transmission — but an expected consequence of a policy choice that relies, instead, on vaccine protection [alone]."

What seems to be needed is a combination of policies, which Singapore is doing. But due to its Zero-COVID strategy at the beginning of the pandemic, it is only now allowing the virus to circulate around the island and building up the natural immune response that most other countries' populations already have. There are just a handful of other nations who imposed similar policies so it remains to be seen what path Singapore will follow.

Singapore daily life In Covid-19

Joseph Nair/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press

Health or economy? 

Nearby China, for example, is the only country still employing a Zero-Covid strategy. The policy has proven its worth in terms of health, but it is isolating the country on the international scene. "While the world is opening again, China is barricading itself behind its Great Wall of Health," writes Frédéric Schaeffer, the Beijing correspondent of another French daily Les Echos. He explains that China is now becoming increasingly isolated at a time when the international public opinion is hardening against it. Xi Jinping hasn't left China since January 2020 and was absent from the G20 and the COP26.

Economically, the Zero-COVID strategy isn't boding well either. In China, investment is down, and tourist spending is very low since almost no one is permitted to enter the country. It's a similar story in other Asian cities that employed the strict policy. According to the latest Global Financial Centres Index, Singapore and Hong Kong dropped by 25 points. New York and London, by comparison, fell just two and three points, respectively, reports The Financial Times.

Some are asking for greater state control

For Singapore, a small city-state that largely depends on its status as an Asian financial hub, further economic tightening could be detrimental. But, interestingly, the population doesn't seem to mind the re-introduced restrictions. In fact, some are asking for even greater state control and have circulated a petition calling for all returning travelers to quarantine for two weeks in designated hotels.

Dale Fisher, a senior infectious disease consultant at Singapore's National University Hospital, explained that there's less tolerance for increasing case numbers because they had been so low earlier in the pandemic — and governments "should avoid overpromising the removal of restrictions because things can quickly change."

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