Bracing for a leap of faith


SINGAPORE is aiming for a feat no country has achieved so far: reopen to the world and emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic with a death toll remaining in the double digits.

While the United States and United Kingdom have ploughed headlong into reopening their economies, their failure to contain the virus early on resulted in hundreds of thousands of fatalities.

Vaccine hesitancy is also providing a reality check for strategies that treated inoculation as the magic bullet.

At the other end of the spectrum, countries like Australia and New Zealand managed to avoid the pathogen almost entirely, but slow progress with shots means that they are unable to lift the border controls and quarantines that keep them isolated.

Singapore is seeking to succeed at both.

In a plan laid out by officials this week, the tiny city-state that relies on being globally connected is eyeing the resumption of some degree of international travel by September.

To do that, it’s trying to snuff out an outbreak driven by the Delta variant and reach a vaccination level – 80% – that few countries have achieved, but which the government says will put Singapore in a position where it can live with the virus without carnage.

Its leaders don’t have much of a choice.

The country’s success at limiting the number of Covid-19 deaths to 37 came in part from efforts to seal off its population from the outside world for more than a year.

Other restrictions include limiting indoor dining, exercising and social gatherings.

The result is an island nation with cabin fever, desperate to venture beyond the 50km it runs from east to west, and 27km from north to south.

While the promise of easier travel for the vaccinated sparked jubilation in Singapore, the question remains if its leaders will actually take what will be a leap of faith for a nation where even one locally transmitted Covid case makes the front page.

They earlier pledged to begin easing restrictions once half the population was vaccinated, but that milestone came and went on July 19.

Like other so-called Covid Zero countries, which eliminated the virus with aggressive rules and border curbs, Singapore has lower levels of natural immunity, which makes opening up borders that have kept the virus in check for so long a daunting proposition.

Singapore’s hesitation in opening up, despite vaccination levels that would be the envy of much of the world, reflects the conundrum its traditionally cautious leaders find themselves in.

The rise of the Delta variant and evidence that vaccinations may offer less protection against infection by new strains led officials to question the safety of their earlier plans. Singapore’s stance positions it to be one of the first countries to test the theories that epidemiologists and virologists crafted when Covid-19 first emerged.

Many predicted that herd immunity – a widespread level of protection that essentially means that the virus does not have enough vulnerable people left to infect and therefore can’t take hold in a community – would exist in areas where more than 70% of the population has been vaccinated.

While flattening the curve and getting to herd immunity via vaccination was a goal of many nations, Singapore may show whether it’s attainable. — Bloomberg

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