Commentary: Some pain even as Singapore rises to the challenge of tighter COVID-19 measures
The changing rules of this COVID-19 threat could mean on-off restrictions and the need for resilience to get through this pandemic.
SINGAPORE: There is something extraordinary in the way Singapore’s national response to a raging pandemic runs like clockwork.
Take last week for example. The announcement of tightened restrictions last Friday (May 14) by the multi-ministry task force came as little surprise to many.
As daily new infections ticked up over the past two weeks, people were already getting into position for some sort of a coming winter.
Close friends WhatsApped me last week to postpone dinner plans until infection numbers die down.
My mother instinctively went to see my grandmother, just in case she could no longer do so if rules disallowed visits.
And when she dropped by our neighbourhood hair salon to get a trim on Thursday, the owner shared how he had stayed open despite earlier plans to close for the public holiday, anticipating a surge in customers and potentially having to shutter if another circuit breaker was pulled.
When Friday’s announcement was made, most people's reactions were marked by readiness rather than alarm.
Lines at supermarkets grew but were nowhere near panic-buying levels seen last April and quickly died down. Workplaces shifted into work-from-home mode somewhat seamlessly.
In fact, it looked like the pandemic has made us pretty agile and responsive to change. Businesses, workers and people were reading the tea leaves, readying ourselves and taking action to mitigate risks even before we moved into what the Government calls Phase 2 (Heightened Alert).
Even Sunday’s announcement of schools moving to home-based learning (HBL) came as little surprise to parents who had discussed that eventuality extensively over the past week as the exam season concluded and after school and tuition centre clusters emerged.
WORRIES AND FATIGUE AS THE RULES OF THE COVID-19 GAME KEEP CHANGING
That preparedness, however, may belie some of the underlying feelings arising from keeping up with the relentless, shifting challenges thrown up by COVID-19.
Some frontline healthcare workers have been pushed to their limits. Concerns over livelihoods remain as sectors including F&B, the arts and the construction industry are impacted by restrictions.
Such worries may be taking a toll on general well-being. Singaporeans are sleeping worse since the pandemic.
More than a third say the pandemic has hiked stress levels and impacted their emotional health. About four in ten reported having troubles falling asleep and waking up at night according to a Philips study of 1,000 surveyed here in end-2020.
The most frustrating part of living in a COVID-19 world is the changing rules of the game. Each time we think we have turned a corner, some new development threatens to undermine past efforts.
For months, community cases in Singapore were near-zero. We had cruises and concerts. The national conversation was on whether travel restrictions could be relaxed with vaccination. That second shot at an air travel bubble with Hong Kong had looked promising.
While not surprising, the shift in Singapore’s posture is a frustrating reminder of our never-ending fight with COVID-19.
The operating assumptions and organising principles on which our national response rely on has had to adjust a few times when the scientific consensus on the virus’ characteristics took time to emerge.
From the World Health Organization confirming the novel coronavirus spread at the onset of an infection and asymptomatically unlike SARS to the need for mask-wearing, that dynamic was an uncomfortable constant when the virus first reared its head.
VARIANTS POSE NEW CHALLENGES
The new spanner in the works is a range of mutated strains. New variants may be harder to control than older strains, being more transmissible, Duke-NUS Medical School Professor Gavin Smith said on CNA’s Heart of the Matter podcast two weeks ago.
There is also evidence more antibodies are needed to kill the virus compared to older strains, which could be reflected in reduced efficacy of the vaccines, he added.
The bigger challenge posed by mutated strains goes beyond tackling immediate cases and requires a good hard look at how to address fatigue to ensure compliance for the long term, when experts have pointed out the virus is evolving to become endemic.
“We can deal with a particular surge but in the long-run, if a variant can bypass measures in place, because people are no longer protecting themselves with masks and distancing ... that’s what I’m most concerned about,” Professor David Matchar highlighted in the same podcast episode.
We also know that the announced HBL has been generally accepted because parents are aware it will only last one and a half weeks. But given how the B1617 strain appears to affect children more, what if infections do not let up and schools reopen after the June holidays to require HBL?
(Are COVID-19 vaccines still effective against new variants? And could these increase the risk of reinfection? Listen to the full conversation with Profs David Matchar and Gavin Smith on on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast.)
NO STRAIGHT-LINE PATH TO NORMALITY
Perhaps to expect Singapore to continue on an uninterrupted path to normality was something we all desired but is an impractical wish.
We are in a good place. Our national strategy has evolved to a considered system of safe-distancing, rigorous testing and rapid contract-tracing, underpinned by a fortuitous mix of ripened technology, responsive public policy and general public compliance.
But the agonising reality of keeping pace with an evolving virus could mean regular reintroductions of restrictions to curb the spread when cases slip through the cracks or if the virus evolves further, taking a evidence-based approach to calibrate and target measures to avoid impacting people and livelihoods where possible.
In this, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung’s response on Sunday cautioning against pulling a circuit breaker and urging for cool heads and the passage of sufficient time to see if removing high-risk settings can tackle the current surge is one to be welcomed.
Let’s also remember blunt measures, like tightening travel restrictions can scarcely be a sustainable solution.
“You can completely shut off Singapore for a few months and feel secured there is no community transmission. But once you reopen borders, there’s always going to be a risk because there are outbreaks elsewhere in the world”, Prof Smith reminded me.
Families whose Build-to-Order flats have been delayed and are unable to hire new foreign domestic workers know closing off Singapore can cost them dearly. Construction firms are feeling the pain of entry restrictions on foreign workers.
There is some fatigue and some frustration in Singapore. But an overall willingness to stay alert, keep our guards up and do our part is what will get us through this pandemic.
The key challenge is sustaining this as the journey continues.