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A pedestrian walks past the Sydney Opera House in Sydney. Singapore’s decision to live with the coronavirus will put pressure on other zero-Covid economies to do the same. Photo: EPA

From Singapore to Hong Kong and Australia, Asia’s Covid-19 reopening is as much about politics as it is about science

  • As highly-vaccinated Singapore switches from fighting a pandemic to treating the coronavirus as endemic, a semblance of normal life beckons
  • The decision is likely to please a ‘battle weary’ public and puts the pressure on other ‘zero-Covid’ economies like Hong Kong and Australia to follow suit. Not all are in a position to do so
At the start of last week it seemed as if Singapore could finally see the light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel.
While the city state has one of the world’s lowest fatality rates from the coronavirus pandemic, over the past 18 months its 5.7 million people have not been spared the roller-coaster ride of on-again, off-again social gathering restrictions every time an outbreak occurs.

In the latest round of tightening, Singapore will from Monday differentiate dining out rules by vaccination status. Only recently, on July 12, it had allowed residents to dine in groups of five having for the previous three weeks restricted them to eating only in pairs outdoors. But on Friday, authorities said the new measures were needed to tackle a growing infection cluster of about 120 patients involving clandestine karaoke lounge operations.

Officials in recent weeks have indicated an eagerness to do away with reactive restrictions, saying instead that amid “battle weariness” among residents, the country should now start thinking about treating Covid-19 as endemic once vaccinations reach a critical threshold. Even with the new measures announced on Friday, authorities said Singapore would stick to its plan to live with the virus, though it described the outbreak as a “major setback”.

Government ministers said that a largely inoculated population meant Covid-19 would become a less transmissive and fatal disease, as public health experts have long predicted.

The government expects that 50 per cent of the population will be fully vaccinated by the end of July, and 66 per cent by August 9.

So far, authorities have outlined the broad strokes of the endemic plan. The key is a push for increased testing, tracing and vaccination.

That mantra has hit saturation point in recent public messaging, with the catchy jingle “let’s test, let’s trace, let’s vaccinate” going viral.

Also part of the plan is to move away from focusing on daily new cases towards measuring the number of patients who need intubation for oxygen or who are in intensive care units.

Observers said the pandemic-to-endemic transition would hinge on political considerations as much as the science.

How Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his People’s Action Party (PAP) execute the plan is likely to be watched closely by Hong Kong, Australia and other economies that like Singapore have so far embraced a “zero-Covid” mentality.

Under the spotlight in particular will be how the rapidly growing Covid-19 cluster linked to karaoke lounges pans out. The outbreak is now the country’s biggest cluster yet, other than the mass infections in migrant worker dormitories last year. Authorities said they were worried that the infected patrons of the nightlife outlets would pass the disease to their unvaccinated elderly parents and grandparents.

Bilveer Singh, a long-time observer of the PAP, suggested there could be political dividends to be reaped from forging ahead with the endemic policy rather than regressing to a new round of measures.

After all, “people are sick and tired of waiting for [a reopening]”, said Singh, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

People are sick and tired of waiting for a reopening
Bilveer Singh

Chong Ja Ian, also an NUS political scientist, said the shift in strategy would be welcomed by a segment of the population that had been disproportionately affected by the social-distancing measures, such as smaller retail outlets and hawkers.

“The upside is to try to push the economy and people’s livelihoods forward,” he said.

Experts said that for other countries to transition to treating Covid-19 as endemic, they too would need to reach the high-vaccination levels Singapore expects by August.

That may not be possible for some places – including the republic’s Southeast Asian neighbours – because of supply issues and vaccine hesitancy.

Reopening in Europe, hard-hit last year, has on the other hand come about following high rates of vaccination, with governments there wielding their market power to secure billions of doses of Covid-19 vaccines.
Britain – which continues to have a high rate of infection – will be next to have a full reopening, with a “Freedom Day” set for July 19 to mark the removal of most Covid-19 measures including limits on social gatherings and the scrapping of social-distancing guidelines.

It was Singapore’s reopening plan that elicited envy in Asia, however.

On social media, many Australians, Indonesians and Filipinos shared the viral “let’s test, let’s trace, let’s vaccinate” video with comments pleading for their own governments to emulate the city state.

A man walks out from a subway station in the Chinatown district of Singapore. Photo: AFP

Erik Baekkeskov, senior lecturer of public policy at the University of Melbourne, said that if other countries’ reopenings swayed the popular mood in Australia, it would pressure the government to form its own Covid-19 exit plans. “Many Australians care a lot about being able to return to normality,” he said.

Epidemiologist Alexandra Martiniuk from the University of Sydney School of Public Health said the conversation in Australia had at one point shifted to “Let’s just open up”, as it watched places like Britain, the United States, Canada and Israel emerge from tight Covid-19 restrictions.

But given Australia’s low vaccination rate, the conversation had since returned to eliminating the virus until vaccination rates increased.

How zero-Covid economies like Hong Kong, Australia can return to pre-pandemic life

Australia is among the countries that have stuck to their Covid-elimination plans and its government has pledged to keep borders closed until mid-2022.

University of Sydney political theorist Tim Soutphommasane described Australia’s vaccine roll-out as “disastrous”, noting that just nine per cent of the population were fully vaccinated.

He said the government had failed in its procurement of vaccines and had “bungled” their distribution.

“Australia remains very vulnerable to the coronavirus because it has the slowest Covid vaccination rate within the OECD,” he said.

Passengers wearing protective suits line up to board their plane for an international flight at Hong Kong airport. Photo: Reuters

Many other economies are in a similar position.

While Malaysia has dramatically ramped up vaccinations in recent days – with daily shots hitting 400,000 this week – it has thus far inoculated only 11 per cent of its 33 million people.
Indonesia’s vaccination rate is equally low, with just 5.5 per cent of the population inoculated so far.
In Taiwan 73,000 people have been fully vaccinated out of a population of more than 23 million.

Though Hong Kong has fared better – it has fully vaccinated about a quarter of its 7.5 million population and is clocking close to zero infections each day – authorities in the Chinese city are still pushing for a “zero-Covid” approach.

Lawmakers last week called for the twice-stalled quarantine-free travel arrangement with Singapore, previously called the “ air travel bubble”, to be scrapped after learning that the city state was planning to treat the virus as endemic.

Ultimately, the transition to treating Covid-19 as endemic entails decision makers taking on the risk of political fallout if the policy fails.

That may be a reason why many governments, especially in Asia, are continuing to take an ultraconservative approach, observers said.

A cyclist reflected in a puddle passes the skyline of the financial district in Singapore. Photo: EPA

Chong, the NUS professor, felt that for Singapore’s small and open economy there were “clear incentives” to restart as much business as possible.

Nonetheless, it was a “little bit of a gamble” and residents must be mindful that “things may suddenly have to regress due to some sudden contingency”.
Singh said the Delta variant was a potential black swan.

He noted how the highly contagious variant was running rampant in Israel despite it having fully vaccinated around 60 per cent of its population.

There are also fears that future variants of the virus may be even more transmissible than Delta, or even deadlier.

The Delta strain is already 2.5 times more infectious than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19.

Local political circumstances meanwhile could also weigh on whether there is a Covid-19 policy shift. The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has thus far stuck to his guns despite a rising backlash.

But elections are due by May, with the conservative government currently trailing the Labor Party, the main opposition, in a major poll while Morrison’s personal popularity too is waning.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has an election to think about. Photo: EPA

In Singapore, analysts suggested the trajectory of the pandemic policy may be linked to a leadership transition.

A handful of ministers – Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung and Education Minister Chan Chun Sing – are among the candidates to succeed Prime Minister Lee.

The previous named successor, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, 60, in April took himself out of the running for the job, citing the need for a younger leader to take over from Lee when the pandemic subsides.

Some commentators have suggested the various candidates could have different tolerances for reopening; those with economic portfolios might be more eager to push ahead while those in the social and health ministries could favour caution.

Walid Jumblatt Abdullah, a political scientist from Nanyang Technological University, said having differing opinions among the next generation of leaders was positive, as long as they could agree on how to proceed after hearing different ideas.

As Delta sweeps the West, doubts creep in over Asia’s zero-Covid approach

“Differences in opinion do not mean ‘division’. I would be shocked, and frankly disturbed, if there were not differing opinions,” he said. “Diversity of thought is a good thing.”

Singh said Prime Minister Lee, 69, would be eager to exit the political stage with the legacy of having successfully steered the country through its toughest crisis since independence.

The prime minister’s August 22 National Day Rally – an annual state-of-the-union-style address – would offer greater insight on his thinking, Singh said.

“Every time Singapore had a crisis, the PAP overcame it. That’s their mantra and narrative,” he said. “The prime minister is on his way out – it’s a matter of time – and he will try to get as much mileage as possible in terms of legacy.”

Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, thought most parts of the world would soon make plans to live with the virus, adding that he expected more governments to begin relaxing measures such as quarantine and social-distancing restrictions in the next six to 12 months.
The Singapore model was “very rational”, the professor said.


The global spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of Covid-19

The global spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of Covid-19

“They may have endemic cases after relaxing their policies but with a high vaccine coverage particularly in older adults they would not expect a large number of hospitalisations or deaths from Covid-19,” he said.

As for Australia, observers said it was hard to tell if the Morrison government might be pressured into a change of policy in the coming months. Soutphommasane said the nation of 25 million faced the real risk of being left behind because of policy dysfunction.

“While the rest of the world gets vaccinated and opens up, we’re still stuck in the pursuit of zero Covid. It is an indictment of our political leadership and debate that we risk being stranded in this parallel universe.”

Additional reporting by John Power