SINGAPORE — A tweet reacting to the recent news that Japan is lifting all COVID-19 curbs amid an easing of the Omicron wave in one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic sums up the inconsistent approach of Singapore's fight against the disease.
"How is Japan already out of the woods while we must remain vigilant in solidarity with our healthcare workers?", said the tweet, echoing stock phrases that have been repeatedly used by Singapore's multi-ministry task force on COVID-19 (MTF) to rally its residents.
It reflected the xian feeling, or ennui, of a population that has endured almost 800 days since the very first COVID case was confirmed in Singapore.
In that time, the country has put up with everything ranging from varying degrees of lockdowns with confusing names like Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) to the mishandling of cases in foreign worker dormitories, with the costly oversight at the start of the pandemic still causing considerable inconvenience and mental stress to these workers due to heavy curbs on their daily movements.
With 1,015,017 coronavirus cases and 1,198 deaths as of Sunday (20 March), the city-state is in far better shape than the likes of Hong Kong or Malaysia. Singapore also has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world at almost 87 per cent.
However, it remains very much in a strange state of stasis.
According to the MTF, Singapore is now in the endemic phase of the pandemic, or living with COVID. But almost a year after this message was first propagated, confusion persists over what it means.
This reporter asked the same question in a previous commentary six months ago: what exactly does "endemic" mean? The answer remains unclear.
Living with COVID curbs
In the past year or so, border restrictions have been gradually lifted, and mass events of more than 1,000 are now allowed. However, dine-in is still only allowed for groups of up to five fully vaccinated individuals, a move taken last November after months of back-and-forth adjustment of restrictions.
Masks are compulsory everywhere. Entering most venues still requires the use of the controversial TraceTogether app, even though the MTF has said it is no longer taking a "blunderbuss" approach to contact tracing.
Nightlife remains severely curtailed, and for some mysterious reason, it is "too early" to lift curbs on live music and the sale of alcohol after 10.30pm, according to Finance Minister and MTF co-chair Lawrence Wong. This arbitrary cut-off time is difficult to understand – is COVID more infectious and actively lurking to infect alcohol drinkers when it is closer to midnight and beyond?
Given the policy U-turns of the last 12 months, it is difficult to escape the perception that Wong and his fellow co-chairs Health Minister Ong Ye Kung and Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong have often made reactive decisions in the fight against the pandemic.
Ong's invocation of the "fog of war" cuts no ice for many. The MTF's ultra-cautious approach is akin to a child dipping his big toe into the deep end of the pool, but going no further.
A weary public that has been observing the Lunar New Year, Hari Raya and other holidays without festive joy in the past two years is looking to the MTF ministers to lift sagging spirits, but to no avail.
What's the point of streamlining?
Last June, it was Gan who first sketched out the broad outlines of what an endemic phase might look like: an acceptance of COVID cases and deaths, gradually re-opened borders and self-testing. The true barometer of whether tighter restrictions would be triggered is the number of serious cases and patients in intensive care units.
The unspoken expectation of all this was that curbs on social activities would be lifted further, and we could all get back to normalcy in time.
Today, self-testing is par for the course. For instance, General Category (Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) and Category I travellers entering Singapore now only need to do an unsupervised self-swab Antigen Rapid Test (ART) within 24 hours of entry.
However, the MTF ministers have failed to square off their multiple reassurances that case numbers in the tens of thousands were expected with the same level of decisiveness when updating Singapore's safe management measures (SMMs).
Instead, the authorities twice announced on 24 February and 4 March a postponement in the streamlining of COVID curbs, citing an ongoing surge in daily cases.
The MOH statement on 4 March reads like a cryptic tongue twister, "Although the measures are largely streamlining in nature and not expected to significantly increase transmission risk or affect our epidemic situation, we will hold back the streamlining of measures for a while more, in solidarity with our healthcare workers."
On 11 March, MTF finally announced that the streamlining will take effect on 15 March. It remains unclear when COVID curbs will be eased.
Even The Straits Times, the solidly pro-establishment national broadsheet that invariably gets to pose the first question at MTF pressers, politely questioned the logic of delaying the move when a case surge was already expected.
While the streamlining of measures has occurred, there is little discernible difference with what came before. Even Wong acknowledged, "This is not meant to be an easing of rules - it's meant to be a streamlining exercise."
Constantly shifting goalposts
As it is, the fluid and unpredictable pandemic is already a significant stress factor across society. But the lack of consistency in COVID-related policies and messaging only further elevates public exasperation.
For months, Singaporeans were told that SMMs were necessary in order to buy time for the elderly and other vulnerable groups to get vaccinated. Then it was about protecting the unvaccinated, despite measures already in place to bar them from entering most venues.
Today, with less than 14 per cent of the population still unvaccinated, the message is that COVID curbs remain in order not to overtax the healthcare system.
Like their counterparts around the world, Singapore's healthcare workers have displayed immense courage and professionalism. They deserve every reward that a grateful nation can conceive of. But they should not be used an excuse for a lack of conviction.
If the burden on the healthcare system remains a concern, the MTF should think about redeploying the army of safe distancing ambassadors to healthcare and quarantine facilities, instead of sending them to restaurants with a measuring tape to ensure customers are sitting one metre apart.
If the MTF is concerned about the impact of high case numbers, it should acknowledge that the endemic phase for Singapore still has a long way to go. The guidance for the public to live with COVID entails expectations that curbs would be significantly eased in tandem.
Instead, Singaporeans are being told that mass events can take place and tourists are welcomed in larger numbers even though such eased measures are far from risk-free, while curbs on serving alcohol in F&B outlets by a certain timing and dining in groups of no more than five must be in place as the risk of COVID is still prevalent.
The longer this contradiction endures, the more the MTF's message is undermined.
Having covered the pandemic in Singapore from day one, this reporter can say emphatically that the MTF has to deliver a clear and consistent message on the measures required to live with endemic COVID, or risk further losing the confidence of a worn-out citizenry.
The views expressed are the writer's own.
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