COMMENT: Singapore’s Covid numbers must learn to tell a different story

SINGAPORE - 2021/05/16: People wearing face masks as a preventive measure against the spread of covid-19 walk across a Street in Singapore.
Singapore tightens its Covid-19 restrictions from May 16 to June 13 due to the rise of Covid-19 cases in the community. During this time, only groups of 2 people outside will be allowed, malls and attractions are to reduce capacity, and dining-in at eateries are prohibited. (Photo by Maverick Asio/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
If Singapore wants to go back to trying to live with the virus, it must interpret the data in ways that will make its people feel safe, not fearful. (PHOTO: Maverick Asio/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images) (SOPA Images via Getty Images)

By Rachel Rosenthal

(Bloomberg Opinion) — In the earliest days of Covid-19, we were scared and uninformed. The only way to make sense of a deadly virus spreading around the world was to quantify it – the number of cases and deaths, countries it had reached, age groups it affected.

We have learned a lot in the past 18 months, but too little has changed in terms of our response mechanisms, particularly in “Zero Covid” countries such as Singapore, where I live, and Australia. The impulse to count every case has become debilitating. It’s time to focus on a more informative set of data.

On Tuesday, Singapore announced it would revert to strict social-distancing measures to contain a recent outbreak that started at a karaoke lounge. The daily count of locally transmitted cases has risen well past 100 this week, after hovering in the single digits before the cluster was identified. The restrictions come weeks after the country laid out plans for a “new normal,” in which Singaporeans would learn to live with Covid, much like the flu. The strategy was predicated on steadily climbing vaccination rates and a goal of getting both shots to two-thirds of the population by National Day on Aug. 9.

The “new normal” was a major step forward. After months of acquiescing to the government’s every demand – from sensible ones, such as wearing a mask, to the head-scratchers, like banning balls at the park – it was a relief to see a plan that made so much sense.

Part of this involved looking at the data differently: “Instead of monitoring Covid-19 infection numbers every day, we will focus on the outcomes: how many fall sick, how many in the intensive care unit, how many need to be intubated for oxygen, and so on,” Singapore’s Covid task-force ministers wrote in the Straits Times on June 24.

That plan followed good science. Early in the pandemic, statisticians at the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford suggested monitoring hospitalisations and eventually death rates or the number of patients in intensive care. By these measures, Singapore is still in good shape, with one person in the ICU and five requiring oxygen supplementation. The death toll, at 36 since the start of the pandemic, has been low and steady.

In a virtual press conference Tuesday, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said the government would be confident it can open up and stay safe with 100 to 200 new cases daily once its vaccination target is met. Even if we’re not there yet, Singapore could have used this opportunity to start implementing its new data framework. Why blink now?

The importance of vaccinations shouldn’t be understated. None of Singapore’s six serious cases as of July 19 had both shots. But the country is making progress on this front, with 80,000 injections a day. The proportion of fully vaccinated people has hit 48.2%, with 72.8% having received one dose or more, according to Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker. More than 85% of Singaporeans between 60 and 69 have been vaccinated, according to the health minister, and about 71% of those above 70.

Some folks are sympathetic to the new tightening measures given the resurgence of cases, and the delta variant is concerning. The trouble with that view is the very high economic and emotional cost of lockdown, particularly when we’re confronted with “known knowns.” We are now keenly aware that the types of things that spread Covid to worrying levels aren’t kids attending school or people exercising in parks; it’s the more blazingly obvious activities and circumstances, such as going to hostess bars or living 20 people to a room.

This should be a lesson for countries such as Australia, where half of the population is in lockdown. The haunted streets of Melbourne and Sydney will exact a toll on any attempt at recovery, while parents are beset with home-schooling duties. Accelerating the pace of vaccination is a critical task, and the country is a laggard, but its policy makers are held hostage by the wrong numbers.

Singapore’s data obsession has been one of its virtues throughout the pandemic. It’s easy to parse and you can almost set your clock to the government’s WhatsApp updates detailing the number of locally transmitted cases and imported ones. In March and April of last year, I took comfort from these messages, as if I could wring from them some hint about what our future held.

I can’t quite say when, but at some point I stopped reading those texts entirely. It became clear that the chances of dying from Covid, while not zero, were exceedingly low. I continued to follow all the rules to protect the vulnerable, but I wasn’t afraid anymore. The case count had lost its meaning. All the more reason to focus on the figures that matter: vaccination rates, serious cases and deaths. This was supposed to be the plan.

What seemed like a flash of brilliance from Singapore’s staid and risk-averse leadership is now looking like a flash in the pan. Changing the way it communicates important data to the public is cost-free and one of the easiest ways to start down the path to a new normal. Flexibility is meaningless if it only applies in good times.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Rachel Rosenthal is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. Previously, she was a markets reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.