SINGAPORE — There is a cheeky meme going around that plays on two things: Finance Minister Lawrence Wong's warning that the government will not rule out a return to a partial lockdown should COVID cases in intensive care units rise, and this year's National Day Parade song The Road Ahead.
A headline with Wong's comments is juxtaposed with a 'crying' Linying - one of the composers and singers of the song - and a line from The Road Ahead: We did it before, and we'll do it again.
Jokes aside, it is a legitimate question: what exactly is the road ahead as Singapore transitions into the so-called endemic phase of the pandemic? Divining the multi-ministry taskforce's (MTF) intentions is somewhat akin to reading tea leaves, complicated by the mixed messages emanating from the MTF.
Safe management measures (SMM) have changed abruptly more times than one can count, with confusing rules and names like Heightened Alert and Preparatory Stage. Singaporeans had been told that, with a high vaccination rate, we would not return to the days of the dreaded Circuit Breaker (CB) – before being informed that it remained a possibility.
While the pandemic situation is inevitably fluid, the multiple U-turns have made it feel like we are all on a giant carousel.
As of now, Singapore's wider re-opening is on hold for two to four weeks, given that between 1,000 and 2,000 cases a day are expected in the near future.
"We believe, at this juncture, the best thing to do is to take a pause and monitor our hospital and ICU situation, to ensure they are not overwhelmed," said Wong, who is MTF co-chair, last Friday (10 September). He acknowledged that public sentiments are divided, ranging from calls for greater restrictions to greater freedoms.
The public frustration at the constantly shifting goalposts has been such that Wong, an apparent contender to be the next Prime Minister, even felt the need to address naysayers' comments directly on Instagram.
The only way to get some sense of the road ahead is to look back at the road already travelled.
Multiple twists and turns
Like many of my colleagues, this reporter has been covering the pandemic from day one. About 21 months on from the very first COVID case detected in Singapore, there have been dizzying twists and turns aplenty.
They include the mishandling of cases in foreign worker dormitories, a months-long CB and tentative re-opening, a controversial general election that may well have risked public safety, the KTV joints cluster and now, one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, at 80 per cent.
Other things have changed too. At the beginning, there were almost daily media briefings by the MTF, with questions freely taken from mainstream and independent media.
MTF briefings happen much less frequently now and are held over Zoom, where reporters are only allowed one question each and cannot ask follow-up questions. Most of the queries typically go to mainstream media outlets, while some briefings are reserved for the mainstream media.
Perhaps this is one reason that, despite multiple briefings, many are still asking: Is Singapore really in the endemic phase?
Back in June, Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong sketched out the broad outlines: an acceptance of COVID cases and deaths, gradually re-opened borders and self-testing. Meanwhile, the true barometer of the need for tighter restrictions would be the number of serious cases and those in intensive care units.
This message has been undermined by the Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) measures, imposed the following month, which banned dine-in at F&B establishments for almost a month, even though serious cases had not increased significantly.
Together with Wong's comments on a possible renewed CB, it has heightened anxiety and frustration in an already weary public, as daily new cases rose to triple figures.
And even within the establishment, there are hints of division over the steps to combat COVID-19. Former Temasek chief and PM Lee Hsien Loong's wife Ho Ching, who has more than 140,000 Facebook followers, openly disagreed with the MTF's assessment that there is no longer a need to provide information on the number of unlinked cases.
While Ho is not a political office holder, her status ensures that her words have weight. Her regular posts on the pandemic are closely followed, judging by the comments that ensue. Simply put, the optics are not good.
Clear, consistent communication is needed
It is heartening to see that the MTF has not gone back to tighter restrictions or a zero COVID strategy for now. However, many remain unconvinced that the MTF will follow its own stated plan. As a comment on Wong's Instagram account said, "Be more decisive! Don't be like roti prata, flip here and turn there"
Despite the many criticisms of the MTF, it is important to note that there have only been 58 COVID deaths in Singapore so far – the vast majority of them are elderly individuals. Singapore is still far better off than many of its regional neighbours and developed countries, with serious and ICU cases remaining manageable.
Trust in the government among Singaporeans remains high, as seen by the high vaccination rate. Adherence to SMMs has generally not been an issue, the odd outliers aside.
But even the most obedient populace needs a sense that the government has the courage of its own convictions, and not to be constantly nagged about the need to keep to SMMs when that is what they have been doing all along.
It is impossible to please everyone. But if the MTF wants to lead us on the road ahead, then it must stay the course on its endemic COVID plan.
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