Where are we now in the battle against Covid-19? I think we are holding our breath as we decide to take a plunge. According to Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, we are entering a phase of four to five doubling cycles in the increase of cases – learning from what has happened in a number of other developed countries. He is hoping that we can get away with at most three to four waves. It has been more than one and half years since the virus struck Singapore. This latest phase we are now entering will be new territory – for both the Multi-Ministry Task Force and Singaporeans. Do we have what it takes to be a Covid-Resilient Country?
Ong said: “Based on the experiences of other countries, mainly in Europe, which are also highly vaccinated, a transmission wave does not last forever. It typically takes four weeks, if not eight weeks; or we can assume around 30 to 40 days to peak before it comes down, and then stabilise. During that rise, daily cases can double every 10 days. This means we need to be prepared for four to five doubling cycles.
“We are 18 days into the wave and it has doubled twice and on its third doubling cycle – from 100 on 23 August to 200 on 3 September, and now 200 to 400, and now 400 to 800. Beyond that, it may go on for another two cycles, meaning daily cases may double from 800 to 1,600 and 1,600 to 3,200, hitting a peak before starting to come down and stabilise.”
Let’s recap a bit on what has been happening since the beginning of the pandemic outbreak in January 2020.
Before anti-Covid-19 vaccines came on the scene, the strategy had been that of straightforward containment, simply using every means to prevent spread of the disease. There was no choice but to go for lockdowns – with all the dire impact on the economy, livelihoods and general functioning of society. Seriously infected patients then faced high chances of ending up in ICU wards, with bad results.
The inevitable emergence of vaccines in December 2020 made the battle less one-sided. Those who got vaccinated faced less risks of being seriously ill. As more became vaccinated, the community would develop a herd immunity to prevent the virus from wreaking havoc on medical resources.
The Ministry of Health then went for start-and-stop to buy time as it tried to ramp up the vaccination rate.
How successful has the MTF been so far in coping with the pandemic? Has it been correct in its approach?
My assessment: From January (outbreak) to December 2020 (when the vaccines came), the MTF was given a blank cheque to do what it had to do. The threat was existential. The task force did well, especially as it attempted successfully to keep fatalities low. Its initial scary struggle with the surges in the foreign worker dormitories was the main blot. That baptism of fire showed how formidable the Covid-19 was.
And the MTF’s record since December 2020? A mixed bag of results. Low fatalities but at a price – a patient but restless community and a disrupted economy.
I believe it is also in some kind of dilemma.
Understandably, the MTF is risk-averse. The approach has been largely – and rightly up to now – wait and see. Watch the experiences of other countries. Monitor each local cluster. At the same time, keep an eye on the economy which obviously would have to take some precedence when the pandemic showed signs of stabilising.
The government’s hope is that this battle against Covid-19 would be the crucible on which the 4G leaders earn their bond with Singaporeans. Because they are being watched, Lawrence Wong and company would understandably be less inclined to take big risks. Or should they – now?
The 4G leaders have been using their words ultra-cautiously: “Heightened Alert”, “one step forward, two steps back”, “tighten our posture”, “calibrated”, “cross the river – stone by stone”, “no Big Bang”.
Nothing has been left to chance.
And yet, are we beginning to see a change in the MTF’s approach?
A number of reasons may be behind this new, less risk-averse thinking.
First, there is the unavoidable do-or-die need to open up the economy – or face permanent damage or stagnation.
Second, the world medical community has better weapons and scientific information on how to deal with the pandemic. They include development of more vaccines and affordable test kits, tracking of variants and their behaviour and the pattern of virus waves, working out best medical practices and agreeing on acceptable travel protocols.
Third, the vaccination rates of countries will continue to rise at the same time as mandatory tests get more widespread. This leads to better universal protection.
Fourth, we may have reached a point where the pros of taking risks surely outweigh the cons. We have the vaccines, we have the vaccination numbers, we have seen how the pandemic unfolds in other countries. Now, it may be a matter of seeing how resilient Singapore is, as the case numbers climb. The hope is that the still unvaccinated 90,000 elderly do not become collateral damage.
Can we live with 4-figure daily surges?
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.Follow us on Social Media
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