They had the vaccines and a reopening plan.  Instead, they got cold feet.

They had the vaccines and a reopening plan. Instead, they got cold feet.


The vaccines should be the ticket out of the pandemic. But not everything went according to plan in Singore.

The Southeast Asian city-state was widely considered a success story in first dealing with the coronavirus. It closed its borders, tested and prosecuted aggressively, and was one of the first countries in Asia to order vaccines.

Read more on They had the vaccines and a reopening plan. Instead, they got cold feet….


The vaccines should be the ticket out of the pandemic. But not everything went according to plan in Singore.

The Southeast Asian city-state was widely considered a success story in first dealing with the coronavirus. It closed its borders, tested and prosecuted aggressively, and was one of the first countries in Asia to order vaccines.

A top politician told the public that a vaccination rate of 80 percent was the criterion for a gradual reopening. Singore has now fully vaccinated 83 percent of its population, but instead of opening up, it is doing just the opposite.

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In September, as cases doubled every eight to ten days, the government reintroduced crowd restrictions. The United States said its citizens should reconsider traveling to the country. Long lines formed in the emergency rooms of several hospitals. People were told again to work from home.

The country’s experience has become a sobering case study for other nations pursuing reopening strategies without dealing with major pandemic outbreaks. For Singore residents, who believed the city-state would reopen once the vaccination rate reached a certain level, there was a sense of whiplash and nagging questions about what it would take to reopen if vaccines weren’t enough.

“In a way, we are a victim of our own success because we got as close as possible to COVID zero and a very, very low death rate,” said Dr. Paul Tambyah, Infectious Disease Specialist at National University Hospital. “That’s why we want to keep the top position in the class, and that’s very difficult.”

Singore’s cautious, some say over-cautious, approach to reopening contrasts with that of the United States and Europe, where already vaccinated people gather at concerts, festivals and other major events. But unlike Singore, both places had to deal with significant outbreaks at the start of the pandemic.

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Lawrence Wong, Singore’s finance minister and chairman of the country’s COVID-19 task force, said the lesson for “COVID-naive societies” like Singore, New Zealand and Australia is to be prepared for large waves of infection “regardless of vaccine coverage.”

“Once you open up, there will be more social interactions,” he said. “And given the inherently highly transferable nature of the delta variant, large clusters will emerge.”

The vaccines have helped keep the majority of the population out of the hospital, with 98.3 percent of the cases having mild or no symptoms. Most of the deaths occurred in seniors, mostly with comorbidities, and accounted for 0.2 percent of cases in the last 28 days. But the shots can’t protect against infection, especially against the Delta variant, Wong said.

“In Singore, we think that in this intermediate phase, you can’t just rely on vaccines,” he said. “And that’s why we’re not planning a proach in which we open again in the Big Bang and simply declare freedom.”

In Wong’s vision of how the Singore pandemic will play out, people will continue to wear face masks. It is unlikely to be completely free to travel. Social distancing will remain in place until 2024.

Stressing that Singore was still on its way to living with COVID, he said he realized that any form of aggravation, no matter how small, would meet with anger and frustration because people are anxious about it are to go on. “But we have to adapt to realities based on the situation we are facing,” he said.

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Over the past month, officials sought to set up community treatment facilities with oxygen tanks and urged those with mild or no symptoms to recover at home. Many Singoreans said there was confusion about what to do and the government was ill-prepared.

“When the health system is overwhelmed, we know from experience everywhere that doctors are overwhelmed and mortality rates rise,” said Wong. “So we try very hard to avoid that.”

Several doctors have denied government claims that the health system is under immense strain. Tambyah, who also chairs an opposition party that recently developed an alternative strategy for dealing with the pandemic, said there was enough buffers in hospitals because Singore canceled all elective surgeries.

The problem for Singore leaders is that they are “essentially making a transition from zero COVID to living with the virus”.

For many, the repeated adjustments to restrictions have taken their toll. The number of suicides in 2020 was the highest since 2012, a trend some mental health experts attribute to the pandemic. People have urged the government to consider the mental health issues caused by the restrictions.

Also read | When the pandemic broke out, suicide among Janesen women rose

“It’s just economically, sociologically, emotionally and mentally unsustainable,” said Devadas Krishnadas, CEO of Future-Moves Group, a consulting firm in Singore. Krishnadas said the decision to reintroduce restrictions after reaching such a high vaccination rate made the country a global outlier.

“And, more importantly, it moves Singore in a full 180 degree direction, in the opposite direction from the direction the rest of the world is going,” he said. “That brings us to the strategic question of where will Singore be – if we don’t get out of what I call the hamster wheel of opening and closing.”

Sarah Chan, deputy director of Singore’s science, technology and research agency, said she had a glimpse of normal life when she arrived in Italy last month to visit her husband’s family.

Masks were not required outdoors, people who had been vaccinated could freely gather in groups, and Chan and her son were allowed to beat their heads to music in restaurants. In Singore, music has been banned in restaurants as it could encourage the spread of the virus.

Chan said she was so touched by her time in Italy that she cried.

“It’s almost normal. You forget how it is, “she said. “I really miss that.”

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