Chinese New Year promises to be a muted affair this year in Singapore. Image: Twitter

SINGAPORE – Chinese New Year will be a distinctly muted affair for those ringing in the Year of the Ox in Singapore, where authorities have tightened restrictions on festivities amid fears of new Covid-19 super-spreader events.

The new coronavirus clampdown comes as the city-state prepares to host the World Economic Forum (WEF) summit in May, an in-person, non-virtual event being billed as a symbolic reopening of international bridges in preparation for a post-pandemic future.

Locally transmitted cases have inched up over the last month since Singapore eased restrictions in line with the third and final stage of its phased economic reopening. The city-state’s health authorities say the 36 community cases that have accrued since the beginning of January are indicative of additional undiagnosed community infections.

The emergence of new cases and clusters is a setback for an island nation that has made strides containing Covid-19, boasting one of the world’s lowest viral fatality rates and more often than not recording zero new daily cases.

But with complacency setting in, the government has urged caution and restraint ahead of Chinese New Year gatherings.

Silk lanterns and festive decorations on display in Singapore for the coming Year of the Ox in the Chinese zodiac calendar. Source: Twitter

Three-quarters of Singapore’s 5.7 million population are ethnic Chinese and annual celebrations marking the first day of the traditional Chinese lunar calendar regularly see a flurry of family get-togethers and reunion dinners that, in pandemic circumstances, risks exposing population groups like the elderly to higher chances of infection.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong earlier this week called on Singaporeans to be attentive to new tightened measures limiting household visits while raising the specter of another round of “circuit breaker” restrictions, a reference to the two-month lockdown in force last April and May when tens of thousands of cases sprung up in migrant worker dormitories.   

“I hope everybody will understand that this is not a normal Year of the Ox. We do have to take precautions, we have to restrain ourselves. Celebrate it in the right spirit, but keep ourselves safe so that perhaps a year from now, when the Year of the Tiger comes around, we will be roaring like a tiger,” said Lee, according to media reports.

New restrictions include a daily cap of eight visitors for each household, which took effect this week. Singaporeans are being encouraged to meet with their friends and family virtually and limit themselves to visiting only two other households during the festivities, which will begin on the eve of the Lunar New Year on February 12.

Celebrations are customarily marked with the tossing of yusheng, a colorful raw fish salad popularized by Cantonese immigrants, where diners toss the ingredients into the air using chopsticks while loudly declaring auspicious wishes for the new year. The practice, known as lo hei, is said to be unique to Singapore and Malaysia.

This year, the Ministry of Health (MoH) has prohibited the recitation of auspicious phrases and mandated that masks be worn during lo hei in an effort to limit the spread of Covid-19. Authorities have encouraged people to instead use smartphone applications to play pre-recorded auspicious sayings in a pandemic era break with celebratory norms.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a lo hei celebration in a file photo. Image: Facebook

While decorative ox statues have been erected in the city-state’s Chinatown, the traditional bazaar annually held there has been called off. To prevent crowds from gathering at public spaces, dragon and lion dance performances, believed to bring good fortune to those who watch them, have also been canceled.

Passing out cash-filled red packets or hongbao to single adults and children is another Chinese New Year custom under Covid-19 scrutiny. Banking authorities have called on Singaporeans to send money through mobile payment applications, in an apparent bid to reduce queues for physical notes and lessen the environmental impact of money printing.

“It’s possible that we could still see new Covid-19 cases, even with government restrictions, because, after all, it is Chinese New Year and we do expect people to be mingling around a little bit more than usual,” said Ling Li Min, an infectious diseases physician at the local Gleneagles Hospital.

“However, what we’re hoping is that with new restrictions, this increased number of cases would be mitigated, meaning there won’t be an exponential increase. It will just be maybe the usual two to three new cases a day, rather than 10 new cases a day. One case will lead to a cluster, so we can’t afford to let our guard down,” she added.

Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs a multi-ministry task force on Covid-19, has reminded the public of the spike in cases that occurred over the same holiday period last year in the early days of the pandemic as he urged Singaporeans to do their part and comply with government advisories.

While authorities can’t enforce social distancing measures in home settings, Wong said officers will conduct random spot checks on businesses and households to ensure compliance, which is generally high in Singapore relative to countries, especially outside of Asia, where open defiance of safe distancing rules occurs.

“Whenever we relax, whenever we let our guard down, the virus comes back with a vengeance and we get a new cluster,” said Li. “Do we want to go back into lockdown? The answer is a big fat no. Definitely not. People need to try to remember that. I think Singaporeans, by and large, certainly will comply.”

Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious disease specialist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, believes Singapore has good reason to be on alert for a super-spreader event. “The virus has much better consistency in mutating and adapting to our defenses than we have been in keeping our masks and guard up,” he told Asia Times.

Men wearing face masks walk past an art installation in the financial business district in Singapore, August 11, 2020. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

“The risk rises with Chinese New Year. People get together and let their hair down. Booze goes around, there is less inhibition and the masks fall. In truth, finding an individual in the community with Covid-19 is now difficult in Singapore. But mix it with the returnees from overseas, and the potential false-negative tests, we might just have a perfect storm.”

A resurgence of cases in Singapore along the lines of the much larger outbreaks that have recently taken hold in neighboring Malaysia and Thailand would be a nightmare scenario for the city-state as it emerges from its worst-ever recession, one that could throw a spanner in the works or at least complicate its plans to host the high-profile WEF meeting.

Normally held in the snowy Alpine town of Davos, Switzerland, the forum’s organizers decided that Singapore is “best placed” to host the event given its success in containing the pandemic. But with the pneumonia-like illness still raging across the world, observers have questioned why an in-person event should be held at all in the circumstances.

Citing the risk of Covid-19 quietly making the rounds among forum delegates who could further spread the infection when they return home, some see the summit as a major gamble given the multiple fast-spreading virus strains now circulating globally. Organizers have attempted to allay those concerns by ensuring the event will be held safely.

Recognized for its public health leadership, the city-state is ramping up its vaccination rollout after being one of the first in Asia to begin giving shots. More than 113,000 people have received their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the only immunization approved by authorities in Singapore so far.

Healthcare workers were given priority access to the vaccine in late December, while seniors began receiving their jabs this week. With plans for 40 vaccination centers to be set up across the island over the next few weeks, Singapore’s silver generation will at least be heading into a less auspicious holiday period with greater peace of mind.