People watch as the Merlion statue is lit up as part of New Year's Eve celebrations in Singapore on December 31, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Roslan Rahman

SINGAPORE – Once a cautionary tale of the pandemic era, Singapore is beginning 2021 boasting a comeback story.

Having once had the highest Covid-19 caseload in Southeast Asia when daily infections were at their peak in April, the city-state has nearly eradicated local transmission of the virus in a hard-fought narrative reversal.

While parts of the world experience new lockdowns and a resurgence of the coronavirus, daily cases are almost zero in Singapore, with only a small number of infected people arriving from abroad.

Fatality rates are among the world’s lowest with just 29 deaths nearly one year on from when the island republic reported its first case.

“Covid-19 has been a relentless fight that has tested our resources and resolve to the fullest,” said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his New Year message on December 31. “The first batch of vaccines has arrived in Singapore, and vaccinations have already begun. We can now see light at the end of the tunnel.”

Singapore was the first country in Asia to receive doses of the Covid-19 vaccine developed by US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German firm BioNTech. Healthcare workers and the elderly were among the first to be inoculated in late December. To show the vaccine is safe, Lee, 68, and his colleagues are slated to be early recipients of the shots.

“Through enormous effort and sacrifice, we have stabilized our situation in Singapore. But it will still take some time for enough people to be vaccinated before we are safe from another major uncontrolled outbreak,” said the premier as he urged people to maintain discipline and continue practicing safe distancing.

People flock to Marina Bay area to watch light shows to usher in the new year amid the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic in Singapore on January 1, 2021. Although there was no firework show, people gathered at city center. Photo: Zakaria Zainal / Anadolu Agency via AFP

In a milestone, Singapore entered the third and final stage of its phased reopening on December 28. Capacity limits at malls, attractions and places of worship have been raised, while social gatherings of up to eight people are now allowed, up from five. For the most part, life in the city-state of 5.7 million has returned to relative normal.

Mask-wearing is mandatory and contact tracing checkpoints require citizens to scan a QR code on their smartphone or present identification when entering shops and businesses. Covid-19 restrictions have become a political lightning rod in some countries, though in the tightly-controlled island state compliance with the authorities is generally high.

“In Singapore there is a general understanding among the public – who are well informed about what is happening elsewhere – that a new outbreak is the likely result of abandoning restrictions, and nobody here wants to go through that again,” said Walter Theseira, an associate professor of economics at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).

At present, there are 57 Covid-19 patients still in hospital and only one person in critical condition under intensive care. Singapore entered 2021 with a total 58,599 cases, with low-wage foreign laborers accounting for around 94% of the overall caseload, the overwhelming majority of whom have recovered since the worst of the outbreak.

Authorities in the city-state were blindsided when tens of thousands of cases sprung up in migrant worker dormitories, with its Covid-19 numbers rising 70-fold in a two-week period in April. On its worst day, Singapore recorded 1,426 infections. The government responded by imposing a two-month national lockdown it called a “circuit breaker.”

Harsh quarantines were imposed on migrant workers, with almost half of the 323,000-strong labor force contracting the coronavirus, according to official data. It took months to stifle the dormitory clusters, though cases in the broader community stayed low as a result of strict social distancing, aggressive testing and mandatory quarantines.

The city-state’s borders remain largely closed and controlling the health crisis has come at a steep economic cost. Singapore spent nearly S$100 billion (US$73 billion) across five stimulus injections in a bid to shield its economy from its worst-ever downturn. Private forecasters expect gross domestic product (GDP) to decline by 6% for 2020.

But projections from the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) put Singapore on course for an economic rebound in the year ahead. Growth between 4% to 6% is expected in 2021 as the government focuses on reigniting the economy through increased travel and trade to shore up the city-state’s status as an international business hub.

Youths cycle under the Felix Bridge in Singapore on December 28, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Roslan Rahman

“The economy is on a more stable footing, the worst of the recession and crises have passed, but there are still risks,” said Song Seng Wun, an economist at CIMB Private Banking. “Opportunity comes from being able to contain those risks. But even with a vaccine, we don’t know how things will play out in the coming months.”

The city-state’s drug regulator granted emergency approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is reported to be 95% effective, after it determined that it met required safety standards. More than S$1 billion ($746.2 million) has been set aside for vaccines, including those being developed by companies Moderna and Sinovac.

Immunizations will be free and made available to the broader population over the coming months. Singapore expects to have enough vaccines for all residents aged 16 or older, including foreign nationals, by the third quarter of 2021. Vaccinations are recommended by the Ministry of Health (MoH) for those medically eligible but will not be mandatory.

Hopes are high that widespread vaccine deployment will hasten the reopening of borders to international travel and bring relief to the badly-hit aviation, travel and tourism sectors. As governments in Southeast Asia prepare to immunize their masses, Singapore is poised to play a crucial role in the regional distribution of temperature-sensitive vaccine doses.

Leveraging its position as a hub for international air cargo, Singapore’s Changi Airport has boosted its cold storage capacity in recent months to ensure vaccines that need to be stored in extreme cold can be smoothly transported. Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine, for one, must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius (-94 F) or below.

The accelerated production and approval of Covid-19 vaccines have, however, played into wider safety fears and anti-vaccination sentiments in parts of the world. Unforeseen issues arising from vaccination, such as major side effects or a lack of vaccine efficacy in response to viral mutations, could lead to a slowdown in immunization, say experts.

“The obvious concern is that vaccination take-up is not sufficiently high in many key countries, or indeed in Singapore, to establish general population immunity,” said Theseira of SUSS. “Without that, it’s hard to see how travel restrictions can be lowered sufficiently to resume mass travel, and along with that, growth in the segments of the economy.”

Amid efforts to reopen borders and ease movement restrictions, an expert committee convened by Singapore’s MoH recently acknowledged the risks of a Covid-19 resurgence in the city-state, referencing reports of more transmissible strains of coronavirus recently discovered in Britain and South Africa.

Singapore has agreements for limited official and business travel with seven Asian countries, but attempts to reboot international travel on a wider scale have fallen flat due to successive waves of Covid-19, such as when plans to open a quarantine-free air travel bubble with Hong Kong were upended last month amid a jump in new cases there.  

The first shipment of Covid-19 vaccines for Singapore being unloaded at Changi Airport on 21 December 2020. Photo: AFP

As a regional hub, Singapore has played host to a number of high-profile international meetings, including a 2018 summit between leaders of the United States and North Korea. The island nation will face its biggest test yet in May when it hosts the World Economic Forum (WEF), 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, while Switzerland has recorded thousands of daily cases in recent weeks. It will be the first time the WEF is held in Asia and only the second to be held outside of Switzerland since its inception in 1971.

WEF usually plays host to about 3,000 official participants, but no specifics regarding the number of attendees expected in Singapore have been announced. As it looks to host bigger events and conferences, the city-state has been piloting solutions to mitigate transmission risks that are likely to be put to use five months from now when the forum convenes.

Those measures include rapid antigen tests that can quickly return results for on-site screening at events using only saliva samples, which is less invasive than the current method of collection through swabs inserted into the back of the nose or throat. Short-stay facilities that will be open to business travelers from all countries are also being constructed.

The catch is that visitors will be barred from leaving their designated accommodation and may only meet Singapore-based businesspeople in airtight conference rooms separated by floor-to-ceiling glass dividers. Unlike an ordinary business trip, visitors will undergo regular testing and be segregated in groups of up to five.

“We have tried to learn from what we can over the last few months to allow a phased resumption of travel,” said CIMB economist Song. “The bottom line is that we’re still a long way off from a broad-based, sustainable recovery. As the virus front shows, there are all kinds of things that can continue to push recovery off a straight-line path.”