Children walk home with their guardians after school in Singapore on May 17, 2021, as the country prepares to shut all schools and switch to home-based learning until the end of the term because of a rise in the number of Covid-19 infections. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

The World Economic Forum has announced that it is canceling its summer event that was originally slated to take place in August in Singapore. The cancellation happens after Singapore imposed fresh Covid-19 restrictions in a bid to put a lid on the surging number of infections within its population. Rules such as the banning of dining in public food establishments and limiting gatherings to only two people were reinstated.

It is a dramatic reversal from the situation three weeks ago when BBC News published an article titled “Singapore: What’s it like in the best place to live during Covid?” The article praised Singapore for its highly effective management of the Covid-19 situation, which enabled its population to enjoy a nearly normal life and ranked the country as the best place in the world to ride out the pandemic.

Yet Singapore now is heading back to a mini-lockdown even as this time around, the government is insisting that it is not another “circuit breaker,” the Singaporean government’s term for a lockdown. The government decided to label these fresh measures as Phase 2 (Heightened Alert), which is slated to last until June 13.

The fresh curbs kick in as the country battles the worrying emergence of several local clusters, one of which is at Changi Airport.

More disturbingly, the B.1.617 variant has been detected in some of the new Covid-19 cases, and this suggests that this variant has leaked into the wider community across Singapore. B.1.617 is a “double-mutant” Covid-19 variant and is responsible for the current second wave in India.

Based on current scientific data, the B.1.617 variant is more transmissible than other strains and is more likely to affect young people. This finding along with new infection cases involving children below the age of 12 prompted the Singaporean government to direct all public schools to implement home-based learning from May 19 until the end of the current school term on May 28.

At the same time, the government is changing its vaccination policy by approving the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children between the ages of 12 and 15 and extending the vaccination program to people aged between 40 and 44.

However, the most significant change is the extension of the interval between the first and second doses of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine to between six and eight weeks, up from the current three to four weeks.

The focus on getting the first shot into people’s arms comes as the government is trying to bump up the number of people getting their first dose of Covid-19 vaccine. The change is expected to allow an additional 400,000 people to get their first dose by the end of July. 

Singapore will not be the only country to make this move, as other countries such as the United Kingdom have opted to use the extra Covid-19 vaccines from the delay in dispensing of second dose to vaccinate other individuals.

An Israeli study found that people who only took the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine would have 85% immunity against the virus, and they require a second dose to bring the immunity level to 95%. With tight vaccine supplies and a fast-deteriorating situation, it makes sense for the Singaporean government to adjust its approach to optimize fully its usage of its stock of vaccines.

While the Singaporean government has proved competent and diligent in dealing with the Covid-19 situation, there are some measures it could consider to beef up its fight against the disease and lower the chance of a new major outbreak.

For a start, the government should strongly consider making Covid-19 vaccines compulsory for all residents, not just citizens but also permanent residents.

This move, if adopted, would no doubt be controversial, as no other country has mandated Covid-19 vaccinations among its population. However, such a move would be critical in helping Singapore fully reopen its borders with the world and welcome travelers from other parts of the world.

Singapore’s trade-dependent economy has been badly affected by the long closure of international borders, and the sooner the city-state reaches herd immunity, the better will its chance of making a recovery.

Singapore could consider the case of Israel, which reopened the bulk of its economy and ceased most social restrictions after vaccinating the bulk of its population. The Covid situation in Israel has remained stable after its opening up, which suggests that the Israeli approach is worth emulating.

As a city-state that depends heavily on globalization for its living, Singapore cannot afford to close its borders fully like other countries such as Australia. It has tried to open its borders in a safe and controlled manner, but this has evidently resulted in the importation of the B.1.617 variant that sparked the latest outbreak. 

While Singapore can fall back on its deep financial reserves to fund relief programs to alleviate economic suffering caused by new Covid-19 restrictions, the situation is not tenable in the long run as there is a limit to how much the government can tap its reserves without compromising the fiscal situation of future generations.

The tight fiscal situation is likely to have prompted the government to pass a new law to enable borrowing to pay for the expected increase in development spending. But Singapore cannot afford to be stuck in a vicious cycle of opening up and locking down. Mass vaccination is the best way for the country to reach herd immunity and avoid this costly scenario. 

If mandatory vaccination is to be adopted, the government should also ramp up its existing public education campaign.

While the government has produced advertisements featuring famous local actors such as Gurmit Singh to encourage the public to get vaccinated, the message is likely to have missed certain segments of the population.

For a start, not all Singaporeans follow the government YouTube channel or watch state channels like Channel 5, and not all Singaporeans have television and Internet access at home. These factors will blunt the effectiveness of the government bid to reach out to the entire society.

The government should strongly consider a rerun of the approach it adopted last year when it distributed paper pamphlets with details of Budget 2020 to all households. It should consider creating and distributing a pamphlet explaining the benefits of getting vaccinated, and to optimize the usage of resources, it could also include another Q&A section to deal with common misconceptions. 

Also to increase the reach of its existing Covid-19 educational videos, the government could consider sending a text message containing the video link to all local phone subscribers in Singapore via the local telecommunication companies, namely M1, Starhub and Singtel. It could consider working with alternative media websites such as The Mothership to reach out to Singaporeans who don’t follow the mainstream media.

Last, there is a need to rethink the standard operating procedures for handling passengers at Changi Airport during this exceptional time. With the emergence of new infections with the Covid variant in some airport staff who have been largely vaccinated, it is safe to conclude that it is possible to get infected with this disease while being vaccinated. But more important, it suggests these staffers who have been vaccinated managed to get infected with the virus despite wearing personal protective gear.

It is also important to note that many of the frontline airport staffers are not medical professionals in the first place and even if they have been given training, not all will be 100% proficient in the correct method of wearing of personal protective equipment. Regular PPE refresher training should be given for all airport staff, especially for those who work in high-risk areas of the airport.

The government should also consider providing special accommodation for all high-risk staff to minimize the spread of the virus into the wider community in the event that one of these people is infected with Covid-19.

All high-risk airport staff should be “socially distanced” from the wider community until better measures are found to have been effective in dealing with new variants of the coronavirus.

To prevent burnout among the frontline staff, a duty rostering system should be introduced to split them into separate teams. For example, staff from Team 1 would work for the first week and be followed by Team 2 on the following week. This is an approach that was adopted by the Singaporean Armed Forces during the lockdown in 2020.

During this exceptional time, with international borders largely closed, Changi Airport is the only valve of the country’s sealed border that continues to allow a controlled inflow of people. Hence special measures must be taken to manage the situation at the airport.

Singapore has done well in managing Covid-19, but we can do better.

Maa Zhi Hong

Maa Zhi Hong is a political analyst in Singapore who has written for Today, Asia Times, the South China Morning Post and Nikkei Asian Review. His official Instagram account is @maazhihongofficial.