By Aradhana Aravindan and Chen Lin
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Singapore’s reimposition of coronavirus restrictions to buy time to prepare to live with the disease has been met with some rare frustration as the government walks a fine line between reopening and preventing hospitals from getting overwhelmed.
Singapore has largely kept the virus at bay since last year with masks, contact tracing and a closed border.
Now infections are surging to new daily records of more than 2,000 but with 82% of its 5.4 million people fully vaccinated, 98.1% of cases over the past month have been asymptomatic or involved only mild symptoms.
Singapore relaxed restrictions in August, after 18 months of largely successful mitigation efforts, with a plan for more easing after reaching the 80% vaccination target in early September.
But instead, with the Delta variant spreading, the reimposition of restrictions, with dining out and other social interactions limited to groups of just two people, has dashed hopes.
“We hit our vaccination targets yet we are moving backwards. The stats speak for itself,” Facebook user Shin Hui Tan posted.
“Why we are still not treating this as flu baffles me.”
The government has said the tighter measures are “temporary breaks” needed to buy time to expand healthcare capacity, set up more isolation facilities, reach more of the unvaccinated and get booster shots to those who need them.
About 300 ICU beds can be readied at short notice. As of Thursday, 34 cases were in intensive care but a wave of unvaccinated people getting seriously sick could swamp the health system.
Despite the risks, the government’s message is that in order to open up, Singapore has to learn to live with much higher rates of COVID-19 than it has become used to.
“We are not going back to a scenario of low daily cases anymore,” Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said recently.
“It is not going to be possible, because we are moving forward to learn to live with the virus and we are continuing with our reopening plans.”
Problems with making the adjustment to living with COVID-19 for a population that has been so assiduously focused on avoiding it are emerging.
With surging cases being overwhelmingly mild, the government is for the first time advising people who test positive to isolate at home and recover there.
But the message is not always getting through.
Numerous anxious people, most with asymptomatic or mild cases, have been turning up at hospitals and phoning up help lines confused as to just what exactly they are meant to do.
A Milieu Insight survey found 52% of people felt the latest restrictions were “just right” while 25% think they are too strict and the remainder that they are too lax, the Straits Times newspaper reported this week.
“Thanks for some restrictions taken to reduce the number of cases increasing! Human life must be the first concern as compared to economic & others,” Sandy Lee posted on social media.
With 95 COVID-19 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic, Singapore has the world’s lowest case fatality rate.
But deaths hit a daily record of eight on Wednesday.
The re-tightening of restrictions comes as another blow to the long-suffering food and drinks industry.
“They need to make up their minds,” said restaurant manager Zheng Feng.
“I’m not disappointed because I have no expectations.”
(Reporting by Aradhana Aravindan and Chen Lin in Singapore; Editing by Robert Birsel)