Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks to a health worker at a COVID-19 test site set up at a public housing estate in the Ang Mo Kio area of Singapore on July 25, 2021. (BLOOMBERG)
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wants to push on with the strategy of living with COVID-19 without being paralyzed by fear, weighing in on a divisive issue about the pace of opening up a trade-reliant economy with one of the highest vaccination rates in the world.
Lee said in a televised address that Singapore can’t stay “locked down and closed off indefinitely,” but at the same time there will “quite many COVID-19-cases for some time to come.” He used the 24-minute speech on Saturday to call for unity for the next few months and address a split in wider society between keeping COVID-zero measures in place and reopening quickly in step with other advanced economies.
Singapore recently reimposed some social curbs in an attempt to clamp down on the rising number of daily infections that have neared 3,600 and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system. Even though 83 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, the country has struggled to return to a life of normalcy amid growing anxieties over a constantly-changing plan to live with the virus.
“We need to update our mindsets. We should respect COVID-19, but we must not be paralyzed by fear,” he said on Saturday. “Let us go about our daily activities as normally as possible, taking necessary precautions.”
Customers at a cafe on a near-empty street in Singapore, on Sept 28, 2021. (BLOOMBERG)
Lee’s comments came before the government taskforce unveiled new measures to expand booster shots as well as bar unvaccinated people from malls, food centers and local attractions. These locations are seen as high-risk and the measures appear to be a way to prompt more people to follow through with inoculation.
Now that the disease has become more manageable with a higher vaccination rate, Lee said the government should “drastically simplify” its health protocols, including procedures on what should be done if people test positive or come in contact with someone infected.
With vaccination, the disease has become more treatable with 98 percent of cases turning out to be mild and people can benefit from recovery at home. Still, Lee warned that with cases expected to continue rising, so will deaths with around 100 patients to become seriously ill if there are 5,000 cases in a day.
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“We may have to tap on the brakes again if cases again grow too fast, to protect our healthcare system and healthcare workers,” he said. “But we will be better able to cope with future surges” as healthcare capacity improves and immunity levels increase, Lee added.
Lee painted a picture of “a new normal,” possibly after three to six months, where Singapore will ease off restrictions, have light social distancing measures in place and cases come down to hundreds a day. Some countries in Europe have reached this state but they have “paid for it dearly, losing many lives along the way,” he said.
The new normal would also mean hospitals working at normal capacity and Singapore residents resuming “things we used to do, and see crowds again without getting worried or feeling strange,” Lee said.
Singapore also said on Saturday it will allow vaccinated travel to and from nine more countries without having to quarantine. The countries to qualify are the US, the UK, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, which start from Oct 19., and South Korea from Nov 15.
Tokyo's government said on Saturday that new daily infections of COVID-19 in the Japanese capital declined to 82, the lowest since Oct 19 last year.
Cases have been on the decline since peaking at more than 5,000 a day in August in a wave driven by the highly infectious Delta variant. Tokyo and much of Japan last week exited a state of emergency that had lasted for almost six months.
Vietnam plans to start vaccinating children aged from 12 to 17 from the end of October, the VietnamNet news website reports, citing Deputy Health Minister Tran Van Thuan.
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The health ministry also plans to gradually expand vaccinations to children under 12, the report said. Vietnam has fully vaccinated about 13 percent of its population of 98 million, according to the health ministry.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo has ordered the acceleration of vaccination, testing and tracing in the tourist island of Bali ahead of its reopening to international travelers on Oct 14.
Jokowi, as the president is known, urged the local government to target regencies where testing and tracing have fallen behind, as well as reach remaining areas to finish vaccine roll-outs. As of Friday, more than 98 percent of Bali’s population has received the first dose, while over 80 percent have completed their second shots, he said in a statement.
Southeast Asia’s largest economy is gradually opening its borders and lifting lockdown measures as COVID-19 cases decline sharply, hitting their lowest level since June 2020 this week.
Thailand reported 10,630 new COVID-19 cases and 73 deaths in the past 24 hours. That was the lowest number of fatalities since July 26, as the government has accelerated its vaccination program.
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At least 70 percent of the population in Thailand will receive two doses of vaccine by the end of December, Permanent Secretary of Public Health Kiattiphum Wongrajit said on Thursday.
New Zealand recorded 34 new cases in the community, 31 of them in Auckland, the public broadcaster reported Saturday. That’s down from 44 infections the previous day.
No new cases were detected in Northland, which entered tougher restrictions from midnight after an infection was detected in the region, RNZ said.
The Australian state of Victoria posted another record of daily cases, even as it prepares to remove restrictions that have made Melbourne one of the most locked-down cities in the world.
Victoria reported 1,965 new infections on Saturday and five more deaths, with the Delta outbreak showing no signs of slowing and placing pressure on the state’s hospital system. After ordering lockdowns six times since the pandemic began for a total of around 250 days, the state government is still preparing to ease restrictions later this month when vaccination thresholds are reached.
Meanwhile, Australia’s most populous state of New South Wales recorded 580 new infections and 11 deaths on Saturday. While authorities say they have detected a different strain of the delta variant in western Sydney, they added it didn’t seem to be more transmissible or cause more illness than the original strain.