Singapore has decided to give up on the dream of covid-zero and will instead learn to “live with the virus,” according to the country’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday. The decision comes despite the fact that Singapore has one of the highest covid-19 vaccination rates in the world, with 80% of the adult population fully vaccinated — second only to the country of Malta’s 82%.
Singapore, a country of roughly 5.7 million people, has been among a handful of countries that have pursued a strategy of completely eliminating covid-19, rather than just suppressing the virus. Other covid-zero countries over the past year have included New Zealand, Taiwan, China, Vietnam, and Australia.
“It is no longer possible to bring covid-19 cases down to zero, even if we lock down for a long time. Therefore, we must prepare for covid-19 to become endemic, like the flu or chicken pox,” Lee said on Sunday during a speech to commemorate the country’s National Day, according to a transcript from the Strait Times.
“Fortunately, with vaccination and added precautions, we can live with the virus and become ‘Covid resilient’,” Lee continued.
Singapore has done exceptionally well during our global health crisis, reporting roughly 67,000 cases of covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, and just 55 deaths. And Singapore was reporting fewer than 30 cases per day for much of 2021 until a surge of cases in July that saw the country averaging 150 cases per day.
But Loong promises his government isn’t giving up on suppressing the virus, they’re just abandoning the covid-zero model.
“We may have to tap on the brakes from time to time, but we want to avoid having to slam on the brakes hard. So in the next phase, we will move step by step. Not in one big bang like in some countries but cautiously and progressively, feeling our way forward,” Lee said.
That “big bang” is likely a veiled reference to countries like the UK, which celebrated a “freedom day” in July where all covid-19 restrictions were lifted, only to see a surge in cases and deaths. Case numbers in the UK have started to plateau again, thanks largely to the vast majority of people in the region having covid-19 antibodies either through vaccination or previous infection, but cases are still very high at roughly 25,000 per day. The U.S. has also seen a surge of infections recently, with a seven-day average of about 157,000 new cases each day.
Vietnam and Australia were also covid-zero countries until relatively recently, and it’s not clear what the future holds for either nation. Vietnam saw a surge of cases start in May that it hasn’t been able to get back under control, with a current average of roughly 12,000 cases per day. Australia’s most recent surge started at the end of June and the country now averages over 1,000 cases per day.
New Zealand, a country of 5 million, has been living life like normal for most of 2021 only to be plunged into a hard lockdown recently when a single mystery case emerged. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Monday that the country’s so-called Level 4 restrictions will be extended until at least mid-September. And while most New Zealanders support Ardern’s hard lockdown, it will be interesting to see whether New Zealand is able to get ahead of the delta variant of the virus with the country’s dedicated team of contact tracers.
Again, leaders in Singapore don’t want it to sound like the country is giving up. Quite the contrary, the prime minister is positioning the country’s new posture as a win.
“COVID-19 will not be our last crisis,” the prime minster tweeted on Sunday. “We will be tested again, sometimes severely. Each generation will wonder: Will we survive? Will Singapore prevail? My answer: We’ve done it before, & we’ll do it again. Majulah Singapura!”
Only time will tell whether this “win” is sustainable in the face of potential new variants of the disease.