Mothership Explains: Is it right for S'pore to keep the unvaccinated at home for their own good?

After Phase 2 (HA), only fully-vaccinated individuals will be allowed to dine in at restaurants, or exercise in gyms. Is this "discrimination"?

Nigel Chua | July 31, 2021, 09:13 PM

There are two broad ways that dictionaries define "discrimination".

The first, and perhaps the more commonly-understood way, frames discrimination as something that is always bad. An example of this first way of defining "discrimination" can be found in the Oxford dictionary:

"The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of ethnicity, age, sex, or disability."

If someone practices "discrimination" in this way, they might be described as "discriminatory".

The second kind of definition however, simply focuses on the ability to understand the difference between things. Thus, "discrimination" according to the same Oxford dictionary entry, can also mean:

"Recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another."

Here, "discrimination" is not "discriminatory". Instead, someone practising it could be described as "discriminating".

Why is it important to understand "discrimination" now?

The new measures expected after Phase 2 (HA) do require discrimination, but they are not discriminatory. It would be much worse if they were indiscriminate (which means to be done at random without careful judgement, again from the Oxford dictionary).

While the words in bold might sound very similar, there are fine differences in their meaning. Those differences are especially important, as proof of one's vaccination status is set to become the new passport in Singapore.

After all, relaxation of the Phase 2 (HA) measures will only be for those who are fully vaccinated, said Multi-Ministry Taskforce (MTF) co-chair Lawrence Wong in Parliament earlier this week, as he outlined a "series of controlled steps" for Singapore's re-opening.

Barring any changes to the reopening plan, here's what we do know: Anyone still unvaccinated will continue to live under the strict conditions of Phase 2 (HA), even when measures are eased for those who are fully-vaccinated.

In other words, the unvaccinated will be kept at home (or at least, under tighter restrictions) until the next round of easing.

This will require the owners of venues like restaurants and indoor gyms, cinemas, religious places, live performances, and other event spaces to discriminate between those who are fully-vaccinated and those who are not — within the second meaning of "discrimination" above.

Such discrimination has already begun, with the selective offering of perks to vaccinated individuals from businesses such as Shake Shack, which offered free fries in support of Singapore's vaccination drive.

Is this "discriminatory"?

Health minister and MTF co-chair Ong Ye Kung said in a Jul. 1 interview with The Straits Times (ST) that perks for Covid-19 vaccinated individuals are not meant to be discriminatory.

Critics might argue:

"If a restaurant is required to differentiate between diners based on their vaccination status, why is that same restaurant not allowed to differentiate between the workers it hires based on criteria such as gender, age, or race?

Isn't 'vaccination differentiation' just as bad as 'discriminatory hiring practices'?"

It might also be further argued that just like gender, age, or race, there are many who end up in the "unvaccinated" category for reasons outside of their control.

These are the ones who are advised against Covid-19 vaccination for health reasons, even though the number in this group is steadily shrinking as there has been more evidence of the vaccines' safety for various groups previously advised against vaccination, for instance, those who are immunocompromised.

This group will be the most affected by the new strategy of selective reopening.

On one hand, they are unable to get the protection that vaccination offers against potentially-lethal Covid-19 infection.

On the other hand, they will also be unable to take part in social activities as freely as the rest of the population. While they might be allowed to do so after pre-event testing, this would be at their own cost.

So why is the government sanctioning different treatment for this group even though it was not by their own choice that they can't get vaccinated?

Discriminatory vs Differentiated

Ong would likely answer the critics by explaining the difference between discriminatory hiring practices and selective reopening for the unvaccinated.

On one hand, discriminatory employers should not be able to choose not to hire workers who can get the job done for no other reason than the fact that they are not of the employer's preferred demographic group.

On the other hand, as Ong in fact said in Parliament on Monday (Jul. 26) there are "good public health reasons" for different treatment of the unvaccinated in Singapore.

He also said that he would call this "differentiation" and not "discrimination".

Differentiated treatment for "public health reasons" means that the authorities are only concerned about one's vaccination status because getting vaccinated reduces the likelihood of someone:

  • Getting infected with Covid-19, as vaccines reduce the probability that someone will be infected, if exposed to the virus.
  • Spreading Covid-19, if infected, as vaccinated individuals generally have lower viral load even if infected, and are less likely to spread Covid-19 widely than if they were unvaccinated. This is likely why the MTF says that differentiated measures help to protect those who are not vaccinated.
  • Needing oxygen supplementation or ICU care, if infected, because vaccinated individuals' lower viral load makes them less likely to suffer from serious illness.

In other words, high-risk activities by vaccinated people are less likely to strain, or lead to strain, on the healthcare system.

Which means that keeping unvaccinated people at home, and out of high-risk settings like eating places and indoor gyms, is not only for their own good, but also for all our good.

After all, the unvaccinated are more likely to have severe illness, which could place a strain on the healthcare system that would be a burden for all of us to bear — and especially the healthcare frontliners.

This explains why, when MOH announced that groups of up to five vaccinated individuals could dine in, there were exceptions made for those who tested negative within the past 24 hours, as well as for children under 12, and recently-recovered Covid-19 cases.

And Ong said that MOH will "take into account these provisions" in the upcoming review of Phase 2 (HA) measures.

After all, if someone has tested negative recently, they are — like vaccinated people — less likely to spread Covid-19 while dining in with friends.

Similarly, children under 12 are — like vaccinated people — less likely to suffer from serious illness if infected.

And recently-recovered Covid-19 cases are — again, like vaccinated people — less likely to get infected due to antibodies from their past infection.

What comes next?

It's also important to remember that reopening after Phase 2 (HA) is part of a transition towards living with Covid-19 as an endemic disease.

Ong also highlighted that while Singapore remains in a period of transition, the rules need to differentiate between those who are vaccinated and those who are not — suggesting that sooner or later, the period of transition would come to an end, with Singapore treating Covid-19 like an endemic disease, almost like the flu.

"When our whole society is very highly vaccinated and we have transitioned to living with Covid-19, we should make very little differentiation between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated."

Wong explained in Parliament that measures might be eased further when 80 per cent of people in Singapore have had two doses of the vaccine, and provided the Covid-19 situation — and specifically, the number of Covid-19 cases in hospital and ICU — remains stable.

This is expected to happen by early September.

"We will then be able to ease the restrictions further, including allowing larger groups to get together, especially if they are fully-vaccinated," said Wong.

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Mothership Explains is a series where we dig deep into the important, interesting, and confusing going-ons in our world and try to, well, explain them.

This series aims to provide in-depth, easy-to-understand explanations to keep our readers up to date on not just what is going on in the world, but also the "why's".

Top image by Nigel Chua