Imagine this scene from the near future.
Travel corridors have been established between Singapore and select countries. Your partner went for a getaway trip and served a week of home quarantine after returning.
You joke that she missed out on a free stay at a five-star hotel, but who cares, you're both looking forward to attending a concert tonight. A real one, with instruments and crowds and overpriced beverages in plastic cups, and the band interacting with the fans.
You rock up to the venue a little early, and take a Pre-Event Test (PET), easily done by huffing into a breathalyser. Your partner has a clean bill of health. Unfortunately, you test positive for Covid-19.
You're not sure how it happened. Did it happen while you were queuing up for lunch at McDonald's? Or even at the office, the one time you took off your mask for a coffee break? You don't recall having any symptoms, having been fully vaccinated.
Anyway, you're not getting into the concert tonight. You say goodbye and head home to begin a week of home quarantine. It's your partner's turn to bust your chops about not going out for a week.
Light at the end of the tunnel
It seems strange and fantastical. The virus that shut down a planet, grounded planes, postponed the Olympics and the Euros and turned bustling cities in ghost towns just over a year ago may never truly go away.
But thanks to vaccines, we can finally return to a semblance of life from the BEFORE TIMES.
Let's make some things clear before we go any further -- no, a Covid-19 vaccine does not provide you with a 100 per cent chance of avoiding infection.
But there's plenty of evidence to show that it gives you a massive chance of avoiding serious illness and death from a Covid-19 infection. In fact, a significant number of fully vaccinated individuals who are infected display no symptoms, or very mild ones.
Vaccines have changed the game. In Singapore's annus horribilis last year, we had to lock down (sorry, break the circuit) to contain the spread of the disease, but perhaps just as crucially, prevent our healthcare system from being overwhelmed with cases.
This meant keeping the number of hospitalisations, patients in the intensive care unit (ICU), and deaths at a minimum. And it worked. Despite the cases, our hospitals proved more than equal to the task.
In 2021, vaccines are doing the same thing for us. Even if a fully vaccinated person contracts Covid-19, they may not even need a stay in the hospital as they recover, freeing them up for more serious cases.
And that's the key to how we are going to navigate the next stage of this pandemic.
Don't just focus on the overall infection numbers
Health Minister Ong Ye Kung put it plainly as can be in his Ministerial Statement in Parliament on July 26. Among the "psychological shifts" that Singaporeans need to go through is to focus less on the number of cases.
"The first is a shift away from always focusing on infection numbers. We used to get a shock when we saw high daily numbers, because that meant more severe illnesses and deaths.
However, in recent days, that mental link is being broken, as we know that with vaccinations, high infection numbers need not necessarily mean more sickness and deaths. Many people are now rightfully focusing on the number of people with severe illnesses."
During the same sitting, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong made it clear that the recent roll back to Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) measures was done to reduce community transmission and prevent serious illness, as less than 50 per cent of the population have been fully vaccinated.
Seniors, in particular, remain a major concern with 200,000 still unvaccinated. Wong said, "If they catch the virus, many will likely become severely ill or even succumb to the infection."
Vaccinations protect the healthcare system
But consider the flip side -- if the twin punches of the KTV and Jurong Fishery Port clusters had taken place after Singapore achieved a high level of vaccination, then we may not have needed to immediately roll back to Phase 2 (Heightened Alert).
Consider this too -- in the past few days, the case numbers recorded have been relatively high. But the number of hospitalisations and those in critical condition have mercifully remained relatively low
Hopefully, this trend of low hospitalisation numbers will continue as more people get fully vaccinated.
Ong also highlighted that the government's focus is to prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed, while speaking at an awards ceremony on July 28.
He added that a "key marker" for assessing the kind of Covid-19 measures that Singapore should employ is by "looking at the hospital capacity for Covid-19 patients."
Even representatives of the business community, representing retailers and others suffering from lack of customer footfall, have urged the government to adjust restrictions based on hospitalisation and critical case numbers, instead of overall numbers.
The way out
So the way forward looks clear. It has gone from a waking nightmare to a finite, achievable number of steps.
1. Get as many people fully vaccinated as possible. According to Ong, the vaccination rate of the population is rising by about one point a day. This means that by early September, about 80 per cent of the population will be fully vaccinated.
2. Safe management measures like mask-wearing and safe distancing should remain. While some other countries have lifted mask restrictions, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reversed itself and is now recommending that vaccinated individuals should continue wearing masks indoors, in areas where the Delta variant is fuelling a surge in cases.
The Delta variant is fearsomely infectious, even for vaccinated individuals. But so far, it has not been proven to be any more fatal than other Covid-19 variants. This means that we can't scrap all our measures and throw away the masks, just yet, as they help to reduce the spread of the virus.
3. Keep a close eye on metrics like hospitalisation numbers, ICU cases and deaths. Total cases may spike, thanks to the Delta variant. But as long as these metrics are kept low, there shouldn't be any panic or hasty actions.
4. Take personal responsibility. We all have to play our part as responsible members of the community, this means getting vaccinated if medically eligible, wearing masks around others, and seeing a doctor immediately if we detect any symptoms.
5. Be adaptable. We may have to adjust our behaviour as time passes and circumstances change. The virus may mutate further, or it may not. We may have to get booster shots, even those who are fully vaccinated. Regular individual testing could become part of our daily lives, whether it's self-administered tests or taking a test before attending a large-scale event.
Pragmatism at work
If we happen to test positive, there should be no shame about saying so. Keeping quiet and pretending that things are fine puts others at risk. Being honest and undergoing quarantine, no matter how inconvenient, helps to protect the lives of those who aren't medically eligible for vaccination.
It isn't easy. But it's how we get through this. This is how we open up our economy, open our borders, and ensure that as many lives as possible are protected. Locking down forever is not an option. Increasingly, getting to zero cases looks like it's not going to be an option. Simply getting rid of all measures in one fell swoop and declaring a "Freedom Day" is the other extreme, and not an option either.
The way forward is how Singapore has always approached a crisis -- with clear-eyed pragmatism, a compromise between two extremes, and to trust the science. Covid-19 may not be "just the flu, bro." It remains dangerous if people don't protect themselves.
But neither will it put an end to society.
Top image by Xavi Torrent/Redferns via Getty Images.