Should S'pore have another lockdown because of a Covid-19 'surge'? Let's keep things in perspective.

What's your appetite for risk?

Sulaiman Daud | September 10, 2021, 08:38 AM

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If the realisation that 2022 is just three months away scares the living hell out of you, you're not alone. Most of us are still processing 2020.

Covid-19 not only kills, it also takes a toll on mental health. Covid-19 has a way of making the walls close in. Restrictions affect socialising, whether you're at work or trying to relax with friends and family.

And when restrictions come so close on the heels of easing up, it creates a special kind of agony. How fast should Singapore open up? Or in more recent parlance, should Singapore "trot" or "gallop"?

If you're wondering what horses have to do with anything (besides masquerading as a fake "cure" for Covid-19), I'm referring to this post made by Ho Ching, outgoing CEO of Temasek Holdings and wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Ho was referring to the number of Covid cases, but "trot" and "gallop" could also refer to whether Singapore should take it slow and impose more restrictions, or open up more quickly.


As recently as Sep. 3, the Multi-Ministry Task Force (MTF) gathered to inform the public that no, despite the seemingly higher number of daily Covid-19 cases, there were no plans to either ease restrictions or tighten them.

That's the press conference Ho Ching was referring to in her Facebook post, incidentally.

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said the spike in the number of cases was not unexpected, due to more people moving around, and said testing would become more frequent as vaccination rates have reached a high level.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said that Singapore would try its best to refrain from imposing another Circuit Breaker or tightened restrictions. He described the old methods of suppressing every cluster and hunting down every last case through lockdowns and heightened alerts, as "unsustainable", with the far more transmissible Delta variant going around.

This was all in line with PM Lee's big speech in May 2021, in which he made clear that Covid-19 wasn't going away, but with safeguards and vaccinations, we could learn to live with our unwanted viral guest.

He used the term "endemic", which you may be familiar with.

During PM Lee's even bigger speech, the National Day Rally, last month, he did mention, "We may have to tap on the brakes from time to time, but we want to avoid having to slam on the brakes hard". 

In other words, we all know the direction we are heading, which is Covid-19 becoming endemic in Singapore.

We may however disagree with the pace of it, trotting or galloping, linked cases or unlinked cases, tapping on the brakes from time to time.

Back to Circuit Breaker if ICU cases go up

So why did Wong say on Sep. 7, just a few days later, that Singapore may have to go through another Circuit Breaker?

Before anyone waves a pair of flip-flops in his general direction, Wong's rationale was based on the number of cases in the intensive care unit (ICU), or the number of Covid-19 patients who need oxygen. If those numbers spike up, then drastic measures will kick in.

This is the same thing that Ong said in July, when Singapore was seized by the "KTV and Fishery Port" clusters. He even gave a number to look out for, with Singapore's ICU beds totalling 1,000.

So Wong was really just reiterating what Ong said earlier, and the MTF Co-Chairs are singing from the same hymn sheet.

And what do the ICU numbers look like?

As of Sep. 9, the Ministry of Health reports 26 cases of serious illness requiring oxygen, and seven in the ICU, with 664 in the hospital in total.

Now ideally, the numbers should be zero. But if we should panic when the ICU number spikes up, and at present there are just seven occupied beds, then it's clear that we should not be panicking right now.

What's your Appetite for Destruction?

The way I see it, your position on whether Singapore should stay the course or go back into lockdown depends on your appetite for risk. I'm going to call it your Appetite for Destruction instead, to make a Guns N' Roses reference.

The theory goes that if you're relatively well-off, with a job that allows you to work from home, with the ability to order food delivery every day, with devices that provide entertainment and recreation close at hand, then you don't really mind if there's another lockdown.

Oh sure you might complain, but you might also say things like "can't be too careful". This is the "Paradise City" strategy, one which countries like New Zealand are enacting, where lockdowns are imposed at the drop of a hat.

Now on the flip side are people who need to leave their houses to work, and also need other people to leave their houses in order to earn money. Think of taxi drivers, or a cafe owner or a retail business owner. Others may prefer to meet a friend face-to-face in a coffeeshop, instead of talking over the phone or figuring out how to work Zoom.

These people may object to more lockdowns, especially now that a high number of people, 81 per cent as of Sep. 8, have been fully vaccinated. 80 per cent was the target the MTF set as a precondition for easing restrictions further.

They're for the "Welcome to the Jungle" strategy. Look no further than the UK, who after having achieved a relatively high number of vaccinations, have eased most of their Covid-19 restrictions.

Now as we enter the fourth quarter of 2021 (heading for "November Rain", one might say) which strategy will the government pursue?

The "Rocket Queen" strategy of course refers to migrating to another planet with no Covid. Pic from Eric Alper's Facebook page.

More testing, continue mask-wearing, but please no lockdowns unless it's really necessary

The government has always been consistent that the Covid situation is "fluid". Circumstances change, and plans should change along with them.

The government has also been consistent that it has a duty to protect the lives of all, including the most vulnerable, like seniors. The number of unvaccinated seniors still remains the highest among all age groups. As of Sep. 6, 12 per cent of those aged 70 and above are unvaccinated.

But the data shows that the vast majority of those getting sick and dying from Covid-19 are people who are unvaccinated. Not just in Singapore, but also in the U.S. Vaccines help tremendously in keeping people out of the hospital and out of the ICU -- which is what the MTF ministers are looking out for.

There's a case to be made for Singapore being one of the best countries in the world in its Covid-19 response.

Our death toll stands at 57, remarkably low for a country so open and connected to the world. While we've had a lockdown, and a Heightened Alert, that's not on the level of Malaysia's multiple Movement Control Orders. And our hospitals and healthcare system remain robust.

All these successes may have resulted in a smaller Appetite for Destruction for the public. To the point where rising cases are enough to spook us, even as the ICU patients remain in the single digits.

I say keep our common sense restrictions. Mask up in public and especially indoors. Keep one metre away from others as much as possible. Buy some self-testing kits and use them regularly — I don't mind the little stick invading my nose so much now. I don't even miss eating lunch with others. Fewer people to judge me for my routine order of a McSpicy with four extra cheeses (to counter the spice, of course).

But please don't slap another lockdown unless hospitalisations rise sharply.

And for the love of all that's good, get vaccinated and get others vaccinated too (if medically eligible).

If the government won't mandate it, like it has for so many other things, peer pressure will have to suffice. Thankfully, only 9 per cent of my age group are unvaccinated as of Sep. 6.

Vaccination, and having booster shots in future, increases the chances that we'll stay out of the hospital and live long enough to see 2022 creep up on us like a demon in a Junji Ito novel.

Top image by Ian Parker via Unsplash.