“You have to tell people: we’re going to get a lot of cases,” said Dale Fisher, a professor of medicine at the National University of Singapore, who heads the National Infection Prevention and Control Committee at the Singapore Ministry of Health. “And that’s part of the plan — we have to let it go.”
For months, many residents of Singapore, the small Southeast Asian city-state, have delved into the details of each new Covid case. There was a palpable sense of dread when infections first hit double digits. And with closed borders, there was also a sense of defeat, because even the most diligent measures were not enough to prevent contagion.
“Our people are tired of fighting,” a group of Singapore ministers wrote in an opinion essay in the Straits Times in June. “Everyone is asking: when and how will the pandemic end?”
Officials in Singapore announced plans to gradually ease restrictions and chart a path to the other side of the pandemic. The plans include monitoring the number of people who become seriously ill, how many people need intensive care and how many need to be intubated, rather than infections.
Those measures are already being put to the test.
Outbreaks have spread across several karaoke lounges and a major fishing port, and on Tuesday Singapore announced a tightening of measures, including a ban on all dining options. Commerce Minister Gan Kim Yong said the country was still on the right track, comparing the latest restrictions to “roadblocks” to the ultimate goal.
Singapore has fully vaccinated 49 percent of the population and has named Israel, 58 percent further ahead, as a model. Israel has targeted serious illness, a tactic officials have called “soft repression.” It is also facing its own sharp rise in the number of cases, from a few figures a month ago to hundreds of new cases a day. The country recently reinstated a mandate for indoor masks.
“It’s important, but it’s pretty annoying,” said Danny Levy, 56, an Israeli official who was waiting for a film at a cinema complex in Jerusalem last week. Levy said he would wear his mask to the theater but found it frustrating that restrictions were being imposed again as new virus variants entered the country due to weak testing and monitoring of inbound travelers.
Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, said countries taking shortcuts towards reopening are putting unvaccinated people at risk and gambling with lives.
“At this point, I actually find it quite surprising that governments are necessarily deciding that they know enough about how this virus will behave in populations to choose, ‘Yeah, we’re going to live with it,'” said Mr. devising New Zealand’s Covid elimination strategy.
New Zealanders seem to have accepted the possibility of longer term restrictions. In a recent government-commissioned survey of more than 1,800 people, 90 percent of respondents said they did not expect life to return to normal after being vaccinated, in part because of lingering questions about the virus.
Scientists still don’t fully understand “long-term Covid” – the long-term symptoms that hundreds of thousands of previously infected patients still struggle with. They say that Covid-19 should not be treated like the flu because it is much more dangerous. They are also uncertain about the duration of immunity vaccines provide and how well they protect against the variants.
Much of the developing world also continues to face increasing infections, making the virus more likely to multiply rapidly, which in turn increases the risk of more mutations and spread. According to the Our World in Data project, only 1 percent of people in low-income countries have received a vaccine dose.
In Australia, several state lawmakers this month suggested the country had reached “a fork in the road” where it had to choose between continuing restrictions and learning to live with infections. They said Australia may need to follow much of the world and give up its Covid-zero approach.
Gladys Berejiklian, the leader of the Australian state of New South Wales, immediately rejected the proposal. “No state or nation or any country on the planet can live with the Delta variant when our vaccination rates are that low,” she said. Only about 11 percent of Australians over the age of 16 have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison also distanced himself from calls for a shift in the country’s Covid protocols. After announcing a four-phase plan to return to normal life on July 2, he has insisted that the power of the Delta variant requires an infinite reprieve.
In places where vaccinations have been widely available for months, such as Europe, countries have bet big on their vaccination programs as a way out of the pandemic and the key to keeping hospitalizations and deaths low.
Germans who have been fully vaccinated in the past six months can dine indoors at restaurants without evidence of a negative rapid test. They are allowed unlimited private appointments and travel without a 14-day quarantine.
In Italy, masks are only required when entering shops or crowded areas, but many people continue to wear them, even if only as a chin guard. “My daughters scold me – they say I’m vaccinated and don’t have to wear a mask, but I’ve gotten used to it,” said Marina Castro, who lives in Rome.
England, which has vaccinated almost all of its most vulnerable residents, has taken the most drastic approach. On Monday, the country lifted virtually all Covid-19 restrictions, despite the rise of Delta-variant infections, especially among young people.
On “Friday Day,” as the tabloids called it, pubs, restaurants and nightclubs flung open their doors. Restrictions on gatherings and mask requirements were also lifted. People could be seen dining and sunbathing outside, cheek to cheek.
Lacking most of the rules, the government is urging people to use “personal responsibility” to maintain safety. Sajid Javid, the British health secretary – who tested positive for the coronavirus last week – said last month the country had to “learn to live” with the virus. That’s despite polls suggesting the English public prefers a more gradual approach to reopening.
Officials in Singapore, who reported 182 locally transmitted infections on Tuesday, say the number of cases is likely to increase in the coming days. The outbreak appears to have delayed but not scuttled plans for a phased reopening.
“You give people a sense of progress,” Ong Ye Kung, Singapore’s health minister, said this month, “instead of waiting for that big day when everything opens up and then you go crazy.”
Reporting contributed by: Damien Cave from Sydney, Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem, Melissa Eddie from Berlin, Natasha Frost from Auckland, New Zealand, and Benjamin Mueller from London.