Singapore is trying to do what no other country has done: pivot away from COVID-zero. Will it work?

August 24, 2021, 10:13 AM UTC

For a few months after Singapore detected its first case of COVID-19 on Jan. 23, 2020, the city was credited for its ability to control the pandemic without resorting to a lockdown. Targeted travel restrictions and aggressive contact tracing kept cases low in the city despite its proximity to China.

Yet as COVID became a global pandemic, Singapore was pushed to adopt more dramatic measures. On Feb. 8, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong admitted that it might be “futile to try to trace every contact” as more untraceable local cases emerged. Then a March wave of imported cases drove the government to take drastic action: It closed its border on March 23, 2020, to all short-term pass holders and tourists.  

That decision has been an economic and existential catastrophe for Singapore. As Southeast Asia’s most important trade and business hub, its wealth and raison d’être depend on openness. According to data from Oxford Economics, air transit supports, either directly or indirectly, 375,000 jobs in Singapore—about 10% of the workforce. It contributes $36 billion a year to GDP, about 12% of the total. Since the borders shut, Changi, Singapore’s famously efficient airport, has been running at just 3% of its pre-pandemic capacity—with predictable results. The country has endured the deepest recession in its history, and its government has had to spend $100 billion, or 20% of GDP, shoring up the economy.

Now Singapore is changing direction. The country is about to become the first to go from a zero-tolerance approach to COVID-19 to one that will allow COVID to become endemic in its population. Its new approach is a contrast to that of its counterpart and sometimes-rival Hong Kong, which closed its borders on March 25, 2020. Both cities—like many other places in Asia—adopted a “COVID-zero” strategy, using social distancing and, in Singapore’s case, lockdowns to eradicate local cases of COVID-19 while using travel restrictions and inbound quarantine to control imported cases. Now, more than a year later, Singapore is cautiously reopening, while Hong Kong’s government has announced a raft of new inbound quarantine restrictions.

Not that Singapore will allow life to return to normal. It is choosing to take it slow. First, it has set itself an unusually high bar for vaccination: It won’t begin to reopen until 80% of its population have been double-jabbed. By contrast, Britain lifted restrictions with about 65% fully vaccinated. Second, even when it reaches that threshold in early September, Singapore will reopen with a whimper rather than a bang. On Sept. 8, Singaporeans will be allowed to travel without quarantining on their return—but only to two countries with low rates of COVID-19, Brunei and Germany. For the time being, mask-wearing will remain mandatory, contact-tracing apps will remain in use, and restaurants will still have to abide by the 10:30 p.m. curfew. 

Singapore’s caution may seem counterproductive, slowing its economic recovery and further frustrating a population eager to get off their island. But it is likely to pay off in the long run and may even hold lessons for other Asian countries searching for a way out of lockdown.  

Singapore’s COVID story is a tale of two pandemics. The first took place among Singapore’s population of migrant workers, who are sequestered away in cramped, unhygienic dormitories. Once COVID got inside these compounds it was almost impossible to stop its spread. Last year around 55,000 workers tested positive, but a recent study confirmed that the real number was over 150,000. Despite the high case count, Singapore “got very lucky,” says Hsu Li Yang, an associate professor at the city’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health. “Most of the migrant workers are young and healthy, and the rates of severe disease remained low.” 

The second, much milder pandemic took place among the population at large. A set of draconian measures kept the migrant workers shut away in their dormitories to prevent infection from spreading, and for most of the last year, daily infections in the community have been in the single digits. To date, only 49 people in Singapore have died of the virus.

Anxious to remind the world of the country’s hub status even as global travel was grounded, Singapore’s government attempted to capitalize on this success. Touting the city-state as a safe haven, it built a new business hotel at Changi Airport. Called Connect@Changi, the hotel was designed as a bio-secure bubble for face-to-face international meetings. The government also arranged green lanes for high-value business and diplomatic travel and offered Singapore as an alternative venue for the World Economic Forum, which usually takes place in the ritzy Swiss ski resort of Davos. Singapore was a hermit nation that seemed ready to welcome others into its cave. 

The Delta variant barred the way. Unlike Britain, which signed vaccine contracts with several manufacturers while efficacy trials were still ongoing, Singapore waited for firm data before making its choice of Pfizer and Moderna. This decision delayed the arrival of doses. Between January and May Singapore jabbed just 20% of its people. By June, when Singapore suffered its own outbreak of Delta at a fish port and several karaoke bars, the figure was only 40%. 

The Delta variant killed Singapore’s efforts to reopen: The World Economic Forum was canceled, as was the Shangri-La Dialogue, a security conference that had 23 visiting defense ministers on its roster of delegates. “The outbreaks showed us that the measures that worked against the older variants were not effective against the more transmissible COVID-19 variant,” says Hsu. “We became a lot more conservative and aimed for a higher percentage of the population to be vaccinated before we opened up again.” 

Singapore is now reaching that point. In recent weeks, vaccine supplies have ramped up rapidly. Since the start of July, the rate of vaccination has risen from 40% to 76%. This gives the country an extra buffer against the virus. “We know the consequences of making an error are not that big anymore,” says Walter Theseira, an economist at the Singapore University of Social Sciences. “Earlier this year, they were huge.” 

Several big events, of the kind that were canceled earlier this year, are scheduled to go ahead in the next few months. Ecosperity Week, a conference organized by Temasek, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, is due to take place in September. It will be followed in November by the Milken Institute’s Asia Summit and the Bloomberg New Economy Forum. “I am genuinely optimistic that these big in-person events are going to return in the second half of this year,” says James Crabtree, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which organizes the Shangri-La Dialogue. “You can see where the government is going. They recognize that Singapore is a hub, and they have to reopen. Vaccines are not the magic bullet, but they are the key to unlock this.” 

If vaccines are the key, caution is the grease in the mechanism. Singapore’s own COVID situation may be under control and its vaccination rates high, but the rest of the region is awash with the virus. For several months now Indonesia has been a global epicenter of the pandemic, as COVID has surged through a largely unvaccinated population. Malaysia is also enduring a sharp rise in cases—so much so that it helped undermine support for the country’s prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, who resigned last week.

The risk of new variants on Singapore’s doorstep is high; its reopening strategy is about balancing that risk with reward. The conferences and summits planned for the fall are a chance to show the world Singapore is getting back to business. A new variant could scupper that effort as easily as Delta scuppered the WEF.

In the longer term, Singapore’s caution is a method of reputation management. Reopening successfully is not an event but a process—and one that shows you can stay open as the crisis morphs. “The way businesses measure risk has really changed a lot over the last couple of years,” says Steve Cochrane, chief economist for APAC at Moody’s Analytics in Singapore. “I’m not sure firms really took into account public policy processes related to black swan events before the pandemic, but they definitely do now. Countries that have taken a reasonable, measured approach will come out ahead.” 

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