At the end of 2020, everyone was wondering: when will this nightmare end?
It seemed like the battle against COVID-19 would drag on and on.
Early this month, the news came out: COVID-19 would most probably become the “new normal“, something we would just have to deal with in our daily lives.
So, how would adjusting to this new normal look like?
COVID-19 To Stay
As we all already know, dealing with this new normal would first mean having to deal with the fact that COVID-19 may never go away. Instead, it’s very likely going to become endemic.
Yeah, jokes on our 2020 selves, who probably still thought COVID-19 would end someday.
So what does COVID-19 becoming endemic mean?
Well, it basically means that the virus will continue to mutate and survive in our community.
For example, the well-known influenza is also an endemic disease. While many people catch the flu each year, most recover without needing to be hospitalised, and with little or no medication. Only a small minority, such as the elderly or those with co-morbidities, get seriously ill due to influenza. An even smaller minority eventually succumb to the flu.
In large countries such as the United States, the number of people hospitalised from influenza can be huge. Hundreds of thousands are hospitalised every year due to the flu in the United States, and tens of thousands die.
However, since the chances of falling seriously ill from influenza are so low, people learn to live with it. Daily activities are carried out as usual even during the flu season, with some just take simple precautions or getting an annual flu jab.
So while we can’t get rid of COVID-19 completely, we can work to turn it into something less threatening, like influenza, chickenpox, or hand, foot and mouth disease.
Multi-year Vaccination Programme
The first step to making a virus less threatening: getting your vaccination.
On 31 May, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced during the national broadcast that our aim was to have two-thirds of our population take at least their first dose by early July, and that we were on track to achieve this target.
He then said that the next milestone would be to have at least two-thirds of our population fully vaccinated with two doses around National Day. That is if our supply of vaccination doses permits.
Scientific evidence has clearly proven that vaccines are highly effective in reducing the risk of infection as well as transmission. They also help to prevent severe COVID-19 symptoms even when one is infected.
According to The Straits Times, Israel’s data and experience with their vaccination process—which so far has resulted in 60% of its population being vaccinated—has shown that the infection rate among vaccinated persons is 30 times less than that of the unvaccinated. The hospitalisation rate for the vaccinated is also lower by 10 times.
Across all age groups, the hospitalisation rate due to COVID-19 in Israel among those fully vaccinated is 0.3 per 100,000 persons daily, and the mortality rate is 0.1 per 100,000 persons.
These numbers are even lower than those for influenza in the United States. From 2018 to 2019, the hospitalisation and mortality rates for influenza in the US were 0.4 and 0.03 per 100,000 persons daily, respectively.
Similarly, in Singapore, of the 120 plus fully vaccinated individuals who were nevertheless infected with COVID-19, including some aged above 65, all had either no or mild symptoms. In contrast, about 8% of the unvaccinated developed serious symptoms.
Not only are vaccinations a key part of adjusting to the new normal, but booster shots will also be needed in the future. A comprehensive, multi-year vaccination programme might even need to be developed and sustained.
According to our ministers, this is in order to sustain a high level of protection, and to defend against new mutant strains resistant to current vaccines.
Changed Focus for Testing
Just like vaccinations, testing and surveillance will still be required. Rigorous testing at the Singapore borders will continue in order to identify any person carrying the virus, especially variants of concern.
However, according to the co-chairs of the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force—comprising of Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and Health Minister Ong Ye Kung—the focus of such testing and monitoring will be different from the present.
Currently, testing and surveillance are used as tools for ring-fencing and quarantining people exposed to infected persons.
However, in the future, it would be used to ensure that events, social activities and overseas trips can take place safely. Another goal is to reduce transmission risks, especially to those who are vulnerable to infections.
Faster Testing in the Future
Today, the main method of testing is through the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. However, as our ministers have said, this test can be uncomfortable and also takes many hours to produce results.
Currently, the government has already rolled out antigen rapid tests, including self-tests, to polyclinics, private clinics, employers, premises owners and pharmacies.
Even better, there are upcoming COVID-19 test kits that will be even faster and easier. For example, breathalysers will take only one to two minutes to produce the results and do not involve swabbing.
In the future, such test kits will be made available to the airport, seaport, office buildings, malls, hospitals and educational institutions for screening of staff and visitors.
This also means that conducting massive contact tracing and quarantining of people every time we discover a new COVID-19 case may not be necessary. Instead, people can get themselves tested regularly using a variety of self-test kits. Only if those tests show positive results, would people need to confirm with a PCR test and isolate themselves.
Improved Medical Treatment for COVID-19
As we always say, time is the issue. Just because something does not exist now, or is not perfected, does not mean that it will remain so in the future,
Currently, scientists all over the world are working on developing treatments for COVID-19. Even so, Singapore already has a range of effective treatments, which has contributed to Singapore having one of the lowest COVID-19 mortality rates in the world.
Almost one and a half years after the pandemic first started, Singapore now has “many therapeutic agents that are effective in treating the critically ill, quickening recovery, and reducing disease progression, severity and mortality.”
With both global scientists and our own medical researchers actively participating in the development of new treatments, treatments for COVID-19 will only improve.
Social Responsibility Still Important
As our ministers have said, whether we are successful in transitioning towards a new normal would depend on Singaporeans’ acceptance of COVID-19 as an endemic, as well as our collective behaviour.
This includes basic things like practising good personal hygiene, or staying away from crowds when we feel unwell—in short, being considerate to one another. This will help to reduce transmission, and thus lower the risk of being infected.
I hope all those people refusing to wear masks are hearing this.
Easing of COVID-19 Restriction Measures
When you think about returning to “normal”, the first thing you probably think of is being able to gather with friends or travel to places as and when you wish.
The good news is, that time will come eventually—just perhaps slightly different from the way you are used to.
One thing for sure, the current safety management rules will progressively be eased. According to the government, large gatherings and major events, such as the National Day Parade or New Year Countdown, will be resumed, and businesses need not be worried that their operations will not be disrupted.
Finally, the thing we’ve all been waiting for: we will be able to travel again.
At least, we’ll be able to travel to countries that have also controlled the virus and turned it into an endemic norm.
A part of this process will be getting countries to recognise each other’s vaccination certificates. Unlike before, travellers, especially those vaccinated, can also get themselves tested before departure, and be exempted from quarantine with a negative test upon arrival.
Featured Image: Miguel Vidal/ Shutterstock.com
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