Best defence against Covid-19 second wave is caution

Given the crowds out for a relaxing time at the beaches or thronging Orchard Road and shopping malls over the weekend, one might think we have put the threat of Covid-19 behind us.

The only giveaway is the sight of masks on people's faces. Otherwise, these closely packed crowds make a mockery of safe distancing. But throwing caution to the wind could spell trouble.

Of course, one can empathise with the desire to see life return to normal.

After six months of living with fear, of taking extraordinary precautions, of staying cooped up, sometimes in small homes with large families, many are yearning to let their hair down.

They are encouraged by the fact that Singapore appears to have things under control.

The dormitory infection numbers have been coming down. Cases in the community have gone down to an average of two a day for the past week. There are now only around 100 Covid-19 patients in hospital, and none of them is critically ill.

Yes, Covid-19 is still raging around the world, with 20.5 million people infected and almost 750,000 people dead. But the real crises seem far away - largely in the Americas, India and Russia.

True, nearer to home, the Philippines and Indonesia are seeing high numbers with thousands of new cases daily.

But Singapore has closed its borders and people allowed in have to keep themselves locked up for 14 days to ensure they do not transmit the virus they might have brought here with them.

On the face of it, the virus appears to have been checked here and matters seem under control.

Even the tough measures imposed to achieve this state of affairs are gradually being relaxed.

Up to five people are now allowed to dine out together. The authorities have also raised the ceiling on the number of people who can attend weddings and funerals.

The bustle in Bugis Street on Monday, with the masks on people's faces the only giveaway that Singapore is still battling a pandemic. The currently low infection numbers here and the greater freedom to move around are a reward for everyone working to
The bustle in Bugis Street on Monday, with the masks on people's faces the only giveaway that Singapore is still battling a pandemic. The currently low infection numbers here and the greater freedom to move around are a reward for everyone working together to fight Covid-19, but Singaporeans must not let their guard down until the whole world is safe again. ST PHOTO: SHINTARO TAY


Still, restrictions remain in place to manage risks, should there be a super spreader. It is also important to remain cautious and not to push the envelope too far.

The low infection numbers in Singapore and the greater freedom to move around are a reward for everyone working together to fight Covid-19.

If people start thinking that the pandemic is now history in Singapore then, as they say, history has a habit of repeating itself.

No one wants another round of circuit breaker.

Some countries that thought they had beaten Covid-19 are now facing a surge in cases. Japan is now diagnosing more than 1,000 new infections a day. Australia, which acted firmly in the state of Victoria to stamp out a resurgence, has now brought its numbers down to about 300 new cases a day.

After 102 days without new infections, New Zealand now has four. How did that happen?

There is a theory that the virus entered New Zealand through the freight brought in. This has not been confirmed, but it reinforces the need for vigilance in Singapore, which continues to allow goods in and out of the country.

But Professor Wang Linfa, director of the emerging infectious diseases programme at Duke-NUS Medical School, said one of those infected worked in a cold store. He said: "Importation (of the virus) from frozen food is certainly a possibility if the produce is heavily contaminated."

He said the coronavirus remains viable for longer in cool conditions - which was what happened with the large cluster emanating from the Beijing market.

Associate Professor Alex Cook of the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health said the new infections could also have been caused by a chain of asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic cases that had not been picked up.

His colleague, Associate Professor Hsu Liyang, who is also an infectious diseases specialist, agreed.

He said: "We do know that a significant proportion of individuals - especially children and young adults - are either asymptomatic or present with very mild symptoms, but remain infectious."

That could also be the case in Singapore, despite low community numbers.

Prof Cook added that the virus could have slipped through the safety net if people who were quarantined did not adhere to the restriction on leaving home.

This was how the outbreak in Victoria exploded. One in five people under quarantine was not at home when checks were made.

At that time, Australia had "beaten" Covid-19 and was seeing very low numbers - like Singapore is starting to.

People let their guard down - resulting in needless, fresh Covid-19 deaths.

Infectious diseases specialist Asok Kurup said: "It just shows that there is always a possibility of a weak link somewhere. Each country may have its own peculiar problem. We remain vulnerable without durable immunity or vaccine."

Singapore is now at a point where the outbreak seems under control.

Whether this happy situation can be sustained will depend on the attitude and behaviour of its people.

As the experts keep saying, a second wave could be even more severe than the first.

Said Prof Hsu: "We still need to be careful and maintain good hygiene as well as safe distancing as far as possible, even though the number of cases has fallen in Singapore."

One must also remember how a handful of visitors from China brought Covid-19 to Singapore. In just over half a year, more than 55,000 people here have been infected and 27 have died.

Globally, it took only a few infected people in Wuhan to cause a pandemic that is still causing thousands of deaths every single day.

It would be naive to imagine that Singapore is now safe.

Its only defences are its people working together to keep transmission low, the Government moving in quickly to contain new cases, and a healthcare system that can give each patient the best care possible - but only if the numbers remain manageable.

As Prof Wang said, the experiences of other countries "remind us again that no place is safe until the whole world is safe".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2020, with the headline 'Best defence against second wave is caution'. Print Edition | Subscribe