Is it better to bite the bullet and roll back Covid-19 curbs than delay the inevitable?

Staff check the vaccination and SafeEntry check-in status of shoppers before they enter Tampines Mall on Oct 15, 2021.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

SINGAPORE - Even as Singapore extended its Covid-19 restrictions for a month, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung had some good news to share.

Cases have stabilised and infection numbers are no longer doubling every few days the way they were since last month; increasing numbers of infected people suffer from only mild or no symptoms; and there has been a drop in the number of older people getting infected.

So why continue keeping the entire nation in a state of semi-lockdown?

Unfortunately, there is still a significant number of vulnerable people who have not been vaccinated. Some can't, others won't. This group is filling up hospital and intensive care unit (ICU) beds, causing people with non-urgent medical problems to have their treatments postponed.

While the number of vaccinated seniors getting infected has been dropping, the number of non-vaccinated seniors who get infected remains at about 100 each day.

Now, 100 unvaccinated people out of more than 3,000 people who get infected every day sounds like a very low number. But they account for more than half of those who become severely ill.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) said of the 495 people with severe illness in the past few days, 55 per cent or 270 came from this small group of unvaccinated people who got infected.

So the number to worry about is not how many people are getting infected every day. This number has remained stable. The more important number is that of the unvaccinated people who are getting infected daily, because they are disproportionately filling up hospital and ICU beds.

Mr Ong said the data shows that among this group, 25 per cent will require oxygen to help them breathe, or will get so sick that intensive care is needed, or they will die.

The MOH said 80 new patients had to be admitted into ICU over the past fortnight, compared with 46 in the preceding two weeks. This is a worrying figure, since most will be there for several days, and some for weeks. We know that Covid-19 affects older people, especially those with underlying medical conditions, more seriously.

Luckily, most seniors have done the right thing. They got vaccinated and many have had their booster shots, which will cut their risk of getting infected. Not surprisingly, the number of vaccinated seniors getting infected has fallen from about 1,000 a day early this month, to 279 on Tuesday.

If they get infected, they are less likely to fall seriously ill after the booster shot, even if they have underlying medical conditions.

While the battle against Covid-19 is tough, one wonders why existing measures need to be extended for another month.

With 84 per cent of the population already fully vaccinated, and with more than 600,000 people having received their booster shots, the vast majority is well protected against Covid-19.

By all means continue with the vaccine-differentiated measures, so people who are not vaccinated but still want to go out are protected in spite of themselves.

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But there is no real need for the 4.6 million people who are fully vaccinated and the more than 600,000 who have received their booster shots to continue facing stringent restrictions for another month. Let these people, who heeded the Government's call to get vaccinated, eat and socialise in larger groups. Let the children play together, and families do things together outside their homes.

The number of people who remain unvaccinated is not going to change much over the next few months. Those who want to and can get vaccinated have already done so.

Yes, it does make sense to slow down the rate of infection so hospital beds do not fill up too quickly.

Mr Ong's target is to build up immunity against Covid-19 in the nation through booster shots (Didn't we say the same thing early this year about enough people getting fully vaccinated?) as well as having more people catch the virus while experiencing only mild flu-like symptoms so their antibodies and immunity will build up over time so we "will see cases falling, and then we can open up social economic activities without cases rising very rapidly".

But when will this happen? So far, only about 3 per cent of the population has become infected. At this rate, it will take years to achieve the level of immunity Mr Ong is aiming for. This is especially so, since there is a question mark over how long antibodies will stay high after the third vaccine jab.

If the level wanes after six months, the way it has after the first two jabs, will restrictions continue indefinitely as another round, or two, of boosters will be needed to prop it up again? Those who received their booster in September may need another one by March, and so it continues.

At this rate, will there ever be a right time to roll back restrictions? Perhaps it's time to bite the bullet and relax the curbs instead of delaying in the face of the inevitable.

This article was first published in The Straits TimesPermission required for reproduction.