Covid casts a long shadow but Singapore’s ministers see light beyond

Believers of logic in policymaking must get frustrated by governments’ wildly diverse, frequently changing and often conflicting Covid responses and ask themselves how long these differences will persist.  Unfortunately the discovery process does require you to make it up as you go along.

This means that the high-vaccinating UK is moving full steam towards unlocking on 19 July, with PM Boris Johnson saying “pretty much life before Covid” is very likely.  A shrewd guess is that this means some manageable adaptations (e.g., vaccine passports) with contingency plans for local restrictions in case of flare-ups.

Meanwhile, the slower-vaccinating EU seems to be bracing for a fourth wave during the northern autumn, with the hope that it will be a lot milder than before.   But the European countries most dependent on tourism are disinclined to let that shut down their economies.

The common thread is adaptation to the evolving reality.  And in an uncertain world, it’s nice to know that the Singaporean government can put this succinctly into context.

The plan from its Covid-19 multi-ministry task force starts bluntly with the proposition that the virus will never go away, surviving in the community by mutation, rather like influenza.  But Singapore’s levels of vaccination (near-universal one presumes) and improving treatments will keep the incidence and impact manageable.  

The world (or at least the Singaporean bits of it) might then look like this:

  1. Widespread screening and easy testing will ensure people get tested often and self isolate quickly, removing the need for massive contact tracing and quarantining.
  2. With milder symptoms and less transmission, an infected person can usually recover at home but hospitals will have the capacity to deal with smaller numbers of more severe cases.
  3. The key measurement tool will not be raw infection numbers but the key outcomes, namely categories of the very sick (again as with influenza).
  4. Business disruption and cancellation of major events would not be needed as a management tool.  
  5. Vaccinated and tested travellers will move freely to similarly-managed countries.

In the best traditions of Singapore’s elite policymaking, they produce some killer stats which make this look plausible.

Singapore may find it easier than most to achieve this compound of a small number of hard rules (with their ‘one size fits all’ disadvantages) and adapted social behaviour.

It’s probably not enough to understand the policy destination.  The pandemic does seem to have unhinged some of the normal equilibria in our societies.  There are more and louder voices calling for compulsion and control, not just to vanquish the pandemic, but also to bring forth the new Jerusalem, whether that is to be found in the elimination of child poverty, police brutality or use of carbon.  

Governments will need agility to manage such pressures, and some will need to be more agile than others. New Zealand and Australia, with their meandering progress on vaccination, may find it harder to abandon the zero covid dream, than the Europeans with their experience of living with the pandemic.

The risk is that past success leads both antipodean countries to set a distinctive course into splendid (policy) isolation.  How long such a gap could – or would – persist is a matter for speculation.  It would be a brave experiment to see if NZ remains sufficiently digitally linked to the outside world to keep its talent and generate the productivity improvements and economic renewal needed to ensure prosperity.

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