The Covid-19 pandemic: How will we know it’s over?

JUNE 6 — After basically a year and a half of extreme disruption to our lives as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, people are beginning to wonder when this will end.

What does the end of the pandemic look like? How will we know when it is over and are we in fact nearing the end? 

In a speech last week, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Singaporeans that Singapore would use vaccination and mass testing as a means to return to a new normal, to a version of life that more closely resembles what we knew before the pandemic. 

He also said that Singapore and the world in general would have to learn to live with Covid-19, that Singapore would have to open its borders, its workplaces once again and that process would bring with it the risk of intermittent outbreaks. 

The prime minister, however, was hopeful that the vaccine and contact tracing would mitigate the severity of any such outbreaks.  

So, our government at least seems to be working on the basis that Covid-19 will become another endemic disease like dengue; something to keep an eye on and manage but no longer a disruption to daily life. 

This seems like a perfectly sensible approach; we cannot live highly restricted lives indefinitely but when do we say the disease is mitigated enough for this normality to begin?  

This is somewhat unclear. For example, Singapore has seen 33 deaths from Covid-19 overall and perhaps two deaths in the last month. Yet we are at Phase 2 — heightened alert — over the pandemic. 

This means that no more than two people can gather in public, restaurants are closed and work from home is the default option. 

Meanwhile, the United States is currently recording around 500-600 deaths from Covid-19 per day but this is down from highs of over 3,000 deaths per day earlier this year, and so it has basically declared that Covid-19 has been contained. 

Across the country, mask mandates have been lifted, people are going back to offices and restrictions on travel and events have eased considerably. 

They are effectively saying that at 500-600 deaths per day, it can function relatively normally. 

Of course, the United States is an enormous country but adjusted for population that would be something like five to six Covid-19 deaths per day in Singapore. Would that be acceptable to us? 

These are not easy calculations — every life lost is a tragedy. But that is the job of policy makers. How many infections per day would be viable? Zero infections seem unviable. 

At what point do our leaders say it is low enough? And when this is reached, and we open up to travel and events and cases rise again, at what point do we shut down again? 

Initially Covid-19 was a shock no one knew how to respond to but if it becomes endemic, we will need parameters; an outbreak of fewer than 10 people — contact tracing, more than 50 people and multiple clusters, local isolation, mass testing?  

Basically, the question is how low is low enough, and how far are we willing to go to reduce deaths — it’s a very difficult question but this question comes down to freedom, openness and economic returns vs safety and is the heart of the issue.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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