(Bloomberg Opinion) — Singapore has suffered a big reversal in its battle against Covid-19. More accustomed to applause than demerits for all but stamping out the virus, the city-state is returning to lockdown-like conditions. Authorities are now scrambling to deploy a mix of scalpels and hammers to contain a recent outbreak. Mastering this balance will be the key to any economic recovery.
The first wave of restrictions were announced Friday. Work from home becomes the default, not long after employees were encouraged to repopulate offices. Eateries are limited to takeout only. Indoor gyms are closed, attendance at worship services is tightened and social gatherings reduced to two, from five previously and eight only a few weeks ago. Then came the blunter instrument: Officials said Sunday evening that most in-school classes would close by midweek. Leaders cited virulent mutations that attack younger children. They plan to vaccinate kids under 16. (Large portions of the adult population have yet to get shots.)
This all makes for a disappointing lockdown anniversary. One year ago, during Singapore’s two-month “circuit breaker,” we knew relatively little about this disease. Vaccines weren’t available. Contact tracing was in its infancy and masks had only just been made compulsory. Workplaces had yet to be refashioned for social distancing. Today, inoculations are proceeding, contact-tracing apps and tokens are mandatory, plastic screens are wrapped around office cubicles. Testing is widespread. Few residents expect, let alone attempt, to travel in and out of the country, given strict quarantine requirements.
Yet Singapore still hasn’t been able to avoid reinstating the tough measures. “We are testing more intensively, and doing our utmost to ring-fence the transmissions,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a Facebook post. “But we also need stricter restrictions to stop more cases from popping up.”
The challenge comes down to an elusive goal of near-total virus suppression and the reality of slow vaccinations – a dilemma that Singapore isn’t facing alone. A handful of Asian governments that initially got high marks for controlling the virus now find themselves reintroducing curbs on activity. Taiwan, which went without a single domestic case between April and December, asked people to stay home last weekend and imposed limits on gatherings after record new cases. In Japan, which at first managed to contain the virus while largely avoiding strict lockdowns, economically vital regions are under a state of emergency. Its vaccine rollout ranks among the slowest in the developed world, and Tokyo is under pressure to cancel the Olympics for fear it becomes a super-spreader event.
Singapore’s new restrictions come after recording 24 new local cases Friday, a number that swelled to 38 on Sunday, the most in more than a year but still exceedingly low on a global scale. Unlinked infections — the most concerning to officials, as they signal undetected spread — climbed to 18. The country has fully vaccinated over 22% of the population, or about 1.3 million people, as of May 13, according to the Ministry of Health. Champions point to a quick pace relative to the rest of the region, which has employed even harsher control measures, and for longer.
But shouldn’t a country with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world be aiming higher? With a population of about 5.7 million, fully vaccinating just over a fifth is hardly a standout rate. Residents aged 45 and below have been told they can register for their shots starting in June. That’s a stark contrast with the U.S. — once a source of scorn and sympathy for mishandling the pandemic — where about 37% of people have gotten both doses. Singapore, for all its achievements, has a way to go.
Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said Sunday that the government is studying holding off second shots in order to give more people at least one dose. “There have been many international studies and it shows that even with one dose, it confers good protection without compromising efficacy,” he said. Singapore has been diligent since the onset of the pandemic about daily updates for the number of cases, whether they are part of a cluster, unlinked, imported and so on. Vaccination progress reports, by contrast, have been less frequent.
For all the upheaval in routines, it’s the scalpel-like measures that may help keep the economy on track. Gross domestic product is forecast by the central bank to increase 4% to 6% this year, following the deepest slump in the republic’s history, the worst of which occurred during last year’s crackdown. This time, most industries and commercial activity will remain open, including cinemas, malls and showrooms, albeit with capacity much reduced. If harsher curbs are rolled out in coming weeks, that growth projection will be in jeopardy. Acknowledging this risk, Barnabas Gan, an economist at United Overseas Bank Ltd., wrote in a note Friday that he nonetheless preferred to retain his 5.5% growth forecast for the year.
When confronted by a foe as tenacious as Covid, it makes sense to alter course when circumstances require. It’s still tempting to ask whether, given all that we know, the hammers are necessary. As frustrating as the new impositions are, grasping for the halo of zero cases, or something close to it, leaves few other options. It may be time to suspend bromides about Asian countries having an inherently superior approach that generates the best outcomes. Striving for perfection may wind up being their deepest flaw.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for global economics, and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.