Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen
1. Let me make a few remarks about the “Science-Based Approach in Fighting Against the Pandemic”, by sharing some of Singapore’s experiences.
2. We had to make many critical decisions while we fight the pandemic, such as what the health protocols are, social safe management measures, whether we should have mask mandates and requirements for vaccinations and boosters. Each of these decisions has to be guided by science and data. And when the new data and findings become available and we discover that an earlier decision was inappropriate, we were prepared to change our positions and our policies, and explain the reasons to the public.
3. However, COVID-19 also poses difficult dilemmas, which involve decisions that go beyond science, but require balancing health, economic and social considerations. This is a very difficult juggling act which all governments have to go through. And that is why there is a saying, “lives versus livelihoods”, which encapsulates the dilemmas that we all face.
4. For many countries, that decision – “lives versus livelihoods” – was unfortunately taken out of their hands because these countries undertook responses that were targeted against something like Influenza. But COVID-19 is not Influenza; it is far more deadly. As a result, the virus swept through their countries. Today, with immunity from both infection and vaccination, many of these countries have acquired strong herd protection and they could now live life normally. Happy outcome, but only after paying the huge price in human casualties.
5. Fortunately, having gone through SARS in 2003, we have developed a set of measures that could contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus when it arrived in Singapore in 2019, through isolation, contact tracing, border controls and curbing social activities. China’s effort to quickly map the genome of the virus and make it available to the world proved to be decisive and crucial for the rest of us, as it enabled the rapid development of test kits, which laid the foundation for our pandemic response.
6. As a result, we could keep our society relatively safe, until vaccines became available and we administered them to the large majority of our population. We made a special effort to reach out to seniors, who are the most vulnerable. We implemented vaccination-differentiated measures for public spaces and travel, to reduce the risk of exposure for those who are not fully vaccinated, and to nudge people to get vaccinated.
7. When a large majority of our population has been vaccinated, we were then confident enough to shift our strategy from “zero-COVID” to “Living with COVID-19”. It was not easy but progressively, we re-opened our economy, occasionally stepping on the brakes to protect our healthcare system and our people.
8. In this process, the biggest change is not policy and health measures, but our societal and population mindset. From thinking that this is a deadly virus which we need to avoid at all cost, to being able to live with it as one of the many risks in lives, provided that we are well-vaccinated. It also involves a change in focus from overall infection numbers to that of severe cases leading to the intensive care unit or death. So the key area of focus is to ensure sufficient healthcare capacity to manage the severe cases.
9. Today, having gone through a major Omicron wave, our case numbers are relatively low, hospital operations are stable, borders are open, social and economic activities are almost back to normal. Fortunately our accumulated incidence of fatalities is one of the lowest in the world.
10. It was a difficult and arduous journey, and we have to feel our way forward like crossing a river one stone at a time (摸着石头过河). Ours is an approach that best suits our needs and circumstances as a globally connected city state which needs to tap into the world in order to survive. Other countries will have to tailor their pandemic responses based on their own unique circumstances, priorities, and societal cultures. But ultimately, it is for each country to make the best choice for its people based on the available information as well as a combination of natural and social sciences.
11. Thank you.