By Marina Lopes
SINGAPORE – Singapore did almost everything right.
The island nation imposed some of the strictest controls to ward off the coronavirus. It tightened borders, quarantined travellers, implemented a Bluetooth contact tracing system and deployed an army of social distance enforcers.
Robots roamed the streets ensuring that people remained six feet apart and masks became mandatory, inside and outside.
For a while, it worked. After weathering a surge last spring, Singapore was virtually virus-free for much of the past year. Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, has killed 32 people in this country of 6 million.
As hospitals in Brazil, Britain and the United States ran out of beds and oxygen, Singaporeans were free to visit movie theatres, food courts and malls. Last month, Bloomberg News crowned the city-state the best place to be during the pandemic.
But Singapore's rules have proven to be no match for a new variant of the virus rippling through Southeast Asia. Scientists say the variant, known as B 1.617, which arose in pandemic-ravaged India, is 50% more contagious than the original strain.
In Singapore, authorities have traced several clusters to vaccinated front-line workers, who became infected in late April. Last week, the country shut schools, restaurants and bars after losing control of outbreaks at the airport and a hospital. Plans to hold the World Economic Forum in August were called off, as was a hoped-for travel bubble with Hong Kong.
“All the precautions we are used to may not be sufficient to safeguard against the spread of the virus and we need even more stringent measures,” Lawrence Wong, head of Singapore's coronavirus task force, said Tuesday. “We know that the new variants are much more infectious than what we had to deal with last year.”
Cases here arose after a fully vaccinated nurse at a hospital developed a cough and sore throat. Two weeks later, more than half of the patients in her ward tested positive. A similar situation played out at the airport, where an 88-year-old janitor who was fully vaccinated tested positive.
Within weeks, the cluster grew to 86 other people. By mid-May, the country was registering 30 new cases a day.
Over the past month, the coronavirus has infiltrated places that had implemented draconian controls and barely registered cases in a year. Taiwan reported more cases in the past week than in all of 2020. Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam also experienced surges, after keeping the virus at bay for months.
Singapore's government has increased its vaccination campaign, with front-page ads and disco-themed music videos to reassure people that the shots are safe. The country is also spacing out first and second doses – it uses the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines – to try to inoculate more people. So far, 1.9 million people have had at least one dose.
Businesses that had weathered the initial shutdown braced for another wave. At malls, stores pulled out “for sale” signs and slashed prices, knowing the crowds would soon thin. Groups of socially distanced break-dancers gathered on the boardwalk for a final night. Bars and restaurants were booked solid last weekend, as friends said goodbye.
Druggists, a craft beer bar in a historic pharmacy building, had just reopened after a two-week renovation when the new shutdown was announced. A line of customers filed in last Friday, just before the new restrictions took effect, admiring the freshly painted indigo walls and new menu board.
Bar founder Corrine Chia, 45, knew the restrictions would be painful. But the previous shutdown helped the bar develop an online arm. It now runs a virtual craft beer workshop, sells wine and beer on its website, and offers food delivery.
“The first lockdown reminded us to always expect change and always be ready,” she said.
But last year's shutdown also taught some sectors that their work does not translate well online.
Philomena Cannon-Brookes, 51, lost close to $40 000 (about R550 00) in revenue when she tried to take Power Kids, her children's gym, online last year. She soon paused all classes after she realized that children lacked the supervision, space and materials to do the exercises.
“Why would any parent want to pay for online classes when they can just Google it? It doesn't make any sense,” she said.
Cannon-Brookes closed her second business, a children's hair salon that had been open for 14 years, during the last shutdown. Now she is trying to keep the gym's seven employees afloat long enough to survive this round of restrictions.
Teo Yik Ying, dean of the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said the outbreak was a “stark reminder” that people who have been vaccinated can still be infected, although they are unlikely to progress to a severe disease stage where they need to go to a hospital.
“That changes the way we think about how we approach the pandemic, not just as a country, but perhaps around the world,” he said. “Before a country has a high level of uptake of the vaccine, it cannot relent on community restriction measures.”
For performers who were just getting back onstage, the new shutdown has been crippling.
Pavan Singh, 42, was thrilled to be back in the theatre last week with his sketch comedy troupe, Otters United. But as he prepared to go onstage, he got word that the new restrictions would take effect, banning all live performances.
“I just felt like ‘Here we go again,' ” he said, lamenting that his first performance in a long time would also be his last until things open up again.
On Friday, as Singh took his final bow before the new restrictions began, the show's host turned to the socially distanced audience.
“We don't know when we'll be able to do this again,” he said. “So for the last time, ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together.”