Singapore finally gets its Covid ‘Happy Day’

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Singapore throws important pieces of its pandemic armor with relative sharpness. While officials have long insisted the city-state would never have a British-style “Freedom Day”, sweeping changes coming into force on Tuesday are coming pretty close. It can only be a matter of semantics.

In what the country’s health minister called a “happy day”, Singapore gave up group size limits, gave up social distance and dropped the limits on the number of people who can work from offices. Many venues will no longer require people to check in with the public contract tracking app. Vaccinated visitors can waive tests before departure.

Reopening in Singapore happened gradually and then at once. Just a month ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced a doubling of allowable group sizes to 10, ending mandatory outdoor masking and lifting restrictions on late-night alcohol sales. At the time, Lee warned against expecting any major changes soon. So the latest news was as amazing as they were welcome. The government tends to avoid rapid changes in policy. But after two years of excessive caution, sometimes bordering on inertia, Singapore is sprinting towards a shining normal. Why? One reason may be that the hospitals are coping with the disease despite previous concerns. This development is due in part to very high vaccination rates, with more than 90% of eligible residents receiving both shots. An increase in cases since the arrival of omicron has probably also built up some degree of immunity. It’s hard for me to think of a household that has not had at least one infection, including my own.

But the most likely explanation is FOMO. Singapore is proud of its perch as a leading aviation hub, and experienced the resurgent journey in other advanced economies and feared being left behind. Difficult rules for testing and group sizes – and the insistence on masking – were not a good welcome mat. Before the pandemic, Singapore was an easy place to visit and its airport among the most user-friendly in the world. The cost of two years of Covid restrictions outweighed the benefits. As a trade-dependent economy, Singapore is deeply concerned about its reputation abroad. After topping Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking early last year, Singapore has slipped in part due to its slow reopening of travel and the strict curbs. It was ranked No. 26 in March, after Argentina, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with Norway as No. 1. The carousel of lockdown-like episodes followed by small reopens also weakened Singapore’s image as an administrative state par excellence, a place that excelled. in technocratic execution. At times, it seemed that the country was whistling from one message to the next with great frequency. Will we only remember the successes of Singapore’s Covid reaction and be encouraged to forget the fumble? It is important that we do not get too dizzy from the pace of change. Singapore’s leaders make sure to remind us that yet another dangerous pathogen will definitely arrive at some point. Covid has not disappeared either. “These changes will bring us almost all the way to how things were,” Lee said in a Facebook post over the weekend. “I trust that everyone will remain socially responsible – wearing masks when you are indoors, self-isolation if you feel uncomfortable and taking care of each other.”

Officials have been preparing for this new era. Red tape marking areas with safe distance at taxi ranks was off Orchard Road on Sunday. At Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, a popular chain of cafes, the front desk staff did not bother to ask about my vaccination status or give me the bright purple sticker to show that I was vaccinated. In practical terms, the post-covid era has arrived.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial staff or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously, he was managing editor of Bloomberg News for Global Economics and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.

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