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Why Singapore is not singling China out

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Singapore’s Minister for Health Ong Ye Kung told Parliament Monday that the federal government will not be imposing recent restrictions on travelers from China because limited flight capability, combined with its current border policies, have resulted in few imported cases — and even fewer severe cases — coming from China.

Ong said the federal government is “acutely aware” that some Singaporeans are frightened that an influx of holiday makers from China could lead on to an increase in infections.

But he said travel volumes between Singapore and China are “very low” — with fewer than 1,000 people arriving from China every day.

“As of now, we run 38 weekly flights from China to Singapore, in comparison with around 400 flights pre-Covid,” he said.

Ong acknowledged that a recent, more dangerous variant could emerge from China because the virus spreads through its population of 1.4 billion, but said that thus far, this has not materialized.

With extensive vaccination coverage, we will treat Covid-19 as an endemic disease.

Ong Ye Kung

Singapore’s Minister for Health

Ong said Singapore is monitoring this through GISAID, a non-profit organization that he said is obtaining viral sequencing data from authorities in major Chinese cities and provinces, reminiscent of Beijing, Shanghai and Sichuan, which is processed in GISAID’s Singapore office.

Though there are “gaps in the information,” Ong said, “Up to now, the information shows that the epidemic in China is driven by variants which can be well-known and have been circulating in other regions of the world” — namely BA.5.2 and BF.7.

Current rules are effective

Up to now, greater than a dozen countries have announced recent rules for visitors from China. But Ong said Singapore didn’t, since it already has effective border measures in place.

“Many countries have dismantled all their border measures,” he said. “Singapore … kept relevant measures precisely because we anticipated these risks.”

Singapore’s Health Minister Ong Ye Kung attends a gathering on the G-20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Oct. 27, 2022.

Sonny Tumbelaka | Afp | Getty Images

He said that while “many Singaporeans have forgotten about it,” all travelers have to be either fully vaccinated or test negative for Covid before entering, which is similar requirement that Spain recently announced for travelers from China.

While South Korea has reported that as much as 80% of its imported cases are coming from China, Ong said that, in December, lower than 5% of Singapore’s imported cases — about 200 people — were from China, while “ASEAN countries accounted for over 50%.”

In the identical month, seven imported cases became severely sick, and just one was from China, he said.

“Most were Singaporeans coming back from these countries and regions,” he said. “These should not large numbers, so the impact on our healthcare system was very small.”

Singapore’s ‘best concern’

The federal government’s “best concern” is the emergence of a recent, more dangerous variant that might escape vaccine protection — “a nightmare variant [that] can knock us back to almost square one,” Ong said.

If that happens, “We may have to reinstate measures reminiscent of strict border controls, quarantine for travelers, social restrictions including limit on group sizes, until a recent and effective vaccine is developed.”

To watch this, Singapore will stay plugged into the “global surveillance system,” he said.

Ong said the opposite key concern is protecting Singapore’s health-care system. He said that throughout the early stages of the pandemic, infections were the federal government’s primary concern, but as vaccines have been rolled out, it’s now focused on severe infections.

He said 60% of those aged 18 years and above were up so far with their vaccinations at the tip of 2022.

“Previously 30 days, the variety of Covid-19 patients within the Intensive Care Unit is within the low single digit,” he said. “Hence, with extensive vaccination coverage, we will treat Covid-19 as an endemic disease.”

Why other rules may not work

Ong forged doubt on the effectiveness of some travel rules being imposed on Chinese travelers:  

  1. PCR tests on arrival “are too late, since the travelers are already inside your borders,” plus they’re sensitive, which suggests they may “yield numerous positive cases from countries which can be experiencing or have just experienced a giant wave,” since recovered travelers can shed dead viral fragments for weeks.
  2. Wastewater tests from airplanes depend on solid waste, which shall be of limited use because the flight time from China to Singapore is not that long.
  3. Pre-departure tests “will be useful … [to] reduce the variety of imported infections” but low travel volume between Singapore and China “limits the variety of imported infections more.” 

Ong added that if Singapore tested all travelers coming from China, questions would arise about travelers from other regions who contribute more infections and severe cases.

Ong called Covid outbreaks “the brand new norm,” saying “Today it’s China, tomorrow one other region.”

Roslan Rahman | Afp | Getty Images

“Further, by triggering [pre-departure tests] on travellers from one a part of the world experiencing high infection numbers, are we contributing to a world precedent of imposing tests on travellers from countries experiencing an infection wave?”

Ong added: “How will other countries treat travellers from Singapore after we encounter one other infection wave?”

‘We don’t discriminate’

Increasing flights with China

Singapore appears to have stayed in the great graces of the Chinese government and its residents. Rein said Chinese travelers are actually headed to Singapore, in addition to Thailand, because “each countries are welcoming us.”

Singapore Airlines reinstated passenger service from Singapore to Beijing in late December. To begin, the service will run just twice a month.   

Yet flights between Singapore and China are “lower than 10% of the variety of flights pre-Covid” — accounting for some 1.5% of Singapore’s Changi Airport’s total flights, Singapore’s Minister of Transport, S. Iswaran, said Monday.

Overall, passenger traffic and weekly flights at Changi Airport have returned to 80% of pre-pandemic levels, he said.

“Singapore and Chinese airlines have applied to operate more flights between the 2 countries,” Iswaran said, adding that the federal government is taking a “careful and calibrated” approach to restoring air connectivity with China.  

Straight away, greater than 60% of inbound travelers from China are Singapore residents, everlasting residents or long-term pass holders, Iswaran said.

“China’s opening as much as the world is great news and something we’re looking forward to,” said Ong, adding that the federal government will fastidiously adjust travel volume “a minimum of until the infection wave has clearly subsided in China.”

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