SINGAPORE -- Singapore is on the verge of becoming Asia's first major country to fully vaccinate the majority of its population against COVID-19, stepping closer -- at least in theory -- to exiting the pandemic.
A government that once spared no effort to trace every case and contain transmission is now drawing up a road map for "living with" the virus. Rather than focusing on "herd immunity," officials now say the disease is unlikely to disappear but can be managed as a less threatening endemic illness like influenza.
For the rest of Asia, the city-state will be a testing ground for that approach.
Starting Monday, with new community infections consistently in the single digits, Singapore is easing some domestic safety measures. Groups of five, for example, will be allowed to dine at restaurants for the first time in nearly two months, instead of just pairs.
While many restrictions will remain in place -- from mandatory masks to check-ins with a tracing app at public places -- the government has been weighing exit strategies alongside a significant rise in the vaccination rate.
As of Saturday, about 69% of Singapore's 5.7 million residents had received at least one of the required two shots -- more than double the figure two months earlier -- according to the Ministry of Health. The ratio of individuals who had received both doses reached 40%.
"We expect 50% of our population to have received two doses of vaccines around the week of July 26," Health Minister Ong Ye Kung told reporters last Wednesday, adding that Singapore is no longer constrained by vaccine supplies.
"That is an important milestone, we can open up even further," Ong said.
Other Asian economies have a long way to go to reach a similar threshold. Fully vaccinated ratios as of late last week stood at almost 17% in Japan, 11% in South Korea, 5% in Indonesia and less than 1% in Vietnam. Several Southeast Asian nations are fighting severe waves of infections, with cities like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City forced into lockdowns.
Singapore, though, is quickly catching up with countries in the West that have achieved high vaccination rates, including the U.S. at 47% and Germany at 42%. Israel was the first to cross the 60% mark.
Worryingly, Israel has seen daily cases climb from single digits back above 500 in recent weeks, largely sparked by transmissions among unvaccinated young people. Yet Health Ministry data shows only a modest increase in severe cases so far, to 47 as of Sunday, and local media reports say the government is adopting a "soft suppression" strategy.
"There are already indicators and signs from countries with very high vaccination rates that it may well be possible to make COVID-19 more like influenza in terms of morbidity and mortality, provided you have high vaccine coverage," Lawrence Wong, the government's COVID task force co-chair and finance minister, told a briefing last Wednesday.
"So this is why we think that it is possible that we could enter into a scenario of 'endemic COVID' where Sars-CoV-2 is treated more like influenza, and we will be able to get on with our lives normally," he said, using the official name of the virus that causes COVID-19. "We are therefore preparing this road map toward this transition of a new scenario."
What might that road map look like?
Details have not been announced, but Ong, Wong and fellow task force minister Gan Kim Yong offered some hints in a Straits Times op-ed late last month. They suggested that "living normally with COVID" would mean, for example, that an infected person can recover at home; that people can get themselves checked regularly using fast and easy tests; that more safety rules can be eased; and that people can travel to less risky countries with mutually recognized vaccine certificates.
Some pieces are already in place. Residents can find COVID-19 self-test kits at pharmacies.
The Temasek Foundation, a non-profit organization under state-owned fund Temasek Holdings, also started distributing one free fingertip oximeter per household. The small devices, available through supermarkets and pharmacies, check blood oxygen levels -- the decline of which can be a telltale sign of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the government has stopped disclosing details of coronavirus cases. Previously, it shared information on every patient, such as ages and places they visited.
A true shift to "living with COVID" would help spur the economy, which marked a record 5.4% contraction last year. The relief would be especially sweet for the food services and event sectors, which have long been required to limit operating capacity.
But with infections soaring in neighboring countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, a resumption of travel resembling anything like the pre-pandemic days is likely to take more time. This means Singapore's bread-and-butter transport and tourism sector will continue to suffer, pressuring the government to rethink its growth model.
There are also lingering concerns about the virus itself. One is the risk of the delta and other variants undermining vaccine effectiveness. Pfizer is seeking authorization for third doses after data from Israel showed reduced effectiveness months after inoculation, considering the delta strain's increased transmissibility.
Another worry in Singapore is a relatively low vaccination rate among the elderly, even though seniors were given priority. Health Minister Ong said the ratio of people who have received at least one shot or made an appointment for the first one was 71% among the 70-plus age group -- the lowest among all eligible age groups as of last week.
"What we really need to do is to get more of our seniors vaccinated," Ong stressed. "It's not a matter of the elderly saying 'I don't go out therefore I'm safe.' When society opens up, your family members go out and they can bring the virus back home."
Nevertheless, hopes are high as the government expects two-thirds of the population will have had two doses by early next month, right around Singapore's Aug. 9 foundation day.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is expected to speak about Singapore's COVID-19 situation and its future at the annual National Day Rally.