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Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wants to push on with the strategy of living with COVID-19 without being paralyzed by fear, weighing in on a divisive issue about the pace of opening up a trade-reliant economy with one of the highest vaccination rates in the world.

Lee said in a televised address that Singapore can’t stay “locked down and closed off indefinitely,” but at the same time there will be “quite many COVID-19 cases for some time to come.” He used the 24-minute speech on Saturday to call for unity for the next few months and address a split in wider society between keeping COVID-zero measures in place and reopening quickly in step with other advanced economies.

Singapore recently reimposed some social curbs in an attempt to clamp down on the rising number of daily infections that have neared 3,600 and threaten to overwhelm the health care system. Even though nearly 85% of the population is fully vaccinated, the country has struggled to return to a life of normalcy amid growing anxieties over a constantly changing plan to live with the virus.

“We need to update our mindsets. We should respect COVID-19, but we must not be paralyzed by fear,” he said Saturday. “Let us go about our daily activities as normally as possible, taking necessary precautions.”

Lee’s comments came before the government task force unveiled new measures to expand booster shots as well as bar unvaccinated people from malls, food centers and local attractions. These locations are seen as high-risk and the measures appear to be a way to prompt more people to follow through with inoculation.

Now that the disease has become more manageable with a higher vaccination rate, Lee said the government should “drastically simplify” its health protocols, including procedures on what should be done if people test positive or come in contact with someone infected.

With vaccination, the disease has become more treatable with 98% of cases turning out to be mild and people can benefit from recovery at home. Still, Lee warned that with cases expected to continue rising, so will deaths, with around 100 patients to become seriously ill if there are 5,000 cases in a day.

Lee Hsien Loong | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Lee Hsien Loong | POOL / VIA REUTERS

“We may have to tap on the brakes again if cases again grow too fast, to protect our health care system and health care workers,” he said. “But we will be better able to cope with future surges” as health care capacity improves and immunity levels increase, Lee added.

Lee painted a picture of “a new normal,” possibly after three to six months, where Singapore will ease off restrictions, have light social distancing measures in place and cases come down to hundreds a day. Some countries in Europe have reached this state but they have “paid for it dearly, losing many lives along the way,” he said.

The new normal would also mean hospitals working at normal capacity and Singapore residents resuming “things we used to do, and see crowds again without getting worried or feeling strange,” Lee said

This was Lee’s first televised address after Bloomberg reported last month that senior officials in the ruling People’s Action Party wanted the prime minister or another senior member to take charge of a task force handling the country’s pandemic response and show decisiveness.

There have been concerns over the mixed messaging among those who lead the nation’s virus response that has confused businesses and residents, stirring some divisions in Singapore society on how to live with the pathogen. Some ministers on the task force have later said the messaging could be better, while stressing that all decisions are made collectively and reflect a fluid situation on the ground.

Lee had emerged frequently during Singapore’s battle with the pandemic last year to address the nation, from announcing plans to shut schools and workplaces and pledging economic aid to expressing hope on some curbs to be lifted soon. This year, more space was given to the task force to regularly brief the press on Singapore’s latest measures to tackle the spread of the virus.

Also Saturday, Singapore announced that it is pressing ahead with plans to reopen its borders despite battling a record COVID-19 outbreak, saying it will allow vaccinated travelers from nine more countries including the U.S. and U.K. to enter without having to quarantine.

The other places to qualify are Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain with travel to Singapore to start from Oct. 19 and South Korea from Nov. 15, the government said Saturday. The number of COVID-19 tests will be cut from four to two, helping to reduce cost and inconvenience, according to authorities.

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