So, we got our jabs. Now what?

It’s been a week since we got our second Pfizer vaccine jab and all is good. Despite some redness at the injection site, soreness in our arms, low-grade fevers, night chills and the formation of new scars above our old BCG ones, there have been no serious short-term side-effects.

One more week and we would have built sufficient antibodies to prevent serious symptoms if (or perhaps, more accurately, when) we catch Covid-19. The verdict is still out on how long this protection will last, but the current consensus seems to be that it will hold for about a year, before booster shots may be needed.

Getting fully vaccinated does not provide complete protection against actual infection or onward transmission, but it does seem to cut down the risk significantly. The main benefit is protection against the onset of life-threatening symptoms requiring supplemental oxygen, intubation or life support.

It’s still unclear if there will be any long-term side effects from the new mRNA-based vaccines, as only time (and longitudinal studies) will tell, but given the sheer number of infected persons and deaths globally, the risk-reward trade-off is clearly in favour of the mRNA vaccines.

The SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus is no longer novel but a known entity, and the vaccine has trained our bodies to recognise it, instead of going crazy and triggering a life-threatening cytokine storm. We were actually quite glad that we had mild side-effects for both of our jabs, as we took it to mean that our immune systems were getting to know it better.

Singapore is still currently under Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) a.k.a. “Phase 1.5” a.k.a. “Not Circuit Breaker” a.k.a. “Lockdown Lite”, which is scheduled to run until 13 June. Whether it’s further extended depends on community spread and unlinked cases, but recent numbers have been declining and it’s looking more optimistic as the days go by.

I’m looking forward to eating a thick stack of fluffy pancakes with blueberry sauce and maple butter at Clinton Street Baking Company, drinking bottomless cups of black coffee and then bouncing off the walls for the rest of the day. I suppose I could order takeout or delivery, but pancakes don’t quite travel well.

On the day that we got our second jab, the Singapore Prime Minister made a nationwide broadcast to provide an update on the pandemic, and gave this key message.

“One day this global pandemic will subside. But I do not expect Covid-19 to disappear. It will remain with humankind, and become endemic.”

So, he finally said it, the “E” word. I believe it’s the first time that the government has officially said it out loud in the context of Covid-19, even though the signs have been clear for quite some time now.

“In this new normal, we will have to learn to carry on with our lives even with the virus in our midst.

For the past year, while the nation-wide vaccination program has been steadily progressing, the government has been implicitly pursuing a “zero Covid” strategy. Similar to Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand but with less stringent border control.

But with this announcement, that strategy has now shifted to one of “living with the virus”. Basically, the message is that the genie is out of the bottle, and there’s no way of putting it back in.

“Just as we do with the common flu or dengue fever, which we now manage through public health measures and personal precautions. And in the case of the flu, with regular vaccinations too.”

Which essentially means that, at some point in time, probably in the not-too-distant future, but not until almost everyone in Singapore has been fully vaccinated, a few things are likely to happen:

  • Case counts of infected people will no longer be tracked and reported.
  • Borders will be fully opened, for both work and leisure travel.
  • Restrictions, including mandatory mask wearing and contact tracing, will be lifted.

Because that’s how we’ve been dealing with the common flu and dengue fever, and given how careful the government is with its official messaging, this explicit comparison must have been a deliberate decision.

It’s anybody’s guess as to when it will happen, but I’m betting on the first quarter of 2022. They will probably do it incrementally, starting with the stopping of case count reporting. There will be quite a bit of hoo-hah when it happens, but when that dies down, border opening will be next, followed by the lifting of all restrictions.

So there you have it, once you’ve been fully vaccinated and the country opens up, it’s just the flu, and life goes on. And if you can’t be (or choose not to be) vaccinated, then you’ll just have to take your chances if/when you do get infected.

That is, until the next new virus outbreak happens, like SARS in 2002, H1N1 in 2009, MERS in 2012 and the current pandemic in 2019. Hopefully, when it happens — and make no mistake, it will happen — the world will do a better job at minimising its devastating impact.

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