Wednesday 29 September 2021

COVID-19: Are people psychologically prepared to live with the disease?

I am surprised and disappointed that Covid-19 restrictions have been tightened again due to fears that hospitals might get overwhelmed by rising cases.

Singapore's vaccination rate, at 82 per cent, is among the highest in the world. Other countries have opened up despite much lower vaccination rates.

All governments have to look for a balance between saving lives and saving livelihoods. Complete lockdowns save lives but destroy businesses and jobs. Completely opening up would save jobs and businesses but the country would have to accept a higher death toll.

So the key is vaccination, which is very effective in preventing severe illness and death.

I think the Government is cautious about opening up because our people are not psychologically prepared to live with Covid-19.

They get upset when they see the infection numbers rise. Compounding this is the widespread distribution of antigen rapid test kits which encourage testing. People panic when they test positive and rush to the emergency departments, and the more people test, the more positive cases will be uncovered.

All this panic may be putting pressure on our leaders and has slowed down the reopening of the economy. We need to teach people that if you are vaccinated, and you get infected, it is no longer an emergency.

More than 98 per cent of infected people who have been vaccinated now have mild or no symptoms (Unvaccinated patients at 12 times higher risk of dying, needing ICU care, Sept 25). ICU admissions and deaths have been kept low.

We need to educate the public not to panic if they get infected, as the majority of them will not need hospitalisation.

If you have only mild symptoms or are asymptomatic, just isolate yourself at home to avoid infecting others.

Also, get vaccinated if you have not already done so and are medically eligible.

It is socially irresponsible not to be vaccinated because if you are infected, you are more likely to take up valuable hospital resources.

Tan Keng Soon

Wednesday 15 September 2021

Parliament: Debate over Singapore's foreign talent policy, CECA and securing Singaporeans’ jobs and livelihoods

Robust debate in Parliament over foreign competition in job market
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 Sep 2021

Singapore's answer to foreign competition in the local job market cannot be to shut its doors and turn away investors. Instead, the country has to - and will - invest in its people, working to mitigate the downsides of an open economy and striving for growth that will benefit all.

This was the gist of a 10-hour parliamentary debate that ended past midnight, during which four political office-holders rebutted the Progress Singapore Party's (PSP's) assertion that the Government's foreign talent policy has cost citizens jobs.

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong acknowledged that an open economy has its downsides, even though the vast majority benefit.

"In the end, the government has the responsibility to govern and to make policy decisions in the best interest of all Singaporeans," he said. "Some decisions will not be so popular, even though we are convinced they are necessary, and must proceed for the good of all."

They were debating the issue of jobs and foreign talent, which PSP Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai and Mr Wong had filed motions on. The minister said he asked to speak as Mr Leong's proposed topic falsely attributed the challenges Singapore faces to free trade agreements (FTAs) and foreigners.

This was why the Government had sought "to explain and reiterate our position on this important matter," he added. "It is important Singaporeans - and the world - understand where we stand."

The minister sharply criticised the racist and xenophobic undertones in the PSP's rhetoric on foreign talent - an allegation the opposition party has repeatedly denied. "Look - if it looks like a duck, if it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, it is a duck," Mr Wong said, adding that such irresponsible politics will divide society and spell disaster for Singapore.

Mr Leong had urged the Government to take "urgent and concrete" action to restore balance in the job market - starting by raising qualifying salaries for work pass holders and imposing a monthly levy on Employment Pass (EP) holders.

A lengthy exchange ensued between Mr Leong and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, who pressed Mr Leong for his position on various issues, including his support for FTAs such as the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) with India.

He also sought to get Mr Leong to admit that other Singaporeans, like some PSP members, might see his views as racist.

The PSP maintains that foreign PMETs have displaced local ones, he said. But in fact, the number of local PMETs went up by 300,000 over the past decade, while the number of EP and S-Pass holders increased by 110,000.

This trend held true even in sectors that typically hire more EP holders, such as finance, infocomm and professional services. The number of local PMETs in these sectors went up by nearly 155,000 in the past 10 years, compared to 40,000 more EP and S-Pass holders.

Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development Sim Ann reiterated that the Government has no "special affinity" for workers from any country - including India - and works to serve Singaporeans' interests.

A total of 18 other MPs spoke on the topic, including Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh, who set out the Workers' Party (WP) stance. Such agreements have created jobs and opportunities for both Singaporeans and foreigners, he said. But the party believes it is fair to ask if work passes have been regulated in the best way, and does not assume that good jobs are automatically created as a result of Singapore's pro-trade policies.

Mr Singh added: "We abhor and denounce the racism and xenophobia that has become a part of the public narrative in some quarters. This can never be right, and must also be rejected and condemned."

Parliament voted to pass the ruling party's motion - with the WP registering its dissent - and unanimously rejected the PSP motion.

Sunday 5 September 2021

Can racial harmony in Singapore be fostered by law?

To live in Singapore is to be aware of race. It is on birth certificates, in the pledge, and informs a wide spectrum of government policies from housing to healthcare. It is also a subject Singaporeans would more often than not tread cautiously or tiptoe around, given the sensitivities surrounding the issue. Recently, the topic has come under scrutiny following a series of highly publicised incidents. Insight examines the issue.
By Linette Lai and Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 4 Sep 2021

On Wednesday, a 44-year-old man pleaded guilty to a harassment charge for hurling racist, xenophobic insults at a bus driver last year.

Another case involving race heard in court that day involved a 69-year-old taxi driver and two National Environment Agency officers. The driver was jailed two weeks and fined $2,000 for using criminal force on public servants and insulting them with a racial slur.

In another case heard the previous Thursday, a 48-year-old man was sentenced to two weeks and three days' jail for harassing a taxi driver with vulgarities and racially-charged insults.

A new law announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his National Day Rally last Sunday seeks to tackle such offences in a more targeted way, and send a signal on the overriding importance of racial harmony to Singapore.

The proposed Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act will consolidate all existing laws dealing with racial issues, which are currently scattered under various pieces of legislation, such as the Penal Code.

Like the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) which preceded it by three decades, the new law will go beyond punishment to incorporate "softer and gentler touches" that focus on persuasion and rehabilitation.

It comes as race relations have come under stress during the pandemic and, as PM Lee acknowledged, there have been more racist incidents, several of which were widely publicised on social media.

What's new, and why now?

The upcoming law will allow the Government to clearly set out where Singapore stands on racial harmony and consolidate the legislative powers pertaining to race under one legislation, a spokesman for the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) tells Insight.

It will also introduce additional measures, including non-punitive ones, that will help Singapore to further safeguard racial harmony.

The new law will be a matter of housekeeping, says National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser, who notes that it will handle all forms of racist acts, and could also rationalise and calibrate the punishments associated with various types of offences.

Singapore Management University (SMU) law professor Eugene Tan says that an "omnibus legislation" for race relations is neater and will streamline regulatory measures. He also points out that such a consolidation will give the Government the chance to enhance the legislative arsenal in two ways.

Firstly, it could provide additional power to the authorities to deal with changes such as social media, which has enabled offensive remarks to reach a wider audience. Secondly, it could expand the range of legal options to deal with offenders that go beyond punishment and deterrence towards persuasion and rehabilitation.

This upcoming Act also presents an opportunity to rewrite older legal provisions in a clearer style and add nuance, says Assistant Professor Benjamin Ong from SMU's law school.

In his rally speech, PM Lee said that Singapore's decades of peace have led people to "gradually take racial harmony for granted" - to the extent that some Chinese Singaporeans are unaware of the feelings and experiences of minorities.

He gave examples of how minorities sometimes face difficulties when looking for a job or a home to rent.

A 2019 survey by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) think-tank found that over 51 per cent of Malay respondents felt discriminated against when applying for a job, compared to 47 per cent for Indians and 12 per cent for Chinese.

Researchers also found that 48 per cent of Chinese respondents felt a job applicant's race was important when it comes to hiring someone to work for them, versus 34 per cent for Malays and 26 per cent for Indians.

Earlier in the same year, a YouGov poll found that 49 per cent of Indian respondents faced ethnic discrimination when renting properties, in contrast to 34 per cent for Malays and 18 per cent for Chinese.

The global research firm found that 42 per cent of Chinese respondents saw race as mandatory background information to disclose to landlords, compared to 33 per cent for Malays and 22 per cent for Indians.

Saturday 4 September 2021

Singapore to offer COVID-19 vaccine booster shots for seniors aged 60 and above, immunocompromised people from September 2021

By Lim Min Zhang, The Straits Times, 3 Sep 2021

Singapore will give its first Covid-19 vaccine booster shots - to seniors aged 60 and above, residents of aged-care facilities, and those whose immune systems are compromised - from this month, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Friday (Sept 3).

Seniors should receive a booster dose of mRNA vaccine six to nine months after completing their two-dose vaccination regimen, said his ministry.

This means the first batch of seniors aged 60 and above who completed their original vaccination regimen around March this year will be eligible for their third dose later this month, said the Ministry of Health (MOH).

Those who are moderately to severely immunocompromised should receive a third dose of the same mRNA vaccine two months after their second dose, as this ensures they start off with adequate protective immune response to the virus, added the ministry.

These recommendations were made by the Expert Committee on Covid-19 Vaccination, after it reviewed the available evidence, including on the safety and efficacy of booster doses administered around the world.

MOH has agreed with its recommendations to start the booster shot programme for these groups of people, it said in a statement on Friday.

The booster shots for seniors are to ensure continued high levels of protection against infection and severe disease from Covid-19, and to reduce the possibility of spikes in infection and more people falling severely ill.

Migrant and healthcare workers, if they are 60 and above, will also be prioritised for booster shots.

Seniors are at risk of severe Covid-19 infection and may develop a lower immune response from their two-dose vaccination regimen, it said. "This is coupled with the expected decline of their immunity over time, as many were vaccinated earlier."

Mr Ong noted that with the waning immunity provided by vaccines and increasing breakthrough infections, a number of countries have commenced vaccine booster programmes.

"This is to pre-empt a very sharp rise in breakthrough infections, which can still mean, in absolute terms, many people can fall very sick or die... This is especially relevant to the elderly and to other higher-risk groups," said Mr Ong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19.

He urged all seniors contacted by their healthcare providers to come forward for their third dose of vaccination.

MOH said that the additional dose recommendations for immunocompromised individuals, seniors aged 60 years and above, and residents of aged-care facilities are aligned to the vaccination measures adopted in countries such as Israel and Germany.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also approved a third dose for immunocompromised individuals and is considering its recommendation for seniors, it added.

Among those who will be at the front of the line for booster shots are immunocompromised people, as they have a blunted immune response to vaccination and are at a higher risk of severe illness from Covid-19.

People with weakened immune systems include those who are on cancer treatment, transplant patients, other patients on immunosuppressive therapy, and end-stage kidney disease patients on dialysis.

These individuals will be contacted by their healthcare providers, as they would likely have regular follow-up sessions with their doctors, said Mr Ong.

During the virtual press conference on Friday, he also said the expert committee will continue to review the evidence and data for other groups.

One area which it is studying is the rare, but more severe, adverse reaction to vaccines which occurs mostly in younger age groups.

Another area is the effectiveness of using a different vaccine as a booster from the vaccine used in the first two doses, he said.

Asked why front-line workers – who were the first group to be vaccinated in Singapore – are not the first to receive the booster shots, director of medical services Kenneth Mak said the expert committee had looked at which groups needed additional protection to mount an adequate immune response to the virus.

For immunocompromised patients, they may not have developed even after the first two doses are completed. “This third dose is considered an expanded primary course of vaccination for them,” he said.

As for prioritising those aged 60 and above, Associate Professor Mak said they are more likely to have bad outcomes if they do get infected, such as an increased risk of being admitted to the intensive care unit and needing oxygen support.

While vaccinated migrant workers will also experience waning antibody response, they are generally younger, he noted. But they may also get their booster shots earlier if they are above 60, he added.