Calls grow among experts in Singapore for a vaccine mandate as COVID-19 spikes

Singapore has been a model for coronavirus mitigation since the pandemic began with mandatory masks, effective contact tracing and a closed border. (Reuters)
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Updated 21 September 2021

Calls grow among experts in Singapore for a vaccine mandate as COVID-19 spikes

  • Singapore has been a model for coronavirus mitigation since the pandemic began with mandatory masks, effective contact tracing and a closed border
  • Singapore has not made vaccination compulsory because the Pfizer and Moderna shots only have emergency approval in the country

SINGAPORE: Some health experts in Singapore are calling for mandatory vaccination against the coronavirus with a growing toll of severe COVID-19 among unvaccinated people as infections surge and with vaccine take-up plateauing at 82 percent of the population.
The government has linked reopening to vaccination targets but it paused the easing of restrictions this month to watch for signs that severe infections could overwhelm the health system.
“I would love to see vaccine mandates in over 60s, they are the group most likely to die,” said Dale Fisher, an infectious disease expert at the National University Hospital in Singapore.
“It’s the same reason that age group was selected early for vaccines, the same reason that age group has been selected for booster jabs.”
Singapore has been a model for coronavirus mitigation since the pandemic began with mandatory masks, effective contact tracing and a closed border.
In all, 62 of its 5.7 million people have died and new daily infections were for months no more than a handful.
But, as elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the Delta variant has in recent months been spreading and new daily cases have risen to about 1,000.
Several countries including the United States, France and Italy have announced mandatory vaccination programs, concerned the Delta variant and a slowdown in vaccinations will thwart plans to get back to normal.
Of vaccinated people in Singapore who caught the virus from May 1 to Sept. 16, only 0.09 percent of them had to go into intensive care or died. The rate for the unvaccinated was 1.7 percent.
Data for the elderly is particularly striking.
Of infected unvaccinated people aged 80 or older, 15 percent of them had to be treated in intensive care or died. Only 1.79 percent of the vaccinated in that age group needed intensive care or died.
Singapore has not made vaccination compulsory because the Pfizer and Moderna shots only have emergency approval in the country although it has limited activities such as eating out for the unvaccinated.
Neither company responded to a query on whether it had applied for full approval in Singapore.
With about 87,000 seniors still unvaccinated, some experts say full approval could pave the way for a mandate.
“Vaccination is much more protective than the other measures we have in place, and less economically and socially damaging,” said Alex Cook, an infectious disease modelling expert at the National University of Singapore.
“If we are not to enforce vaccination, it seems odd to enforce weaker and more costly measures.”
The number of patients requiring oxygen support or intensive care jumped more than five-fold this month to 146, including 18 in ICU.
The government is worried the numbers in ICU could grow quickly on an exponentially rising base of infected people, especially if they are elderly and unvaccinated.
Singapore has about 100 ICU beds for COVID-19 patients, and it can increase that to nearly 300 at short notice.
A vaccine mandate could take the form of curtailing activities for unvaccinated people related to their work, leisure and use of public transport, said infectious diseases doctor Leong Hoe Nam.
“You cannot go to the malls or take public transport or eat out unless vaccinated,” he said, giving examples of possible restrictions.
Only vaccinations against diphtheria and measles are mandated by law in Singapore.
The government has been offering the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for free and it has also approved payouts to 144 people who suffered serious side effects, media reported.
Singapore has a long record of imposing rules, including a famous 1992 ban on the sale of chewing gum to prevent littering, but nevertheless compulsory vaccines would be a significant step.
“It will take political courage, there’s no doubt about that, but the science would say you will save hundreds of lives if you vaccinate the last 100,000 seniors,” said Fisher.


15 dead as heavy rains batter northern India

Updated 57 min 59 sec ago

15 dead as heavy rains batter northern India

  • The Indian Meteorological Department extended and widened its weather alert on Tuesday
  • Television footage and social media videos showed residents wading through knee-deep water near Nainital lake

DEHRADUN: At least 15 people died and over a dozen were missing after landslides and flash floods triggered by several days of heavy rain hit northern India, officials said Tuesday.
Forecasters have also warned of more heavy rains in the coming days in the southern state of Kerala where floods have already killed at least 27 people since Friday.
Officials in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand said 10 people were killed in fresh landslides on Tuesday after five died in similar incidents on Monday.
Five of the deceased were killed after a cloudburst — an ultra-intense deluge of rain — triggered a landslide, completely burying a house along with its inhabitants in the town of Nainital early Tuesday.
“We have recovered five bodies from the disaster site and a further search is on,” local official Prateek Jain told AFP.
Another landslide in the northern Almora district left five people dead after huge rocks and a wall of mud demolished and engulfed their home.
The Indian Meteorological Department extended and widened its weather alert on Tuesday, predicting “heavy” to “very heavy” rainfall in the region for the next two days.
The weather office said several areas were drenched by more than 400 mm (16 inches) of rainfall on Monday, causing landslides and flooding.
Authorities ordered the closure of schools and banned all religious and tourist activities in the state.
Television footage and social media videos showed residents wading through knee-deep water near Nainital lake, a tourist hotspot, and the Ganges bursting its banks in Rishikesh.
More than 100 tourists were also stuck inside a resort in Ramgarh after the overflowing Kosi river deluged several localities.
Landslides are a regular danger in India’s Himalayan north, but experts say they are becoming more common as rains become increasingly erratic and glaciers melt.
Experts also blame construction work on hydroelectric dams and deforestation.
In February, a ferocious flash flood hurtled down a remote valley in Uttarakhand, killing around 200 people. At least 5,700 people perished there in 2013.
In the south, large parts of Kerala have been battered by floods and landslides since late last week, leaving at least 27 people dead.
Many dams in the state were nearing the danger mark and authorities were evacuating thousands to safer locations as major rivers overflowed.
India’s weather office said heavy rains will lash the state in the next two days after a brief reprieve on Tuesday.


Khalilzad, US special envoy who brokered Afghan exit, quits

Updated 19 October 2021

Khalilzad, US special envoy who brokered Afghan exit, quits

  • Steeped in Afghanistan’s language and customs, Khalilzad was rare US envoy able to develop cordial rapport with Taliban 
  • US secretary of state says Khalilzad’s deputy and longtime Biden aide Thomas West would take over as special envoy

WASHINGTON: Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran US envoy whose months of patient hotel-ballroom diplomacy helped end the US war in Afghanistan but failed to prevent a Taliban takeover, resigned on Monday.
In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Khalilzad defended his record but acknowledged that he came up short and said he wanted to step aside during the “new phase of our Afghanistan policy.”
“The political arrangement between the Afghan government and the Taliban did not go forward as envisaged,” he wrote. “The reasons for this are too complex and I will share my thoughts in the coming day and weeks.”
Born in Afghanistan, the dapper 70-year-old academic turned US diplomat took senior positions as part of the inner circle of former president George W. Bush, becoming the US ambassador to Kabul and then Baghdad and the United Nations.
As former president Donald Trump itched to end America’s longest war in Afghanistan, he brought back Khalilzad, who led exhaustive talks with the Taliban — without including the US-backed government in Kabul.
Those talks led to a February 2020 agreement in which US troops would leave the following year.
But peace negotiations between the Taliban and the leadership in Kabul failed to gain traction, and the government that the United States built over 20 years crumbled within days as US troops left.
Steeped in Afghanistan’s language and customs, Khalilzad was a rare US diplomat able to develop a cordial rapport with Taliban leaders whose regime was toppled by the United States after the September 11, 2001 attacks over its welcome to Al-Qaeda.
Khalilzad, despite his Republican affiliation, was kept in place when Democratic President Joe Biden defeated Trump and decided to go ahead with the withdrawal.
Khalilzad soon became a lightning rod for criticism, with even his superiors in the Biden administration — while voicing respect for him personally — faulting the diplomacy behind the 2020 agreement.
Blinken said that Khalilzad’s deputy, Thomas West, would take over as the special envoy.
West is a longtime aide to Biden, serving on his staff when he was vice president. West has worked for years on South Asia policy including on the US-India civilian nuclear deal.
Shortly before Khalilzad’s resignation became public, the State Department said the United States would not be able to attend a new session called Tuesday by Russia that also includes China and Pakistan, historically the Taliban’s primary backer.
After Trump ended US opposition to speaking to the Taliban, Khalilzad engineered the release from a Pakistani jail of the group’s co-founder Mullah Baradar, seen as a figure who could deliver on promises, and spent months with the largely rural rebels in a luxury hotel in the Qatari capital Doha.
But pictures of him smiling with the Taliban earned him heated criticism in Kabul where some in the now-fallen government as well as newly Western-oriented elite berated him and accused him of selling out Afghanistan.
In interviews last month, Khalilzad said that he had reached a deal with the Taliban in which the insurgents would stay out of Kabul and negotiate a political transition.
But Khalilzad said the deal collapsed when president Ashraf Ghani fled the country on August 15 and the Taliban saw a security vacuum.
Speaking to Foreign Policy, Khalilzad said that the Taliban fulfilled key parts of the February 2020 agreement including not attacking the departing US troops.
“I respect those who say we shouldn’t have negotiated with the Talibs without the government being there. But we don’t know how much more fighting would have taken for the Talibs to agree to that,” he said.
But with no appetite in the United States for another surge of troops in its longest war, “each year we were losing ground to the Talibs,” he said.
“Time was not on our side.”
Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington who is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said that Khalilzad failed in that he “equated US withdrawal with peace.”
“Khalilzad handed the keys of Kabul to the Taliban in return for promises everyone knew the Taliban would not keep,” Haqqani said.


Australia PM: Technology best way to achieve climate target

Updated 19 October 2021

Australia PM: Technology best way to achieve climate target

  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week agreed to attend next month’s climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland

CANBERRA, Australia: A net zero carbon emissions target by 2050 would be a “great positive” for Australia if it can be achieved through technology and not a carbon price, the prime minister said on Tuesday as he pressures government colleagues to commit to more ambitious action ahead of a climate summit.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week agreed to attend next month’s climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, but his government colleagues have yet to approve the commitment he wants to net zero.
“If you have a credible plan ... with the proper transparencies Australia’s well known for, then it can be a great positive for Australia,” Morrison told Parliament, referring to the net zero target.
“If you have the right plan, ... if you have technology, not taxes,” Morrison added.
Morrison was a minister in the conservative coalition government that in 2014 repealed a carbon tax introduced by a center-left Labour Party government. The coalition continues to oppose any measures that would penalize polluters through a carbon price or tax.
The rural-based junior coalition partner, the Nationals party, are the major obstacle to Australia adopting net zero.
Nationals lawmakers have debated Cabinet’s draft climate policy for the past three days but remained bitterly divided by Tuesday.
They were shown government modeling on Tuesday that predicted the economic impacts of more ambitious climate targets.
Nationals Sen. Matt Canavan was among the lawmakers who did not believe the modeling.
“The party room here is being gaslighted and that’s kind of ironic given it’s being gaslighted by people who want to end the use of fossil fuels,” Canavan said.
The government rejected opposition calls to make the modeling public.
Morrison said the world’s responses would have “significant impacts on rural and regional Australia, but they also present significant opportunities.”
“The plans that the government are considering will ensure that we can deal with both the costs and the benefits, because we understand there are impacts, that this is not a road that is only ... where you’ll find opportunities,” Morrison said.
Morrison said he would make his government’s plans public before the next election, which is due by May.
Australia has not budged from its 2015 pledge at the Paris climate conference to reduce emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, despite many countries adopting far more ambitious targets.
Morrison is unlikely to persuade his colleagues to agree to a new 2030 target before he goes to Glasgow.
Reducing emissions is a politically fraught issue in Australia, which is one of the world’s largest exporters of coal and liquified natural gas. The nation is also one of the world’s worst greenhouse gas emitters per capita because of its heavy reliance on coal-fired power.
The conservative government’s lack of ambition on climate change is regarded as a reason behind the government’s surprise reelection in 2019 and strong voter support in coal-rich Queensland state.
Morrison had argued that the Labor opposition’s pledge to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and achieve zero emissions by 2050 would wreck the economy.


Singapore expands quarantine-free travel for vaccinated passengers

Updated 19 October 2021

Singapore expands quarantine-free travel for vaccinated passengers

  • Air travel lanes now open to passengers from the United States, Canada, Britain, Denmark, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands

SINGAPORE: Singapore on Tuesday began quarantine-free entry for fully vaccinated passengers from eight countries, part of a plan to ease restrictions as the business hub gears up to live with the coronavirus.
The latest easing expanded a program that began with vaccinated air travel lanes with Germany and Brunei last month, and is now open to passengers from the United States, Canada, Britain, Denmark, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.
Singapore Airlines said flights from Amsterdam, London, Los Angeles and New York were scheduled to arrive Tuesday under the program.
“We have seen very strong demand for our Vaccinated Travel Lane flights,” the carrier said.
“This is across all cabin classes, as well as various travel segments including leisure, families, and business travel.”
Passengers arriving as part of this scheme — which will include South Korea from November 15 — will not have to quarantine if they have been fully vaccinated and test negative for the virus before they depart and when they arrive.
To enable families to travel, Singapore has allowed entry to unvaccinated children aged 12 years and under if they are accompanied by someone flying under the scheme.
The city-state initially fought the COVID-19 pandemic by shutting borders, imposing lockdowns of varying intensity and aggressive contact tracing. But with more than 80 percent of the population fully vaccinated, authorities are keen to revive the economy.
“Singapore cannot stay locked down and closed off indefinitely,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said October 9, when he announced a raft of measures under the “Living with Covid-19” strategy.
The city-state is home to the regional offices of thousands of multi-national corporations, which rely on Singapore’s status as a business and aviation hub for their operations.
Singapore’s vaccinated travel lanes may also provide a shot in the arm for the pandemic-hammered airline and tourism industries, analysts said.
Before the pandemic, tourism accounted for about five percent of Singapore’s GDP, said Song Seng Wun, a regional economist with CIMB Private Banking.
“We used to get 1.6 million tourists every month, our airport used to handle over a thousand flights a day pre-pandemic. Now it is just over 300 flights a day,” he said.
Statistics from the Singapore tourism board showed international visitor arrivals plunging to less than 2.8 million last year from a record 19.1 million in 2019.


New Zealand hits coronavirus high, pushes vaccination as way out

Updated 19 October 2021

New Zealand hits coronavirus high, pushes vaccination as way out

  • Health officials found 94 new local infections, eclipsing the 89 that were reported twice during the early days of the pandemic 18 months ago

WELLINGTON: New Zealand counted its most new coronavirus cases of the pandemic Tuesday as an outbreak in its largest city grew and officials urged vaccinations as a way out of Auckland’s two-month lockdown.
Health officials found 94 new local infections, eclipsing the 89 that were reported twice during the early days of the pandemic 18 months ago. Most of the new cases were in Auckland, but seven were found in the nearby Waikato district.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said lockdown rule-breakers were contributing to the spread of infections and noted that many of the new cases had been detected among younger people.
“I know the highs and lows of cases is incredibly hard on people, particularly those in Tamaki Makaurau,” Ardern said, using the Indigenous Maori name for Auckland. “I just wanted to reinforce again that we’re not powerless. We do have the ability to keep cases as low as we can.”
New Zealand had successfully eliminated earlier outbreaks by imposing tough border controls and strict lockdowns, as well as aggressive contact-tracing and isolating those who were infectious. But the approach failed against the more transmissible delta variant. The government has since eased some of Auckland’s lockdown rules, allowing more people to return to work.
Ardern has also embarked on an all-out effort to get people vaccinated. That’s included a televised “Vaxathon” festival on Saturday which saw a record 130,000 people getting shots, more than 2 percent of the New Zealand’s population of 5 million.
Ardern has promised to outline a path out of lockdown for Auckland based on vaccination numbers.
The government has previously talked about the importance of getting 90 percent of people aged 12 and over fully vaccinated, including a high proportion of Maori, who have been particularly hard hit by the outbreak.
But that goal remains some distance away, with 85 percent of eligible people having had at least one dose and 67 percent fully vaccinated. The numbers are lower among Maori.
Professor Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago, said he was concerned that contact tracers in Auckland would soon become overwhelmed. He said lawmakers needed to consider temporarily reimposing stricter lockdown rules as a circuit breaker.
“There are burning embers all over the city,” Baker said. “They have lifted the wet blanket of the strong lockdown, and people are getting lockdown fatigue.”
Baker said he thought it was possible for the government to continue eliminating the outbreak outside of Auckland, provided it kept in place strict border controls around the city.
He said the most important goal in any reopening would be to ensure the health system was not overrun.
Health officials on Tuesday also said they had authorized people with weakened immune systems to get a third shot of the Pfizer vaccine and were recommending they do so.