Singapore and Malaysia have each revealed plans to start reopening their borders as neighbors in Southeast Asia move away from their zero COVID strategies to live with the virus.
Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said on Sunday that the country will end its domestic and international travel restrictions for fully vaccinated residents from Monday, after reaching its goal of full vaccination for 90% of the adult population.
It comes a day after Singapore added eight new countries to its vaccinated, non-quarantined travel lanes – the most significant easing of travel restrictions since the border was closed last March.
Singapore and Malaysia both battled catastrophic outbreaks of COVID-19 cases earlier this year, fueled by the highly infectious Delta variant. Both countries have pursued aggressive zero COVID policies by imposing strict lockdowns and closing borders.
The measures come as governments in the region – including Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam – seek to revive their economies through tourism and reopening local businesses. Singapore and Malaysia are on track to treat the virus as endemic by trying to control outbreaks with vaccines, rather than restricting the lives of citizens – despite continuing to see active community cases and deaths.
The plans also reflect the ‘living with COVID’ approach seen in many Western countries, including the UK and parts of the US, where daily life has largely returned to normal.
Cases in Malaysia began to rise in early 2021, prompting the government to reimpose lockdown restrictions that were lifted last December. Then, in June, he felt the edge of the lethal Delta variant.
Despite a nationwide lockdown, at the height of the outbreak in August, the country was reporting hundreds of thousands of cases per day.
Frustration grew among citizens who were forced to face even more restrictions on their freedom, and protests against the government’s handling of the virus erupted in July.
Under the lockdown restrictions, millions of people have been urged to stay in their homes wherever possible and have been banned from traveling within the country. Schools have been closed and gatherings banned. The following month, then Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin resigned, fueled in part by simmering public anger.
Prime Minister Yaakob’s announcement on Sunday marks a significant departure from Malaysia’s previous strategies, mainly due to a highly effective vaccination campaign. About eight months after its mass deployment, more than 66% of the country’s 32 million people have been fully immunized, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
“We have to train to live with COVID, because COVID may not be completely eliminated,” Yaakob said at a press conference on Sunday, adding that Malaysia would not re-impose large lockdowns if cases increased.
The easing of restrictions means fully vaccinated Malaysians can travel abroad without seeking permission from immigration authorities. Previously, travel was largely limited for business, official or emergency reasons. Domestic travel will also be permitted, ending the travel ban in Malaysia’s 13 states.
On September 16, Malaysia reopened Langkawi – a cluster of 99 islands and a premier vacation destination – to domestic tourists, with strict protocols in place. The country is currently still closed to international travelers, with a more complete reopening under consideration.
The easing of measures comes as the number of daily cases continues to decline after rising sharply from June to August.
Singapore continues to maintain its strategy of living with the virus, despite the fact that it recently reported record daily cases of COVID-19 and an increase in the number of deaths fueled by a Delta variant outbreak.
On Saturday, the island city-state of 5.45 million people reported a daily record of 3,703 cases and 11 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins. On the same day, Singapore decided to continue its Vaccinated Non-Quarantine Travel Pathway (VTL) program, which is scheduled to begin October 19, announcing the addition of eight Western countries, including Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. -United.
Under the new rules, travelers from a total of 11 countries can enter Singapore without having to self-quarantine – all as part of its “recover and rebuild” campaign, according to Transport Minister S. Iswaran.
Singapore is home to the Asian headquarters of many multinational corporations, whose executives rely on ease of travel to and from the country – one of the world’s largest travel and finance hubs.
In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore could not “remain locked up and closed indefinitely,” adding that job losses, family separation and business closures had caused “a psychological and emotional tension and mental fatigue ”.
But while Singapore has said it wants to transition to a rampant COVID model in May, the recent wave of Delta variants has put those plans at risk.
On October 1, Singapore reimposed some local restrictions to thwart the spread. The tougher measures included limiting social gatherings to two people and suspending or moving online classes for students 12 and under – a move that has sparked some frustration among Singaporeans, Reuters reported.
Speaking on Saturday, Lee said it would take “at least three months, and maybe up to six months” to become unrestricted, and hinted at the possibility of future lockdowns if cases start to increase. – unlike Malaysia.
“Once this push has stabilized, we could still see future pushes, especially if new variants emerge,” Lee said. “We may need to step on the brakes again if cases escalate too quickly, to protect our health care system and health care workers.”
Singapore has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, with more than 80% of its population fully vaccinated, according to data from Johns Hopkins.
Singapore’s decision to move forward with VTL comes as other countries in the Asia-Pacific region are also moving towards living with COVID.
Thailand plans to reopen its capital, Bangkok, and other major destinations to foreign tourists by November in order to revive its struggling tourism industry, which accounted for more than 11% of the country’s GDP in 2019, according to Reuters.
The Vietnamese government on Wednesday announced plans to reopen major tourist destinations to vaccinated visitors from countries deemed to be at low risk of COVID-19 from December, before a full recovery scheduled for June of next year, Reuters reported .
Indonesia, meanwhile, has authorized the reopening of public spaces and the return of factories to full capacity. Tourists from countries such as China, New Zealand and Japan will be allowed entry to the resort island of Bali by October 14, Reuters reported, citing government officials. But travelers will have to quarantine themselves for eight days at their expense.
Sydney emerged from a strict lockdown that was imposed in June to contain an outbreak of Delta on Monday. Now, fully vaccinated Sydney residents – around 70% of the city’s adults – can return to restaurants, bars and gyms, while many family members can reunite after months apart.