For Two Years, I Pined For Travel. Getting Home Was a Relief
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Personal details scrawled on Post-it notes, an unmasked security guard and an hours-long wait in a U.S. rental car. My family was two days from departure for Singapore and the window for getting a negative Covid-19 verdict was closing fast. The line at a drive-in testing operation at the University of Colorado snaked for several blocks and the sun had barely risen. It didn’t inspire confidence. The American health care system was wrestling with the rampant omicron variant that showed where the U.S., for all its financial and industrial prowess, falls down. I just wanted to get back to the city-state safely. Its hyper-managed approach to the pandemic might have something going for it after all.
Singapore’s very gradual re-opening is being tested by omicron, too, though officials have so far resisted returning to a version of lockdown. I have been skeptical the past two years as to whether Singapore had the policy mix right. Open too much and Covid may race through the densely populated island. Keep the economy under wraps too long, and the tiny republic could be left behind, jeopardizing its carefully-tended reputation as a hub for capital and talent. After this trip, I have become more sympathetic to the things Singapore does appear to have gotten mostly right.
In the course of a three-week stay in Colorado to visit in-laws, my perspective went from awe at the relative absence of restrictions, to concern and then to near paranoia. By the end of December, I donned a KN-95 mask to walk outside, even with the wide streets of suburban Denver deserted. Being allowed to return to Singapore required staying well — and having the papers to prove it. With cases surging, upending plans to return to offices, roiling airlines and threatening to overwhelm public services, this looked like a riskier bet than a few weeks earlier.
The Vaccinated Travel Lanes that allow for quarantine-free travel to Singapore from selective locations remain in place, though the government has suspended sales of new tickets in response to omicron. I half-expected quarantine to be reinstated by the time of my return. The health minister has warned a fresh virus wave will hit the island and and that the country needs to be ready. Singapore reported 813 new Covid cases on Thursday, up from 805 a day earlier. There were 365 new omicron cases.
Throughout Asia, the U.S. is often portrayed as a kind of pandemic frontier land, where anything goes and authorities can’t get it right. As I looked deeper, I found important nuances. Granted, there is no nationwide mask mandate — in Colorado there’s not even a state requirement. There are, however, city and county rules that resemble parts of Singapore’s strictures: Many stores and cafes display signs making it clear that masking is a condition of entry.
A big failure is lack of enforcement. Nobody reminds people of their obligations. The idea that safe distancing ambassadors patrol shopping areas as they do in Singapore is a non-starter. At Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Lakewood, the doors are plastered with instructions to mask up. Many people do, yet some refuse, and staff don’t police the rules. We cut short a visit to the Downtown Aquarium in Denver upon seeing scores of people, many uncovered, jammed between the gift shop and the restaurant. Our life is in Singapore, for now, and we just couldn’t risk infection, especially given our two small children are not yet vaccinated.
Arriving at Denver airport Dec. 30, armed with negative test results and reams of paperwork, proved the start of another ordeal. Despite flying with a Singapore Airlines partner, United Airlines, to San Francisco before connecting with SIA, counter staff appeared flummoxed by the phalanx of boxes to be checked: Vaccinated Travel Pass, which enables your access to the VTL, receipts for pre-paid PCR tests on arrival, and so on. Then there was the inevitable delay and the prospect of cancellations owing to omicron and weather. At what point do we just walk away and regroup? Getting a later flight wouldn’t necessarily do it. Our Covid protocols would need to be redone because of their two-day validity.
In the end, we made it. A seven-day regimen awaited. A PCR test at Changi Airport was followed by a combination of tests at home and a few supervised by staff at a clinic. Once you’re confirmed negative, and upload the results to a Ministry of Health website, you go about your day. Friends and colleagues elsewhere in Asia are surprised there isn’t mandatory quarantine in a hotel or state facility, as there is in Hong Kong. A few months earlier, before VTLs, there would have been. For the luxury of sleeping in my own bed, I am thankful.
Such gratitude shows how much Covid skews perceptions of what is normal.
The week of tests delivered the desired outcome. Big relief. It’s not that Singapore has excelled in handling the pandemic. For a country ruled by one party since independence in 1965 that has carefully cultivated a reputation for administrative excellence, there’s been an unnerving amount of backtracking and misfires. Things can change quickly and a new wave of restrictions might not be far off. As a center for trade and commerce, officials need to be careful not to scare away too much top-tier imported talent. Many were holding out for the year-end home visits.
I do, however, feel safer. Better to do my job in the right time zone. The kids can go to school. The office is open, Singapore having recently stepped away from work-from-home as default. I hope to travel for business in coming months. For now, being back safely might be enough.
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Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for global economics, and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.
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