Malaysia and Singapore ease international travel restrictions in pivot to living with Covid

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By Rhea Mogul,

Oct 11, 2021

Singapore and Malaysia have each revealed plans to start reopening their borders as the Southeast Asian neighbors move away from their zero-Covid strategies toward living with the virus.

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said Sunday the country would end its domestic and international travel restrictions for fully vaccinated residents from Monday, after reaching its target of full inoculation for 90% of the adult population.

It comes one day after Singapore added eight new countries to its vaccinated and quarantine-free travel lanes — the most significant easing of travel restrictions since borders shut last March.

Singapore and Malaysia both battled disastrous surges in Covid-19 cases earlier this year, fueled by the highly infectious Delta variant. Both nations pursued aggressive zero-Covid policies by imposing strict lockdowns and closing borders.

The moves come as governments across the region — including Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam — look to revive their economies via tourism and by reopening local businesses. Singapore and Malaysia are transitioning toward treating the virus as endemic by attempting to control outbreaks with vaccines, rather than restricting citizens’ lives — despite continuing to see active community cases and deaths.

The plans also mirror the “living with Covid” approach seen in many Western countries, including the United Kingdom and parts of the United States, where daily life has largely returned to normal.

Malaysia

Cases in Malaysia began to surge at the start of 2021, prompting the government to reimpose lockdown restrictions that had been lifted last December. Then in June, it felt the sharp edge of the deadly Delta variant.

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Despite a national lockdown, at the peak of the surge in August the country was reporting hundreds of thousands of cases per day.

Frustrations mounted among citizens who were forced to endure yet more curbs on their freedom, and protests against the government’s handling of the virus broke out in July.

Under the lockdown restrictions, millions of people were told to stay at home whenever possible and prohibited from domestic travel. Schools were closed and gatherings banned. The following month, Malaysia’s then-Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin resigned, fueled in part by the public’s seething anger.

Prime Minister Yaakob’s announcement Sunday marks a significant shift from Malaysia’s previous strategies — predominantly because of a highly effective vaccination drive. About eight months after its mass rollout, more than 66% of the country’s 32 million people have been fully vaccinated, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

“We have to train ourselves to live with Covid, because Covid may not be eliminated fully,” Yaakob told a news conference Sunday, adding Malaysia will not impose wide lockdowns again if cases rise.

The easing of restrictions means fully vaccinated Malaysians can travel overseas without applying for permission from immigration authorities. Previously, travel was largely restricted for business, official or emergency reasons. Domestic journeys will also be allowed, ending the ban on travel across Malaysia’s 13 states.

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On September 16, Malaysia reopened Langkawi — a cluster of 99 islands and a prime holiday destination — to domestic tourists, with strict protocols in place. The country is currently still shut to international travelers, with a fuller reopening under consideration.

The easing of measures comes as the daily caseload continues to drop after rising steeply from June to August.

Singapore

Singapore is continuing to uphold its strategy of living with the virus, despite recently reporting record daily Covid-19 cases and a spike in deaths fueled by a Delta variant outbreak.

On Saturday, the island city-state of 5.45 million people reported a daily record 3,703 cases and 11 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins. The same day, Singapore decided to press on with its quarantine-free vaccinated travel lane (VTL) scheme, set to begin October 19, by announcing the addition of eight Western nations, including the US and the UK.

Under the new rules, travelers from a total of 11 countries can enter Singapore without having to quarantine — all part of its “reclaim and rebuild” campaign, according to Transport Minister S. Iswaran.

Singapore is home to the Asian headquarters of many multinational companies, whose executives rely on ease of travel to and from the country — one of the world’s biggest travel and finance hubs.

In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore could not “stay locked down and closed off indefinitely,” adding that job losses, separation of families and business closures had caused “psychological and emotional strain and mental fatigue.”

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But while Singapore said that it wanted to transition to an endemic Covid model in May, the recent Delta variant surge has put those plans at risk.

On October 1, Singapore reimposed some local restrictions to thwart the spread. The tighter measures included limiting social gatherings to two people and suspending or moving classes online for students age 12 and under — a move met with some frustration by Singaporeans, Reuters reported.

During his address Saturday, Lee said it would take “at least three months, and perhaps as long as six months” to become restriction-free, and hinted at the possibility of future lockdowns if cases begin to rise — unlike Malaysia.

“After this surge stabilizes, we may still see future surges, especially if new variants emerge,” Lee said. “We may have to tap on the brakes again if cases again grow too fast, to protect our healthcare system and healthcare 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.

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