SINGAPORE — England has removed nearly all coronavirus restrictions. Germany is allowing vaccinated people to travel without quarantines. Outdoor mask mandates are mostly gone in Italy. Shopping malls remain open in Singapore.
Eighteen months after the coronavirus first emerged, governments in Asia, Europe and the Americas are encouraging people to return to their daily rhythms and transition to a new normal in which subways, offices, restaurants and airports are once again full. Increasingly, the mantra is the same: We have to learn to live with the virus.
Yet scientists warn that the pandemic exit strategies may be premature. The emergence of more transmissible variants means that even wealthy nations with abundant vaccines, including the United States, remain vulnerable. Places like Australia, which shut down its border, are learning that they cannot keep the virus out.
So rather than abandon their road maps, officials are beginning to accept that rolling lockdowns and restrictions are a necessary part of recovery. People are being encouraged to shift their pandemic perspective and focus on avoiding severe illness and death instead of infections, which are harder to avoid. And countries with zero-Covid ambitions are rethinking those policies.
“You need to tell people: We’re going to get a lot of cases,” said Dale Fisher, a professor of medicine at the National University of Singapore who heads the National Infection Prevention and Control Committee of Singapore’s Health Ministry. “And that’s part of the plan — we have to let it go.”
For months, many residents in Singapore, the small Southeast Asian city-state, pored over the details of each new Covid case. There was a palpable sense of dread when infections reached double digits for the first time. And with borders closed, there was also a feeling of defeat, since even the most diligent measures were not enough to prevent infection.
“Our people are battle weary,” a group of Singapore ministers wrote in an opinion essay in the Straits Times newspaper in June. “All are asking: When and how will the pandemic end?”
Officials in Singapore announced plans to gradually ease restrictions and chart a path to the other side of the pandemic. The plans included switching to monitoring the number of people who fall very ill, how many require intensive care and how many need to be intubated, instead of infections.
Those measures are already being put to the test.
Outbreaks have spread through several karaoke lounges and a large fishery port, and on Tuesday Singapore announced a tightening of measures, including banning all dine-in service. The trade minister, Gan Kim Yong, said the country was still on the right track, comparing the latest restrictions to “roadblocks” toward the final goal.
Singapore has fully vaccinated 49 percent of its population and has cited Israel, which is further ahead at 58 percent, as a model. Israel has pivoted to focusing on severe illness, a tactic that officials have called “soft suppression.” It is also facing its own sharp rise in cases, up from single digits a month ago to hundreds of new cases a day. The country recently reimposed an indoor mask mandate.
“It’s important, but it’s quite annoying,” said Danny Levy, 56, an Israeli civil servant who was waiting to see a movie at a cinema complex in Jerusalem last week. Mr. Levy said that he would wear his mask inside the theater, but that he found it frustrating that restrictions were being reimposed while new virus variants were entering the country because of weak testing and supervision of incoming travelers.
Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, said that countries taking shortcuts on their way to reopening were putting unvaccinated people at risk and gambling with lives.
“At this point in time, I actually find it quite surprising that governments would necessarily decide they know enough about how this virus will behave in populations to choose, ‘Yes, we are going to live with it,’” said Mr. Baker, who helped devise New Zealand’s Covid elimination strategy.
New Zealanders seem to have accepted the possibility of longer-term restrictions. In a recent government-commissioned survey of more than 1,800 people, 90 percent of respondents said they did not expect life to return to normal after they were vaccinated, partly because of the lingering questions about the virus.
Scientists still do not fully understand “long Covid” — the long-term symptoms that hundreds of thousands of previously infected patients are still grappling with. They say that Covid-19 should not be treated like the flu, because it is far more dangerous. They are also uncertain about the duration of immunity provided by vaccines and how well they protect against the variants.
Much of the developing world is also still facing rising infections, giving the virus a greater opportunity to rapidly replicate, which then increases the risks of…