Nations must band together to create early warning system against next pandemic, says Singapore PM Lee

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks with Bloomberg News’ Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait at the Bloomberg 2020 New Economy Forum. — Picture courtesy of Singapore Ministry of Communications and Information via TODAY
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks with Bloomberg News’ Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait at the Bloomberg 2020 New Economy Forum. — Picture courtesy of Singapore Ministry of Communications and Information via TODAY

SINGAPORE, Nov 17 — In order to give humanity a better fighting chance against the next global pandemic, a global institution and more surveillance networks need to be set up to create the best early warning system possible, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Noting that the next disease “may be much worse than Covid-19”, Lee said that nations must band together to “spot it and react to it and give ourselves the best chance of surviving”.

However, this will require getting countries to co-operate and open up, so that not only their own scientists but international teams are able to know if something significant has happened, and to raise the flag quickly.

“I think if we can just do that, we will improve our chances of survival the next time,” said Lee during a pre-recorded interview with Bloomberg News’ Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait, which was screened at the Bloomberg 2020 New Economy Forum today.

He was responding to a question about the one thing the world must change after a vaccine is found for Covid-19, which has claimed the lives of more than 1.3 million people globally.

Lee noted that after the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) between 2002 and 2004, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had set up monitoring stations around the world.

Although they were meant to pick up signs of the next emerging disease early, the CDC pulled back and the WHO was not in enough places, he said.”

When Covid-19 came along, we found out soon but not soon enough,” he said.

“There are now endless recriminations as to whether something was covered up or whether there was something untoward, even sinister, which we should uncover.”

Lee added that the psychological impact of Covid-19 on this generation will be considerable.Citing himself and Micklethwait as an example, he recalled how they had been at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January this year, just before the outbreak, talking about globalisation and trade trends. “Overnight, all that is no longer your top priority,” said Lee.

“Your top priority is just making sure your people are safe and that where their jobs have been lost, they are able to feed themselves and their families,” he said this is a reminder that despite the best plans, something drastic can always happen to change it.

“So be prepared for the uncertainty, plan for the future, but also have a modest estimation of how capable you are in determining the outcome.”

Micklethwait also asked Lee if he might “hang on a bit longer” in his role, given that the United States had just elected a 78-year-old in President-elect Joe Biden.

Lee responded: “I am not sure ‘hanging on’ is the word but as I have been saying in recent months, we are in the middle of a crisis. It is a huge challenge for Singapore. It is existential — both economically as well as from a public health point of view.

“It is my responsibility to see us through this crisis before I hand it over in good shape into good hands. I hope that will be before too long.” — TODAY

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