Singapore PM Lee: Covid-19 outbreak expected to last longer than SARS and cause greater economic impact, but life has to go on

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong interacts with Cisco officers at Changi Airport Terminal 3 February 14, 2020. — TODAY pic
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong interacts with Cisco officers at Changi Airport Terminal 3 February 14, 2020. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Feb 14 — While it took four months before the Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was fully eradicated from Singapore back in 2003, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Covid-19 outbreak is expected to last longer, with a greater impact already hitting the economy.

However, Lee stressed that “life has to go on” and Singaporeans have to continue making a living.

Speaking to reporters today after meeting various frontline staff at Changi Airport, Lee said: “SARS took us from March when we had our first cases, until July before we were declared clear and that was, I think very fast. I expect it not to be so fast this time.”

As China’s economy is bigger and more interlinked with Singapore and the region compared to the situation in 2013, Lee said that the economic impact of the outbreak would be significant as it is a “very intense outbreak”. 

He added that a recession was “possible” and the economic impact on Singapore so far is already believed to be much more than SARS. 

Speaking to several frontline staff at Changi Airport, including airline crew and sales personnel at the retail stores, he said that the airport had been “substantially impacted”.

“The flights are down by a third, the shops here are hard hit, and at the same time the crews have to keep the airport running and stay at their posts and keep Singapore open for business”, he said.

He said that new developments were happening every day and the government is making a judgment on what is the right thing to do at each point. 

“So we have to calibrate and judge as we go on each step, what is the most prudent thing to do. Err on the side of caution, but make a sensible judgment. And that’s what we’re trying,” he said. 

The novel coronavirus, now officially known as Covid-19, originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and has spread to 28 countries and territories, including Singapore, which confirmed 58 cases as of yesterday — the highest number outside of China.

However, he added that the higher number of reported cases here is due to Singapore’s size and thorough checks by the health authorities.

While it is understandable for other countries to issue travel advisories against Singapore, he said that they should not make “knee-jerk” decisions to escalate their warnings to an outright ban just based on the headline numbers.

It is however a different story for bigger countries, which are made up of 10,000 islands, a large land mass or many rural areas, noted Lee.

“It is not so easy to track what’s happening in that country so the reported cases and the developments, there may be some lag before things become known,” he said.

These circumstances have to be made known to other countries so that they would have the available facts before deciding whether to issue a travel advisory or even a ban on Singapore.

“To go beyond (a travel advisory), while we will make our case very clearly to the other countries that ‘This is a real situation, please make a sound scientific and medical judgment. Don’t just act on a knee jerk, based on somebody’s headline,’” said Lee.

When asked about more clusters emerging, Lee said that this does not yet constitute widespread community transmission as most of these cases are still traceable to a particular source.

“So we will have to watch the trend, how the trend goes, whether the numbers go up and also whether the cases are traceable and we can continue to do contact tracing and then squeeze out the clusters one by one,” he said. — TODAY

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