PM Lee says COVID-19 outbreak could last longer than SARS and lead to worse impact on economy

Photo Credit: TODAY Online

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the latest COVID-19 outbreak is expected to last much longer than the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, which took four months to be completely eradicated from Singapore.

He also added that COVID-19 will result to a greater impact on the economy of the country. However, PM Lee asserted that “life has to go on” and the people of Singapore have to proceed to make a living.

“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,” PM Lee said to the media on Friday (14 February) after meeting a number of frontline staff at Changi Airport.

Given that China’s economy is much larger and interconnected with Singapore and the region now as opposed to the situation in 2003, Mr Lee noted that the impact of the outbreak on the country’s economy will be more significant as it is a “very intense outbreak”.

He also noted that there’s a chance of a “possible” recession and the economic impact on Singapore as of now is already showing to be much worse than SARS.

While speaking to a group of frontline staff, including airline crew and sales workers at retail stores, at Changi Airport, PM Lee pointed out 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 explained that new developments are happening on a daily basis and the Government is making a decision on what is the right thing to do at each particular 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 noted.

The deadly novel coronavirus, now named as COVID-19, first surfaced in the city of Wuhan, and has spread to over 28 countries, including Singapore. To date, the virus has claimed the lives of nearly 1,500 people, mainly in China, and infected more than 65,000 individuals globally.

On Thursday, the Ministry of Health (MOH) has confirmed and verified eight more additional cases in the Republic, bringing the total number 58. This is the highest number recorded outside of China.

However, PM Lee asserted that the higher number of confirmed cases in Singapore is due to the country’s size and thorough checks by the health authorities.

Although it is understandable for certain countries to issue travel advisories against Singapore, but PM Lee said that they should not make “knee-jerk” decisions to escalate their warning to a complete ban solely due to the numbers.

But he noted that the situation is very different for countries with bigger land space or larger amount of rural areas.

“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 pointed out.

As such, PM Lee said that this possibility should be highlighted to other countries so they will be able to make well-informed decision based on facts before issuing 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,’” expressed Mr Lee.

Upon being questioned on more clusters being identified in the country, PM Lee said that this does not mean widespread community transmission because most of the 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.

Earlier on 23 January, PM Lee said that the Wuhan coronavirus does not appear to be as lethal as SARS, and urged the public to remain calm.

“It looks like this virus is not as lethal as SARS, but you do not know. It can mutate. We have to be as prepared as we can,” he expressed.

He added that the Government was “doing what we need to do”, and urged the public to take necessary precautions and reminded them not to panic.

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