Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing agrees that the supply of surgical mask in Singapore will not be enough if everyone in the country starts using it.
While speaking at a meeting with local business leaders organised by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) last week, Mr Chan pointed out that “surgical mask is not the solution” when comes to dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, and that no amount of masks will be adequate if all people in Singapore use it.
Citing the situation in Hong Kong as an example, Mr Chan said that Singapore will soon be in a difficult time like Hong Kong where there is a lack of mask supply for medical staff.
Earlier this month, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carried Lam revealed that the government’s internal reserve of surgical masks was reduced to just one month’s supply following the deadly coronavirus outbreak, South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported. She was also seen last month adorning a mask while speaking at a press conference, despite a worrying shortage of masks in the country.
Commenting on this, Mr Chan said that if Singapore has done like what Hong Kong did where politicians appear at events wearing masks, then the country’s hospital system would have been broken.
This is because it will lead to panic among people, which will result to severe shortage of masks for medical workers, he explained.
“We won’t have any surgical mask for out medical staff because everyone has used it up, like tissue paper,” he said.
He added, “If every Singaporean uses a surgical mask, one day we will burn five million masks, if not more. Since we don’t know how long we got to fight this war and the supply line has [been] cut already, [we must] conserve the surgical mask to make sure our medical system can still work.”
Took a gamble
In order to calm the nerves of worried citizens, Mr Chan said that he took a gamble and decided to distribute four masks each to all 1.37 million households in Singapore. These masks, he noted, should only be used by those who are not feeling well or need to go to the hospital.
However, he pointed out that in order to distribute these free masks to the people, he had to lose another 5 million from the government’s “limited stock count”.
Given the shortage, Mr Chan said his priority is to supply as many masks to medical staff first. He added that if mask is proven to be effective in hindering the spread of the deadly coronavirus, then the next group of people who he would supply the masks with are frontline workers like drivers and service staff.
As such, he said that he has to distribute the masks like he’s working in a “military operation”, where he needs to think properly “when to give mask to which group of people, tier by tier”.
How long must we fight the virus?
Despite hearing the concerns of bus and taxi drivers over the spreading of COVID-19, Mr Chan said that he is “thinking very hard now” if he should distribute surgical masks to them. This is because he said that he can issue them haze masks now as a “security blanket”.
His biggest concern right now is to know how long must Singapore be in this fight to curb the deadly virus.
“My number one thing in my mind right now is exactly what Mr Lee said. I don’t know how long we must fight this and I must prepare for the day where I must fight this for at least six months,” Mr Chan said.
Last Friday (14 February), 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.
“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 after meeting a number of frontline staff at Changi Airport.
At the meeting, Mr Chan also voiced out about how social media is becoming a serious problem as people tend to compare what’s happening in Singapore with other countries. He noted that no one talks about other problems that is taking place at different countries, like the situation where Hong Kong is running low in supply for surgical masks.
As such, he said that people prefer to choose a certain issue and only compare it with what’s happening in Singapore on social media.
“So these are the real unknowns that we have to deal with,” Mr Chan highlighted.
Govt previously said wear mask only when unwell
On 30 January this year, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong revealed at a news conference that Singaporeans should refrain from hoarding masks and only wear them if they are unwell and need to see a doctor.
Those who are well, do not need to don a mask and would be better protected by washing hands with soap and water regularly, the 4G leaders said at the conference.
Minister Wong said this after more than five million masks released to retailers “snapped up in hours” each time a batch of these were put up for sale over the past nine days.
He said that this had happened despite retailers limiting sales to one box per customer. “The current rate of consumption of masks in Singapore is not sustainable… especially with the global shortage and the likely export bans,” he said.
Echoing the same point, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also pointed out in a Facebook post on Thursday evening, where he highlighted the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) advice to only need to wear a mask if we are sick.
“We will continue to monitor the situation closely and do more if necessary. Meanwhile, we should all remain calm. All of us can do our part to limit transmission of germs by practicing good hygiene,” he said.
He continued, “Was your hands regularly, and seek medical active early and wear a mask if you feel unwell. But in general, there is no need to wear a mask if you are not ill.”
COVID-19 in Singapore
The deadly 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 more than 1,700 people, mainly in China, and infected at least 70,4000 individuals globally.
The number of infections has exceeded the total reported cases during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003.
On Sunday (16 February), the Ministry of Health (MOH) has confirmed three more additional cases of COVID-19 in the Republic, bringing the total number 75. This is the highest number recorded outside of China. (excluding Japan’s cases on the cruise ship)
Since 7 February, Singapore has also raised its disease outbreak response level to orange, one step below red.