Covid-19 will remain a problem for a long time yet, everyone has to adjust the way we live, work and play: PM Lee

PM Lee said Singaporeans will have to learn to live with the coronavirus for the long term.
PM Lee said Singaporeans will have to learn to live with the coronavirus for the long term.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

SINGAPORE - The coronavirus will remain a problem for a long time yet, and Singaporeans will have to learn to live with it for the long term, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (June 7).

This means getting used to new arrangements in the way people work, play and lead their everyday lives, he said.

"It will take at least a year, probably longer, before vaccines become widely available," said Mr Lee in the first of six national broadcasts on Singapore's future after the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We will have to learn to live with Covid-19 for the long term, as we have done in the past with other dangerous infectious diseases, like tuberculosis."

In his speech, the Prime Minister sketched out Singapore's progress in tackling the pandemic so far.

New cases in the wider community have come down and the situation in migrant worker dormitories has stabilised, he said.

The healthcare system is coping well, and Singapore's coronavirus fatality rate - at 0.06 per cent - is one of the world's lowest.

This has allowed the country to ease strict circuit breaker measures, Mr Lee said. Contact tracing and testing will be stepped up, to detect coronavirus cases earlier, isolate their contacts, and prevent clusters from forming.

"If all goes well and the outbreak remains firmly under control, we will ease up further, and resume more activities as soon as possible," he added.

 
 

Mr Lee urged Singaporeans to play their part in the meantime - by maintaining personal hygiene, wearing masks, observing safe distancing rules and avoiding crowded gatherings.

Beyond the public health impact, Covid-19 has become a serious economic, social and political problem, he said. "It is in fact the most dangerous crisis humanity has faced in a very long time... We are in a totally unprecedented situation."

ECONOMIC IMPACT OF COVID-19

The global economy has virtually ground to a halt, Mr Lee said. Governments have spent trillions of dollars to support businesses, economies and jobs, but tens of millions of jobs have been lost even so.

Singapore's domestic economy has also taken a severe hit. The country's gross domestic product is likely to shrink by between 4 and 7 per cent - its worst contraction ever.

Its economy also depends heavily on international trade and investments, which were already slowing down before the pandemic hit. "Now this slowdown will happen faster, and go further," Mr Lee said.

The Government has pumped in billions of dollars to save jobs and keep businesses afloat, and is doing so without having to borrow.

On Friday, Parliament passed a second supplementary supply Bill, bringing government spending on four Covid-19 support packages to $92.9 billion - nearly 20 per cent of Singapore's GDP. These will require a $52 billion draw from past reserves.

"But even for us, this level of spending is hard to sustain," Mr Lee said. "More importantly, these measures cannot shield us from the tectonic shifts taking place in the global economy."

The world will not return to the open and connected global economy of the past anytime soon, he added. The movement of people will be more restricted, and health checks and quarantines will be the norm.

"It will no longer be so easy to take quick weekend trips to Bangkok or Hong Kong on a budget flight. Industries that depend on travel, like aviation, hotels and tourism, will take a long time to get back on their feet, and may never recover fully," he said.

Countries will also strive to become less dependent on one another, especially for essential goods and services such as food or critical medical supplies.

"This will have strategic implications. Countries will have less stake in each other's well being," Mr Lee said. "They will fight more over how the pie is shared, rather than work together to enlarge the pie for all. It will be a less prosperous world, and also a more troubled one."

All these changes will impact Singapore greatly and mean that the next few years will be a "disruptive and difficult time", he added.

Throughout its history, the country has made a living by connecting itself with the world. At present, large parts of its economy - such as manufacturing, biotechnology, financial services and logistics - serve regional and world markets. Other sectors rely heavily on tourism, Mr Lee noted.

 
 
 

Singapore will have to prepare for a very different future, he said, adding that some industries will be permanently changed.

Companies big and small will be hit hard, and many will have to reinvent themselves to survive.

Workers will not be spared. "Retrenchments and unemployment will go up. Some jobs will disappear, and will not come back. Workers will have to learn new skills to stay employed. The next few years will be a disruptive and difficult time for all of us," he said.

But the Prime Minister underlined his belief that Singapore will emerge stronger and better from the crisis.

It has an international reputation built up over decades, a headstart on preparing for the uncertainties ahead, and plans in place to help Singaporeans cope with the challenges, he said, adding that more details will be shared in the later broadcasts.

"We have a full agenda for many years to come," Mr Lee said.

The other five broadcasts will be delivered between June 9 and June 20 by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, Senior Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.