Economic impact of Covid-19 to last at least a year: Vivian

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan (left) during his interview with CNBC Asia presenters Sri Jegarajah and Martin Soong last Wednesday. He called for action at the global and regional level to tackle the coronavirus crisis, saying ''we cannot resolve this unless the whole world... gets it right''.

Covid-19 and its economic fallout will last at least a year, which means governments must take sustainable and sensible action for the long term, said Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

In an interview with CNBC Asia last Wednesday, he said that unlike in the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak, which was largely limited to East Asia, the numbers infected by Covid-19 have exploded across the world, from Europe to the United States to Iran.

"If this had been like Sars, confined to East Asia - China, Japan, Korea, Singapore - and given the kind of social and medical procedures that we could take, there was a chance for containment... Unfortunately, I think the genie is out of the bottle," he said.

Dr Balakrishnan pointed out that Covid-19 is a global phenomenon whose impact will last for quite some time.

Call for action at global level to overcome crisis

Sars took around four months to get over, and its economic impact took around six months to wear out. "This time, it is going to be longer, and it is going to be all countries," he said.

While international observers have lauded the Singapore Government for its swift response to Covid-19, the minister would not be drawn into commenting on whether this would affect the timing of the general election, which has to be held by April 21 next year.

Speaking to CNBC presenters Sri Jegarajah and Martin Soong, he said: "You will have to ask the Prime Minister that."

He added: "But the election is not the most important thing right now. The most important thing is that we get over this. We get over this together, and we get over this together with our neighbouring countries, our region and at the global level. This is a time to focus on delivery, on getting things done. The politics will take care of itself."

The call to action extends to Asean members as well. "I can tell you, without revealing details, that we are sharing information, we are sharing capacity and we are coordinating our measures," he said.

Pointing out that 300,000 people cross between Malaysia and Singapore daily, and four of the world's 10 busiest air routes are in the Asean region, Dr Balakrishnan said it is "one hot zone" for Covid-19.

"We are in it together and we cannot resolve this unless the whole world, and in particular for us in our region, Asean, gets it right."

He also spoke about "test kit diplomacy", saying: "What we need to do as a world is to share best practices, to rapidly develop test kits, vaccines, antivirals. We need to share the fruits of applied research. We need to coordinate our measures."

Last Thursday, the Government contributed 50 packages of personal protective equipment to the Batam government at its request to support Indonesia's efforts to combat Covid-19.

On concerns over imported cases and the lack of testing facilities in certain countries, the minister drew the focus back to constructive action.

"The virus has shown that it does not respect passports, boundaries, politics. It is time to work together. Finger-pointing, making unnecessary comments are not helpful. Let us just get on with it," said Dr Balakrishnan, who was trained as an eye doctor and was chief executive of Singapore General Hospital before he went into politics.

To those who think the virus may disappear in the summer months, he cautioned that as Covid-19 is a new virus, it is "dangerous and wishful thinking" to believe it will behave the same way as previous viruses.

Whole-of-nation preparation is key - no matter whether the outbreak is a global pandemic or just part of the background viral load in the population. One should assume the worst, even if one is hoping for the best, the minister added.

"In fact, this is an acid test of every single country's quality of healthcare, standard of governance and social capital. If any one of this tripod is weak, it will be exposed, and exposed quite unmercifully by this epidemic."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2020, with the headline Economic impact of Covid-19 to last at least a year: Vivian. Subscribe