Fear and panic can do more harm than the coronavirus, says PM Lee Hsien Loong

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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking on the coronavirus situation in Singapore on Feb 8, 2020. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

SINGAPORE - The ongoing coronavirus outbreak is a test of Singapore's social cohesion and psychological resilience, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Saturday (Feb 8).

"Fear and anxiety are natural human reactions. We all want to protect ourselves and our families from what is still a new and unknown disease," he said in a statement on the current situation.

"But fear can do more harm than the virus itself. It can make us panic, or do things which make matters worse, like circulating rumours online, hoarding face masks or food, or blaming particular groups for the outbreak."

"We should take courage and see through this stressful time together," he added.

PM Lee noted that Singapore is much better prepared to deal with the new coronavirus because of its experience tackling the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) 17 years ago.

Singapore has stockpiled adequate supply of masks and personal protective equipment, expanded and upgraded medical facilities, and has more advanced research capabilities to study the virus.

Doctors and nurses are better trained as well, he said.

"We are psychologically better prepared too. Singaporeans know what to expect, and how to react," he added. "Most importantly, having overcome Sars once, we know that we can pull through this too", the PM said.

Although the virus is similar to Sars, there are two important differences, he said. The coronavirus is more infectious and harder to stop from spreading. But it is also much less dangerous than Sars, he said.

Outside the epicentre of the outbreak in Hubei, the death rate is so far only 0.2 per cent. In comparison, seasonal influenza has a death rate of 0.1 per cent.

"But the situation is still evolving. Every day brings new developments, and we have to respond promptly and dynamically," he said. Isolating, contact tracing and quarantining the close contacts of imported cases has contained the spread and helped stamp out several local clusters.

But Singapore is stepping up measures because some new cases cannot be traced to the source of infection, suggesting that the virus is probably already circulating in the population, he said.

PM Lee said he expects to see more cases with no known contact with any other case in the coming days, despite efforts to do contact tracing and quarantine close contacts of confirmed cases.

"If the numbers keep growing, at some point we will have to reconsider our strategy. If the virus is widespread, it is futile to try to trace every contact. If we still hospitalise and isolate every suspect case, our hospitals will be overwhelmed," he said.

At that point - provided the death rate remains low - Singapore should shift its approach. Those who have only mild symptoms should see a general practitioner and rest at home, instead of going to the hospital.

Hospitals can then focus on the most vulnerable groups - children, the elderly, and those with medical complications.

But PM Lee also stressed that Singapore is not yet at that point. "It may or may not happen, but we are thinking ahead and anticipating the next few steps. And I am sharing these possibilities with you, so that we are all mentally prepared for what may come."

Singapore's disease outbreak response was stepped up one level to orange on Friday (Feb 7), as the coronavirus spreads further within the country.

As a result, measures have been enhanced.

PM Lee said: "We are reducing mingling in schools. We are tightening up access to our hospitals. We are taking extra precautions at large public events."

He added that he has already postponed his Chinese New Year Istana Garden Party for grassroots leaders, which was to be held on Sunday.

To date, a total of 33 people in Singapore have been infected with the virus, four of whom have no known links to previous cases or travel history to China.

The orange alert level means that the outbreak is deemed to have moderate to high public health impact.

It is an acknowledgement that there is local spread, with a possibility that the disease may spread even more widely across the country. However, in spite of the increased spread, the situation is still considered to be under control.

The last time the outbreak alert status was raised to orange was in 2009, for the H1N1 swine flu outbreak.

PM Lee said: "So there is no need to panic. We are not locking down the city or confining everybody to stay at home. We have ample supplies, so there is no need to stock up with instant noodles, tinned food, or toilet paper, as some people did yesterday."

He reminded Singaporeans to do their part by observing personal hygiene, taking their temperature twice daily, and avoiding crowded places if they are sick, seeing a doctor immediately.

PM Lee, who also delivered his message in Mandarin and Malay, added that he is confident of the medical outcome of the outbreak. "Most Singaporeans should remain well, and of those who get ill most should expect to recover," he said.

He added that many Singaporeans have gone the extra mile by stepping forward to distribute masks to households, deliver food to schoolmates on leave of absence. Healthcare workers are on the front lines treating patients, while others - including business federations, unions and public transport workers - are maintaining services, taking care of workers, and keeping Singapore running.

"They are inspirations to all of us. This is what it means to be Singaporean. This is who we are."

He urged Singaporeans to stay united and resolute, taking sensible precautions, helping one another, staying calm, and carrying on with their lives.

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