Coronavirus: Impact on economy already exceeds Sars, recession possible, says PM Lee

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visiting workers from baggage handling at Changi Airport Terminal 3 on Feb 14, 2020. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - The possibility of a recession looms over Singapore, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, noting that the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the economy has exceeded that of Sars, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, in 2003.

"I can't say whether we will have a recession or not. It's possible, but definitely our economy will take a hit," he told reporters on Friday (Feb 14) during a visit to Changi Airport Terminal 3.

The impact, particularly in the next few quarters, will be significant as the country battles a "very intense outbreak", he said.

"It's already much more than Sars, and the economies of the region are much more interlinked together. China, particularly, is a much bigger factor in the region," he added.

Singapore was hit by Sars in March 2003. It took five months, until July that year, to eradicate the disease here.

"That was, I think, very fast. I expect it not to be so fast this time," PM Lee said.

Singapore is working to contain the coronavirus disease, known as Covid-19, which was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December.

The number of confirmed cases in Singapore has been rising steadily - there are 58 so far, with at least five local clusters.

The tourism industry is among the hardest hit sectors. Already, the government is bracing itself for tourist arrivals to drop by between 25 and 30 per cent this year.

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On Friday, PM Lee told reporters at Changi that he was visiting the airport and speaking with a range of workers, as Changi Airport is on the front line of the fight.

While flights are down by a third and businesses hit hard, staff and crew have to stay at their posts and keep Singapore open for business.

"I came to see how they work, to ask after them, make sure that they are well, make sure they have what they need to do their jobs, and are well supported and all right - and are confident and know what's happening," he added.

PM Lee also said he was glad the workers he met were in good spirits.

Asked if Singapore was already witnessing widespread transmission of the pathogen within the community, and if it should shift its approach in dealing with the Sars-CoV-2 virus, the Prime Minister said Singapore was not at that point yet, adding that shutting down the country was also not an option.

"But it's an evolving situation. Every day brings new developments and we cannot be sure which way it will go. So we have to watch and we have to respond quickly (and) make a judgment at each point (on) what is the right thing to do."

"We have to keep Singapore going and we have to keep making a living. Life has to go on. So we have to calibrate and judge as we (take) each step, what is the most prudent thing to do."

During the 1½-hour visit, PM Lee, who was accompanied by Senior Minister of State for Health and Transport Lam Pin Min and Mrs Lee, spoke to workers in virtually all sectors of airport operations.

He gave them tips on maintaining personal hygiene, reminding them to wash their hands regularly.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong taking a photo with workers from baggage handling at Changi Airport Terminal 3, on Feb 14, 2020. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

From baggage handlers, cleaning staff, immigration and customs officers to cabbies, most staff delivered a grim report on how the virus has impacted business.

Trolley service officer Molly Goh, 62, said she estimated that the number of travellers has plunged by about half.

Staff at check-in counters said fewer counters are open and workers have been redeployed elsewhere.

Taxi driver V. A. Moorthy, 61, told PM Lee that his income has dropped by about 30 per cent, and cabbies have to wait beyond an hour for a fare at the airport.

"We have to try and get more tourists to come; everyone is suffering," said Mr Moorthy.

PM Lee encouraged the workers he met, telling one group: "We have to get through this, and I think with the unions' help, we will."

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He also told reporters Singapore was working with its neighbours to strengthen cooperation in dealing with the virus. The authorities from both Singapore and Malaysia had announced a joint working group to deal with the virus this week (Feb 11).

Vietnam, as the current chair of Asean, is also coordinating a region-wide response and will issue a statement soon.

Said PM Lee: "We do need to exchange information and cooperate with one another, to avoid working at cross purposes... because for us in Singapore, if the region has a problem, it's going to be very, very difficult for Singapore to isolate itself and keep the problem outside of our boundaries."

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