Keeping clean the first line of defence against coronavirus: Expert panel

The coronavirus has a lipid membrane on the outer layer that keeps it intact, and many cleaning agents - such as soaps and hand sanitisers- can dissolve this lipid membrane.
The coronavirus has a lipid membrane on the outer layer that keeps it intact, and many cleaning agents - such as soaps and hand sanitisers- can dissolve this lipid membrane.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Keeping yourself and your surroundings clean is no longer a matter of preference or being gracious, but the first line of defence against Covid-19, a panel of experts told The Straits Times on Monday (March 23).

In a discussion highlighting the importance of hygiene during this critical period, SGClean task force leader Masagos Zulkifli stressed that other measures such as border controls and quarantine would not be as effective in combating the outbreak if personal hygiene was neglected.

He noted that in the past two decades, the world has already seen four disease outbreaks - Sars, Mers, H1N1 and now Covid-19.

"This time round, it's both contagious and dangerous," he said of Covid-19.

"Therefore, we do need to think deeply for ourselves and also for society - what we want and how we are going to ensure that what we do will build these defences for the future.

"Public and personal hygiene is Singapore's first defence, not just against Covid-19 today but against other breakouts that we cannot foresee in the future," he added.

The new task force he heads was launched earlier this month to take cleanliness and public hygiene to the next level, and to change social norms so that people pick up new habits to stop the spread of disease.

Mr Masagos  was one of four panellists who joined The Straits Times' science and environment correspondent Audrey Tan in an hour-long discussion around the theme of "Covid-19: Keep clean, to keep well", which was aired on a special episode of ST's talk show, The Big Story.

The other experts were Mr Tai Ji Choong, director of the National Environment Agency's (NEA) department of public cleanliness, Public Hygiene Council chairman Edward D'Silva, and Professor Wang Linfa, director of the emerging infectious diseases programme at Duke-NUS Medical School.

As to the key role of soap and sanitiser in the war against the virus, Prof Wang explained the science behind why frequent hand-washing is so effective.

The virus has a lipid or fatty membrane on the outer layer that keeps it intact,  he noted, and many cleaning agents dissolve it. 

"All of these (cleaning agents) will not only clean the environment in the general sense. More specifically, for Covid-19, you can actually disrupt the virus and prevent its transmission."

Mr Masagos pointed out that there was also a need to establish new social norms in places such as hawker centres and places of worship - with some practices possibly here for good.

Besides personal hygiene and the need to adjust norms, Mr Tai said that his agency has been working to raise cleaning standards across the island.


This includes examining how cleaning companies can boost cleaning efforts not just in places where a case has been detected, but also in areas with high human traffic.

Technology, such as the mechanisation of cleaning processes, could help to plug a manpower gap in the pool of cleaners here, such as the recent one caused by the lockdown imposed by Malaysia earlier this month, added Mr D'Silva. 

Mr Masagos also noted that the risk of exposure can be assessed on three factors: duration, intensity and density. In general, the risk of exposure goes up the longer a person is exposed to the virus, the closer the interactions with an infected case and the larger the number of people in a given setting.

He stressed too, that while Singaporeans are worried about Covid-19, they must not forget another formidable foe - dengue fever, which is also on the rise here.

There have been more than 4,000 cases of dengue infections in Singapore since the start of this year, about double that of the same period last year.

For individuals, getting either Covid-19 or dengue would hurt their immune system, making them vulnerable to other illnesses. And rising dengue numbers would also add unnecessary stress to the healthcare system when resources are already being taxed by the coronavirus.

"Yes, we start washing our hands, it's fantastic; we don't leave tissues on the table. But please continue to do the things that we have always been doing year after year to bring down (dengue fever) and to keep suppressing the breeding of mosquitoes, because that's the only and best defence against dengue transmission," Mr Masagos added.

The panel also discussed the rate of  Covid-19 transmission and how to flatten the epidemic curve, or minimise th impact of  the outbreak.

How the curve will behave depends not only on how efficient each country's government is, but also on each individual's behaviour, said Prof Wang.


There is room for improvement in such behaviour here.

Mr Masagos pointed out that while most Singaporeans do not litter, they do not fare so well when it comes to habits such as returning food trays and keeping the table clean for the next user.

"Generally speaking, we have a certain good standard in Singapore, but we really need to think about how to make that standard even higher, and then maintain that standard.

"We are a First World country. But let's be honest whether we are already a First World people where hygiene and cleanliness are concerned."