Singapore better prepared to handle Wuhan virus outbreak, no need to panic: PM Lee Hsien Loong

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the Republic is much better prepared than it was during the Sars outbreak of 2003. PHOTO: MCI

As Singapore sees its first confirmed case of the Wuhan virus, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's assessment is that the country is much better prepared than it was during the Sars outbreak of 2003.

There is no need to panic, he added in an interview yesterday with The Straits Times at the World Economic Forum's (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

Speaking shortly before the case was confirmed, and a day after a multi-ministry task force to fight the disease was set up, PM Lee said it was a matter of time before Singapore had a case.

"It is bound to happen because there is such intense coming and going between Singapore and China. Even if it were... between Singapore and the other cities in the world, one way or the other, the bug is going to reach us," he said.

PM Lee noted that Singapore had been preparing for a viral outbreak since Sars - the severe acute respiratory syndrome - in 2003, which infected 238 people in the country, 33 of whom died, and took three months to contain. The tourism and retail sectors were also badly hit then.

The virus was a talking point on the sidelines of the WEF meeting, with CNBC reporting business leaders saying that the spread of the virus was a curveball that could hurt economies, as Sars did in 2003.

After that episode, Singapore did a thorough review of its medical facilities and infrastructure, including isolation wards as well as scientific testing and capabilities, PM Lee noted. "I think we are much better prepared now. We have a new Communicable Diseases Centre at Tan Tock Seng (Hospital).

"Science has made a lot of progress since Sars, so this time with a new coronavirus, the scientists have been able to identify and sequence it much faster than with Sars and share the information with other countries in a much more expeditious way," he added.

PM Lee noted that China had also made progress in dealing with such public health emergencies.

"They understand now that pretending that nothing is wrong is not the right thing to do and they have to come out, and the more open they are, the more effective they can be in dealing with it, and (it is) better that they can cooperate with other countries," he added.

Singapore also had to be psychologically prepared and operationally ready for a significant outbreak, including marshalling scientists, healthcare workers and community support.

He said it looked like the current coronavirus is not as lethal as Sars, but it could mutate. "We have to be as prepared as we can," he added.

This, he said, was why the task force was set up to pull together agencies and grassroots groups, as well as the private and healthcare sectors to respond to an outbreak in a coordinated way.

"People can see that we are doing what we need to do, and we can go about our lives, take the precautions we need to, but no need to panic," he added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2020, with the headline Singapore better prepared to handle Wuhan virus outbreak, no need to panic: PM Lee Hsien Loong. Subscribe