S'pore cannot slacken in Covid-19 efforts, global cooperation is key: PM Lee

Singapore's prior experience with the severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003 helped it handle the coronavirus pandemic, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Singapore cannot afford to slacken in its effort to keep Covid-19 in check as the virus will rear its head in new and unimaginable ways, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

While the country has kept its number of Covid-19 deaths low at 31 and is in a stable position, it is "far from out of the woods", with a fresh superspreading cluster leading to tightened restrictions and gathering rules again, he added.

"Each time you think you have got the Covid-19 situation under control, and you know how to respond to it, it pops up in a new direction," he said.

"It can be a mutant, it can be a new avenue which you did not spot, but you cannot afford to slacken, and you must always think beyond what you imagine is likely to happen."

PM Lee was speaking on Wednesday (May 19) at the US Chamber of Commerce's inaugural Global Forum on Economic Recovery, which brings together government and business leaders to discuss opportunities and barriers to global recovery.

In a virtual fireside chat with US Chamber executive vice-president Myron Brilliant, he said Singapore's prior experience with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003 helped it handle the coronavirus pandemic.

"That primed our system to gear up for a next new disease, and primed our population to understand what was at stake and what kind of collective responses we needed," he said.

There were 38 new Covid-19 cases reported in Singapore as at noon on Wednesday, including 34 in the community, taking Singapore's total to 61,689.

The pandemic also reminded everyone of the importance of international cooperation, which has largely held up, added PM Lee.

"There was a scramble for PPE (personal protective equipment) at the beginning, there is a scramble for vaccine doses now, but internationally, supply chains have not broken down. You can still buy iPhones made in any number of countries, you can still buy cars, which require parts from many continents."

He noted that the world has not taken "giant strides towards autarky", meaning "total self-reliance". Nor can a small and open country such as Singapore afford to seal its borders off.

"Protectionism? Yes. Autarky? No. That is a qualified plus.

"Other bigger countries can (close their borders), to a very great extent. For Singapore, you need food, fuel, people moving in and out, even during Covid-19. You have to do it to the extent that you can, while keeping ourselves safe with all the precautions... Not without risk, but unavoidable."

PM Lee also said it would be a long way off before countries can open up completely again and have free travel. While countries talk about travel bubbles, this needs confidence on both sides, and Singapore wants to set up bubbles only with countries which are safer than itself, he added.

"That means it is not easy to make a match. But I hope that as societies get vaccinated, and as confidence returns and the disease gets brought under control, that will be possible."

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the US Chamber of Commerce Global Forum on Economic Recovery on May 19, 2021. PHOTO: MCI

The air travel bubble to allow for quarantine-free travel between Singapore and Hong Kong was deferred for a second time on Monday, after a spike in cases here.

PM Lee said that globally, it is not just India that is in a very difficult spot now, but also Latin America and even Africa, where many have not been vaccinated, though the number of reported cases are low.

"We are very anxious that what has happened to the rest of the world will not befall Africa too, which would have consequences not just on that continent."

Stressing the need for global cooperation to mitigate supply chain disruptions, he warned that it would be "very harmful" for every country to make everything onshore.

While there is greater desire to have more resilience, if that goes too far, the price will be very high, he said.

"You can have the final assembly of your devices in your own country, but to make all the components yourself is a stretch. And to get all the raw materials yourself, in most cases, it is going to be impossible.

"You cannot even make vaccines all by yourself. You do need not just the raw materials, but also the bottles, the bottle stoppers, all sorts of things which come from all around the world."

He said he was happy that the current US administration is re-engaging with the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and urged the US to work multilaterally with more partners to establish trust and rules that apply to everyone.

"The WTO has weaknesses, but we should work together to remedy and strengthen the WTO, not to marginalise and cast it aside.

"That is at the top level, but there will be many other areas of cooperation regionally."

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