Yesterday, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke on his administration’s efforts dealing with the new coronavirus (nCov) through his office’s official YouTube channel. In the almost nine-minute video, the 68-year-old leader was a picture of eloquent, soothing calm, laying down his government’s plan-of-action and the possible scenarios they may face. He didn’t only urge his citizens to do their part, but acknowledged those already doing theirs.
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PM Lee hearkened back repeatedly to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of the early 2000s. “Today I want to speak to you directly to explain where we are and what may lie ahead. We went through SARS 17 years ago so we are much better prepared to deal with the new virus this time,” he says. “Practically, we have stockpiled adequate supplies of masks and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). We have expanded and upgraded our medical facilities, including the new National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID).”
He says the country now has more advanced research capabilities to study the virus, more well-trained doctors and nurses to deal with this situation than the time of the SARS outbreak. “We are psychologically better prepared, too. Singaporeans know what to expect and how to react. Most importantly, having overcome SARS once, we know we can pull through this, too,” he says.
He gave two important differences from SARS and nCov: “First, the new virus is more infectious than SARS. Therefore, it’s harder to stop it from spreading. Second, the new virus is much less dangerous than SARS. About 10 percent of those who caught SARS died.” With the new virus, he explains, the mortality rate is so far only 0.2 percent outside of Hubei province, whose capital Wuhan was the origin point of the outbreak. “In comparison, seasonal influenza has a death rate of 0.1 percent. So in terms of mortality, the new virus is closer to influenza than SARS,” he says.
Prompt and dynamic response
Lee admits that the situation is still evolving, with new developments happening every day. “We have to respond promptly and dynamically,” he says, enumerating the steps that his government takes in dealing with each new case. “So far, most of our cases have either been imported from China, or can be traced to imported cases. When we have discovered them, we have isolated the patients, done contact tracing and quarantined their close contacts. This has contained the spread and helped stamp out several local clusters.”
In the last few days, however, there have been some cases that cannot be traced to the source of infection, prompting authorities to raise their country’s Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) to Orange, which means “moderate to high public health impact.”
This became a point of serious concern because it showed the virus is possibly already making the rounds of Singapore’s people. “We are reducing mingling in schools. We are tightening up access to our hospitals. We are taking extra precautions at large public events. I have already postponed my Chinese New Year Istana Garden Party for grassroots leaders, which was to be held tomorrow.”
But, as the leader points up, they have handled similar outbreaks before, most recently the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak. “So there’s no reason to panic. We’re not locking down the city, or confining everybody to stay at home. We have ample supplies. There is no need to stock up on instant noodles or tinned food or toilet paper as some people did yesterday,” he says, almost bemusedly.
The Prime Minister quickly lists down what the citizens can do: observe personal hygiene, wash hands often, avoid touching eyes or face unnecessarily. And that’s just number one. “Two, take your own temperature twice daily. And three, if you are not well, please avoid crowded places and see a doctor immediately,” he says. “These simple steps, don’t take much effort, but if we all do them, they will go a long way toward containing the spread of the virus.”
Lee reports that Singapore is not at the point of widespread outbreak yet. “It may or may not happen, but we are thinking ahead and anticipating the new few steps. And I’m sharing these possibilities with you, so that we’re all mentally prepared for what may come.”
He says he is confident of the medical outcome of this outbreak, elaborating that most Singaporeans should remain well and of those who get ill, most should expect to recover.
“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. But fear can do more harm than the virus itself,” he says. “It can make us panic, or do things that make matters worse. Like circulating rumors online, hoarding facemasks or food, or blaming particular groups for the outbreak. Instead, we should take courage and see through this stressful time together.”
That is in fact what many Singaporeans are doing he says, adding that public leaders and volunteers have stepped forward to help distribute masks to households. He acknowledges their efforts big and small. “University students are delivering food daily to schoolmates confined to their dorms on leave of absence. Healthcare workers are on the frontline, treating patients in hospitals and clinics, and helping them get well again. Business federations, unions, public transport workers, are going the extra mile to maintain services, take care of workers, and keep Singapore running,” he enumerates.
“They are inspirations to all of us. This is what it means to be Singaporean. This is who we are,” he says. “Let us stay united and resolute in this new coronavirus outbreak. Take sensible precautions. Help one another. Stay calm, and carry on with our lives.”