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From Economy To Elections: Dr Vivian Balakrishnan On How COVID-19 Will Affect S'pore

Many questions are swimming around as people grapple with uncertainty of the Covid-19 situation.

As the reported number of cases in Singapore climbed into triple digits, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan went on an interview with CNBC last Wednesday (11 March) to talk about how Singapore is dealing with it.

In his interview, he revealed the Government’s position that Singapore needs to “be prepared for the long haul”.

Beyond that, he also addressed the level of risk we are facing, measures being taken, and how Covid-19 may have an impact on other areas like economy and politics.

These are some things we take away from his interview:

How Severe Is The Outbreak We’re Facing?

During the week of Minister Balakrishnan’s interview, the reported number of cases in Singapore began to climb past 150.

As of 15 March, we now have a total number of 226 cases here.

When asked how concerned Singaporeans should be, Minister Balakrishnan’s stance was that we should “remain eternally vigilant”.

Taking precautionary measures like social distancing, identifying cases early, contact tracing, and going into quarantine, he said, is a position we should see ourselves in for at least “one year”.

Speaking based on his background as a doctor, Minister Balakrishnan said it would be “dangerous and wishful” to assume Covid-19 behaves like any previous viruses, or to hope that it will die out during the summer months.

Essentially, it’s a virus that the world is completely new to and we should treat it as such.

Another thing people should acknowledge is that Covid-19 is a global phenomenon. At this point, maps that don’t reveal any cases of infection “probably are indications of a lack of testing”, he said.

He added that mortality rates around the world differ due to the varying adequacy of healthcare systems.

“As long as your healthcare systems are not overwhelmed, we believe you can get mortality rates to about 1 per cent, hopefully even lower,” he said.

So far, Singapore has had zero mortality, but Minister Balakrishnan is against making an assumption that it will surely stay that way.

However, he has spoken to doctors on the frontline who shared that Singapore’s healthcare system has the necessary resources, staff and equipment to handle these current challenges.

We have more than enough capacity for now, and our objective is to make sure that we always stay ahead of the curve.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan

Government Response To Covid-19

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan tells CNBC how Singapore is responding to COVID-19
Image Credit: CNBC

“You know the Singapore Government. We take things very, very seriously. We prepare for the worst,” said Minister Balakrishnan.

That said, some decisions may then raise eyebrows about just how seriously things are being handled — such as allowing the Costa Fortuna cruise ship returning from Italy to dock in Singapore, or keeping schools open despite the outbreak.

In terms of the cruise, the Minister explained that all passengers were tested before they boarded the vessel in Singapore, and cleared once more when they completed their voyage to Italy, before disembarking in Singapore again.

Likewise, he said the authorities are always “keeping tabs” on any residents of Singapore who return from infected countries.

He also encouraged all Singaporeans to eRegister their trips so that it will be easier to keep in touch with them.

Besides our healthcare and economy, he believes the coronavirus is also a test of our social capital as a country, and we have a commitment to “leave no Singaporean behind”.

The Government has not seen a need to close schools yet, which some concerned parents have asked for.

However, if implemented, it will be “just one [out of a whole] suite of measures for social distancing”.

According to Minister Balakrishnan, the key parameter to judge if school closures and other extreme measures are necessary is whether “[our] infection rate will exceed [our] treatment capacity”.

Impact On Elections

Many Singaporeans are wondering how Covid-19 will affect the upcoming General Elections.

(Note: Changes to the electoral boundaries, generally seen as a signal that things are in motion, were announced two days after the CNBC interview.)

Looking at the current situation, Minister Balakrishnan commented that “the election is not the most important thing right now”.

He takes the view that Singapore’s focus should be on overcoming our challenges and getting through this outbreak.

This is a time to focus on delivery, on getting things done. The politics will take care of itself.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan

Are We Headed For A Recession?

While he didn’t directly say we should expect a recession (“That is just a matter of numbers”), Minister Balakrishnan’s response was no attempt to veil the economic impacts we will face.

Just like the timeframe estimated towards the overall outbreak, he said an economic aftermath should also last “at least one year”.

This is considering that unlike Sars which was mostly confined to East Asia, Covid-19 has exploded worldwide.

It took us probably about six months for the economic impact [of Sars] to wear out. This time, it is going to be longer, and it is going to [affect] all countries.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan

Minister Balakrishnan explained how the coronavirus, along with other timely factors, brings about multiple downstream impacts on the economy.

Firstly, the immediate reactions of fear caused a fallout for sectors like tourism, aviation and retail. The next thing to come would be impacts on supply chains and energy.

“My expectation is great volatility economically: [on] equities [and] commodities.”

He was candid that Singaporeans will have to be “psychologically prepared”, and that any course of action taken must be “sustainable and sensible for the long term”.

Beyond current challenges of containing the virus in the next months, he said the Government looking at how to move forward for the year ahead, including how to reboot the economy.

He added that a strong economy is important to healthcare, as it ensures that a country has the resources it needs to devote to healthcare.

Keeping Relations Strong With China And ASEAN

Singapore was “one of the first” countries to restrict travel from China when Covid-19 was emerging.

According to Minister Balakrishnan, this decision had no detriments on Singapore’s relationship with China.

“They understood our unique circumstances as a tiny hyper-connected, trans-shipment and travel hub, [and] why we needed to be even more careful than others,” he said.

On top of that, he said both countries have maintained close communications throughout this ordeal, which allowed Singapore to help develop test kits and supply them to China.

“We are working very closely with China. I can tell you our relations are excellent, based on trust, and based on a long track record of interaction.”

Closer to home, Minister Balakrishnan also commented that ASEAN nations have to be “all in it together”.

Giving some context, he said ASEAN is home to some of the world’s busiest land and air routes, such as Singapore-Kuala Lumpur, Singapore-Jakarta, and Bangkok-Jakarta.

As a lot of travel happens into ASEAN and between ASEAN countries, he considers this a “hot zone”.

He said the members are making a combined effort to share information, capacity, and coordinate measures together.

This virus has shown that it does not respect passports, boundaries, [or] politics. It is time to work together. Finger pointing, making unnecessary comments are not helpful. Let us just get on with it.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan

Featured Image Credit: Rappler

 

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