Sunday 27 October 2013

Pandemics have huge impact on economy: Expert

They can lead to irrational individual, corporate and national behaviour, he says
By Salma Khalik, The Straits Times, 26 Oct 2013

A PANDEMIC is not just a health problem. The economic impact can be "profound", a conference held in Singapore heard yesterday.

For example, the 2003 SARS outbreak infected more than 8,000 people and killed 774, but it also cost the world $50 billion.

"There were massive economic consequences for a disease that killed relatively few people," Professor Richard Coker said in his keynote speech to the 9th National Security Conference at the Pan Pacific Singapore hotel.

Warning that pandemics will happen again, Prof Coker, a visiting professor at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said they result in "irrational individual, corporate and national behaviour".

"They may result in limited public health consequences, but profound economic, social and political consequences," he said.

"These are more likely in highly-developed, interconnected societies."

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong agreed. Quoting World Bank estimates, he said a severe flu pandemic could cost the world $3 trillion, or a 5 per cent drop in global gross domestic product.

The threat of another pandemic is very real, he added, though Singapore is far better prepared to cope with one today than it was a decade ago when SARS hit.

Then, the Republic had so few isolation rooms that "makeshift cabin wards" had to be built.

Public hospitals now have almost 400 isolation rooms.

"There are also 48 infectious disease physicians, triple the number of a decade ago," Mr Gan added.

However, he warned against complacency: "There could be new challenges and we must be prepared to change our plans."

The Government and many companies have continuity plans in place, and Mr Gan told the 500 business leaders at the conference that in times of a pandemic they must not just look at their bottom lines.

They need to "be empathetic and have the moral courage to do the right thing, given their responsibility of ensuring that their employees and colleagues are always safe and looked after", he said.

Mr Gan told the media later: "Generally, our companies are very socially responsible, and do step forward to help with goods, transport and medical supplies.

"They know that we're all in it together. If society and the nation recovers quickly, it'll help them too."

The minister also shared a revised colour-coded Disease Outbreak Response Condition guide telling Singaporeans what to do depending on a pandemic's severity.

The previous version was "hardwired" to the spread of a pandemic.

The new one also takes into account both the spread of the disease and its severity. It can therefore be used for both mild and severe diseases, and Mr Gan urged businesses to adapt the same flexibility in their contingency plans.

Prof Coker approved of the guide and said Singapore's pandemic continuity plan is "one of the best in the world" - possibly because of its experience with SARS. Plus, Singapore "is a risk-averse society".

He said: "People here place great importance on being 'safe' and when that safety is threatened, it raises anxiety."

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