Monday, 17 February 2020

Budget 2020 to help families with cost of living and businesses tackle COVID-19 fallout: Heng Swee Keat

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat says Budget will have package to help households with daily expenses during coronavirus crisis
By Tee Zhuo, The Straits Times, 17 Feb 2020

Families will get help with daily expenses and firms can look forward to tax rebates in the Budget tomorrow as the nation deals with the economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said in a video message yesterday that the Government will do "all that is necessary" to help workers and firms recover from the health crisis.

"Never doubt that Singapore has the means to bounce back from this outbreak," he added.

Mr Heng, who is also Deputy Prime Minister, said the Budget will have a package to assist households with cost of living to address concerns about expenses during this uncertain period.

Other broad-based measures include wage support to help companies preserve jobs for local workers, and tax rebates and rental waivers for firms to address cash flow issues.

There will also be support to help firms and workers restructure, train and upgrade in preparation for the eventual upturn.

Sectors that have been harder hit, such as the food and beverage and retail industries, will get more help, Mr Heng noted, adding: "With all these additional support measures, you have my assurance that we will rebound from this, never fear."

Mr Heng recorded his video message yesterday at Kallang Fire Station, where he met Singapore Civil Defence Force front-line officers and Team Singapore athletes who were there in support.

In his message, Mr Heng said the outbreak came unexpectedly and has evolved rapidly.

"We are taking a risk-based approach, stepping up safeguards as the situation changes," he said.

For example, Singapore raised its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) to orange on Feb 7 after the first indications of local transmission, and on Friday reactivated its network of 900 Public Health Preparedness Clinics.

The clinics provide subsidised treatment, investigations and drugs during disease outbreaks, for patients with symptoms.

Apart from supporting firms, workers and families, Mr Heng highlighted two other responses to see Singapore through the outbreak: mobilising new capabilities and strengthening social resilience.

First, he noted that capabilities have improved since the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis. These include setting up the National Centre for Infectious Diseases and better healthcare infrastructure and technology.

Investments in research and development, especially in health and biomedical sciences, have also allowed Singapore to respond better to COVID-19, as the viral disease is now known. He cited a new diagnostic kit that local researchers developed just over a week after the viral sequence was available.

Second, Mr Heng stressed the importance of social and psychological resilience in fighting the disease, including personal hygiene, staying updated through credible sources, being socially responsible by staying at home if ill and not panic buying, and caring for others.

"Together, we can overcome this outbreak and emerge stronger and more united, as one people."

Singapore's deep reserves allow it to quickly roll out Budget measures to tackle Coronavirus outbreak, says DPM Heng Swee Keat
By Grace Ho, The Straits Times, 18 Feb 2020

If not for its deep reserves, Singapore could not act quickly and decisively to roll out Budget measures to fight the coronavirus outbreak, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday.

Budget 2020 will include measures that were not on the table a month ago, he noted in a Facebook post on the eve of the Budget.

In highlighting the country's reserves, he said he did not just mean its financial reserves, which give the Government the ability and confidence to mount a robust response to unexpected situations.

He also meant the reserves of strength, resilience, empathy and resourcefulness among public servants and Singaporeans.

"Without these reserves, we would have been much worse off - both financially and psychologically. My team and I would not be able to spend the last few weeks working on the stabilisation and support measures," said Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister.

"We would instead be lying awake trying to project the negative impact of the outbreak, how much of a hit we are going to suffer, rather than what we can do to stabilise our economy and support our people."

The Budget is funded by various sources of income: Taxes and fees, and returns from Singapore's invested reserves, or the Net Investment Returns Contribution (NIRC). The NIRC stood at $17 billion last year.

Noting that Budget details were usually settled "as early as possible", Mr Heng said the same could not be done this year because of the outbreak of the coronavirus disease, known as Covid-19.

Instead, the Ministry of Finance (MOF) had been putting in extra hours to track the fast-evolving situation, listening to Singaporeans' suggestions and coming up with targeted support measures, he said.

"I had really hoped that (the many young officers at MOF) could have a nice Valentine's Day with their loved ones last Friday. Instead, they asked for understanding from their partners, and worked with me through the night and over the weekend," he added.

Mr Heng had said on Sunday the Budget will have a package to assist households with the cost of living.

Other broad-based measures include wage support to help companies preserve jobs for local workers, as well as tax rebates and rental waivers for firms to address cashflow issues.

Recalling in his post the sacrifices made by past generations - from Singapore's first finance minister Goh Keng Swee to the Pioneer and Merdeka generations - he called on Singaporeans to never take for granted the reserves of strength that the nation had built over the years.

"These can be squandered easily. I urge all of you, my fellow Singaporeans, to never forget but treasure what we have inherited."

"Somebody asked me, 'Is the (viral) outbreak a disruption to the Budget?' I thought about this. You could look at it as a disruption, or you could see it as a spur and a test for us," he said.

He urged Singaporeans to show that they can rise to the challenge and be worthy of the generations who came before them, as well as future generations.

Mr Heng added: "I am grateful for the deep reserves we have - of finances, but more importantly of friendship, care, grit. I will do my best to protect and grow these.

"Let's advance as one Singapore, and emerge stronger as one people."

Singapore downgrades 2020 economic growth forecast to -0.5-1.5% on coronavirus impact
By Ovais Subhani and Sue-Ann Tan, The Straits Times, 17 Feb 2020

The Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) on Monday (Feb 17) downgraded its economic growth forecast to between -0.5 and 1.5 per cent - indicating a possible recession - due to a weakened outlook after the outbreak of the coronavirus.

The MTI also said growth is expected to come in at around 0.5 per cent, the mid-point of the forecast range. In November, the MTI forecast economic expansion of between 0.5 and 2.5 per cent for 2020.

Mr Gabriel Lim, permanent secretary for trade and industry, said that the last time Singapore suffered a recession was in 2001, when full year gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by about 1 per cent.

However, he stressed that MTI's baseline view at this point for 2020 is for GDP growth to come in at around 0.5 per cent.

"As the COVID-19 situation is still evolving, there is a significant degree of uncertainty over the length and severity of the outbreak, and hence its overall impact," Mr Lim told a media briefing on Monday.

He also noted that the economy shrank by 0.3 per cent in the second quarter of 2003, amid the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak. Growth bounced back to record a 5.3 per cent expansion in the third quarter, ending full-year 2003 with a positive 4.5 per cent growth, he said.

Mr Edward Robinson, deputy managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), said the central bank was prepared to recalibrate its monetary policy should the outlook of the economy change significantly as a result of the outbreak.

But he reiterated MAS comments on Feb 5 that there is sufficient room within the current policy band to accommodate an easing of the Singapore dollar nominal effective exchange rate (S$NEER) in line with the weakening of economic conditions.

Last Friday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the economy has exceeded that of Sars, and that a recession was possible.

The MTI said its earlier forecasts made in November for growth in 2020 was premised on a modest pickup in global growth, along with a recovery in the global electronics cycle.

"Since then, the outbreak of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has affected China, Singapore and many countries around the world," it said.

"The outlook for the Singapore economy has weakened since the last review in November. In particular, the COVID-19 outbreak is expected to affect the Singapore economy through several channels," said the MTI in a press release.

The ministry said that the economy grew by 0.7 per cent in 2019, the same as its advance estimate and the slowest growth since 2009 when growth stood at just 0.1 per cent.

Growth for the fourth quarter of last year came in at 1.0 per cent year on year, higher than the initial estimate of 0.8 per cent growth and faster than the 0.7 per cent expansion in the third quarter.

On a quarter-on-quarter seasonally adjusted annualised basis, the economy expanded at a slower pace of 0.6 per cent compared to the 2.2 per cent growth in the preceding quarter, it said.

The ministry noted that the virus outbreak is likely to dampen the growth prospects of China and other countries this year.

Economic growth in China in 2020 is expected to come in lower than earlier projected due to a pullback in household consumption as a result of the lockdowns and travel restrictions implemented in several major Chinese cities to contain the spread of the virus, it added.

"Industrial production has also been disrupted because of work stoppages and delays arising from these containment measures," the MTI said.

"These developments in China will, in turn, have a knock-on impact on regional economies, including the Asean economies, through lower outbound tourism and other import demand from China, as well as disruptions to supply chains."

There also could be sharper pullback in global consumption if the outbreak is more severe and protracted than expected.

Domestically, the virus outbreak may hurt the Singapore economy through several channels.

The outward-oriented sectors such as manufacturing and wholesale trade will be affected by the weaker growth outlook in several of Singapore’s key final demand markets, including China.

Companies in these sectors could also be affected by supply chain disruptions arising from prolonged factory closures and labour shortages in China.

The manufacturing sector has already suffered last year, shrinking by 1.4 per cent year on year.

The ministry added that the outbreak has also led to a sharp fall in tourist arrivals, particularly those from China, which has badly affected the tourism sector such as hotels, travel agents and cruise operators, and the aviation industry.

Also, domestic consumption may get a hit as Singaporeans cut back on shopping and dining-out activities - affecting firms in segments such as retail and food services.

However, the MTI said that there are pockets of relative strength in the economy, such as the construction sector, which is projected to post steady growth, given the rebound in construction demand since 2018.

The information and communications sector is also expected to be resilient on account of sustained enterprise demand for IT solutions, the MTI said.

But besides the virus outbreak, other uncertainties such as the trade war between the United States and China remain.

"Notwithstanding the phase one trade deal, US-China trade relations remain uncertain, especially as they turn to more contentious issues in the next phase of their negotiations," the MTI said.

Geopolitical tensions in the Middle East could also affect financial and commodity markets, which will have negative spillover effects on the region and Singapore, it added.

The growth outlook for the US and euro zone economies in 2020 remains broadly unchanged.

The MTI said: "As the COVID-19 (coronavirus) situation is still evolving, MTI will continue to monitor developments and their impact on the Singapore economy closely."

Coronavirus: Singapore hotel occupancy tumbles to under 50%
At Sentosa, rates have dipped below 30%; situation expected to worsen across Republic
By Joyce Lim, Senior Correspondent, The Straits Times, 17 Feb 2020

Singapore's hotel occupancy rate is in free fall, plummeting from nearly 100 per cent just before Chinese New Year to below the 50 per cent mark in the week of Feb 9.

It is expected to drop even further, said analysts and hotel operators. The impact of the coronavirus outbreak was most felt by hotels in Sentosa, which have seen rates dip below 30 per cent.

The decline began on Jan 25, two days after the Ministry of Health (MOH) revealed that Singapore's first coronavirus case, a 66-year-old tourist from Wuhan who was travelling with nine companions, had stayed at Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa hotel. Another Wuhan tourist confirmed to have the virus had stayed at Village Hotel Sentosa.

As at Feb 9, occupancy rates in Sentosa had fallen to 27 per cent, according to data from global data and benchmarking firm STR. Last year, the average hotel occupancy in Singapore was 85.2 per cent, according to STR data.

STR's Asia-Pacific area director Jesper Palmqvist noted that Orchard Road hotels have also been hard hit.

"For the Orchard sub-market, we saw occupancy levels fall a few days later down to 47 per cent on Feb 9, which is not surprising since Singapore had by then raised the Dorscon level to orange," he said.

On Feb 7, MOH moved the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) level to orange amid indications that the virus was spreading in the community.

"Since the orange warning, we are seeing another downward trend, and on Feb 9, Singapore reported 49 per cent occupancy. Last week, it was fluctuating between 45 and 50 per cent," said Mr Palmqvist.

The Singapore Tourism Board estimated that daily tourist arrivals are down by about 20,000.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last week that a recession is possible, noting that the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the economy has exceeded that of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003.

OCBC Bank chief economist Selena Ling said that with the Chinese accounting for a fifth of all visitors to Singapore, how quickly Singapore recovers will depend on how long the outbreak in China lasts, when travel restrictions will be lifted and flights will resume, said Ms Ling.

Mr Arthur Kiong, chief executive of Far East Hospitality which operates more than 10 hotels in Singapore, expects business to be affected further, but said the full scale of the impact is yet to be known at this point.

Said Mr Kiong: "With China making up about 20 per cent of our market, this portion of our business has been wiped out from the onset as a result of the travel restrictions. With the situation still evolving, (visitors from) the other markets are also expected to drop due to lower travel confidence at the moment."

After the virus outbreak, hotel operators have implemented precautionary measures such as temperature screenings, providing masks for those who are unwell and increasing the cleaning and sanitising frequency of guest rooms. Many hotels have also allowed cancellations and given full refunds to visitors.

Hotels are also making contingency allowance for its Mice (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) customers. This includes Grand Hyatt Singapore, which was thrown into the spotlight after at least five coronavirus cases in three countries were linked to a business event held there last month.

Mr Gerald Kheng, the hotel's marketing communications manager, said: "We are also working closely with event organisers to explore all possible alternatives including postponement of event or reduction of group size, and look at the requests on a case-by-case basis."

Mrs Anuttra Kiangsiri from Thailand, who was planning a trip to Singapore with her husband this week, said she has been following news of the rising number of coronavirus cases in Singapore and felt the risk was too high to take to travel here.

"We were looking forward to our trip so much, but felt it was best to cancel due to the current coronavirus situation and the uncertainty surrounding it on a daily basis," said the 46-year-old housewife.

Coronavirus more like H1N1 than Sars: Lawrence Wong
This seems to be the case based on what is known about it so far, says minister
By Salma Khalik, Senior Health Correspondent, The Straits Times, 17 Feb 2020

Code orange was declared only once in Singapore, prior to the present coronavirus outbreak.

That was in 2009, when the world was hit by the H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic. The virus was first detected in humans in the United States in April 2009, though it is now said to have originated in Mexico.

Singapore had its first imported case in May that year and the first local transmission was detected the following month. Within a month of that, 100 people were infected with the H1N1 virus.

In less than a year, about 430,000 people in Singapore were estimated to have had been infected with H1N1, and 21 people died from the disease.

There are no accurate global figures, but millions were infected and estimates of deaths caused by H1N1 range from 150,000 to 575,000 in the first year.

Faced with a global pandemic, Singapore moved the alert level from yellow to orange in a matter of three to four days. But as more information emerged, it was stepped down to yellow in 12 days - even before the first case appeared here.

Singapore set up the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition, the colour-coded Dorscon, after the severe acute respiratory syndrome or Sars outbreak in 2003.

Had it existed then, Sars would also have been at code orange, said Mr Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force dealing with the current coronavirus outbreak.

On Friday, he said COVID-19 is more like the H1N1 flu in 2009 than Sars in 2003.

During Sars, people got very sick very quickly. Out of 238 people infected by Sars in Singapore in under four months, 33 died.

But COVID-19 appears to be infectious when the symptoms are mild, like H1N1, said Mr Wong, who is National Development Minister.

For H1N1, the country was on heightened alert at a very early stage, before the virus was even here.

For COVID-19, the move to yellow came only when local transmission occurred - and close to a fortnight after the first imported case was diagnosed.

The move to orange came after there were cases with unknown local sources of infection. Code orange has been in force now for 11 days, and looks set to continue for some time.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) has said that it has no plans to move the alert level to red, the next step up, which signals widespread community contagion.

But before the Dorscon was activated, measures were in place to prevent the import and spread of the virus. As Mr Wong has pointed out several times, the colour codes are fixed but the implementation of measures can be flexible.

The reason for moving back to yellow so quickly in the case of the H1N1 outbreak was that by then, information on the virus indicated a very low rate of mortality. With that known, it was no longer necessary to maintain high vigilance.

At the height of the H1N1 outbreak, doctors here were seeing more than 2,000 cases of H1N1 flu a day. Yet deaths were limited to 21 in the first nine months.

The virus is still circulating today. The fatality rate for H1N1, at possibly less than 0.02 per cent, is close to that of seasonal influenza, of which it is now a part.

COVID-19, however, appears to be more deadly, with a fatality rate of 2.6 per cent in Hubei in China, and 0.6 per cent elsewhere. But these figures are subject to changes daily.

So while people infected with either virus may spread the disease even when their symptoms are mild, the fatality rate may be far higher in the case of COVID-19. This is why Singapore is still in code orange.

Mr Wong said COVID-19 is milder than Sars, which had a 10 per cent mortality: "It is not a mild illness at all, but certainly not of the severity of Sars."

He added: "To give this some perspective, if you look at H1N1 and the flu pandemic in 2009, 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the global population contracted the illness."

The same may not happen with COVID-19, he said. "But because the transmission patterns are similar to H1N1, we should be prepared for a scenario where you get wider transmission around the world," he said.

Should the majority of cases, say 80 per cent, be mild, then Singapore's strategy will move away from contact tracing and quarantine, he said. Instead, the milder cases will be dealt with by primary care doctors and only the very sick will be hospitalised.

But Mr Wong cautioned: "It's the strategy we used to deal with H1N1. Again we are not saying we are there yet."

5 turning points in Singapore’s fight against the coronavirus
It has been seven weeks since the world learnt of a new coronavirus that emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. It has killed more than 1,500 people so far in China. In that time, the Singapore Government has rolled out a steady stream of measures to curb its spread here.
By Sumiko Tan, Executive Editor, The Sunday Times, 16 Feb 2020

At the Criminal Investigation Department's Command Centre in Outram last Thursday afternoon, 20 police officers were hunched in front of their computers, trying to make sense of how the coronavirus is spreading in Singapore.

Working with the Ministry of Health (MOH) - which is in charge of contact tracing - as well as detectives on the ground, they are helping to piece together the movements of those infected.

People who had been in close contact with a patient will be traced. If they are well, they will be put under quarantine for 14 days. If they show symptoms, they will be treated as a suspected case, hospitalised and looked after.

The officers are part of the government machinery that has kicked in to manage the outbreak.

Their mission: treat patients, contain the spread, allay the fears of Singaporeans and help businesses that have been hit.

Outside the public sector, thousands have also been mobilised to the front lines.

They include private general practitioners who are often the first medical contact a patient has, security firms helping to serve quarantine orders, cleaners who disinfect places that patients had been to, and even religious leaders who have control over mass gatherings.


The coronavirus emerged in Wuhan late last year. On Dec 31, the Chinese health authorities reported it to the World Health Organisation (WHO), which then told the world.

WHO has since named the virus Sars-CoV-2. The disease it brings - characterised by fever and cough and in severe cases, pneumonia that can be fatal - is now called COVID-19.

As of Friday, China has more than 66,400 reported cases with 1,523 reported deaths, mostly in the province of Hubei where Wuhan is.

Globally, there are more than 67,000 reported cases and, outside of China, four reported deaths. As of yesterday, Singapore has 72 confirmed cases.

It has been three weeks of heightened caution and nervousness for the Republic since the first case here was discovered on Jan 23, the Thursday before the long Chinese New Year weekend.

In that time, Singaporeans have gone from being concerned to alarmed, to now accepting, with a growing sense of realisation that the virus will be around for some months yet.

There were irrational moments, like last Saturday when shoppers were seized by fear that Singapore would run out of toilet paper and other essentials, and emptied supermarket shelves.

Officers from Reach, the Government's feedback gathering unit, have been talking to Singaporeans about the virus from around the Chinese New Year period.

The team of about 25 officers do face-to-face interviews in places ranging from the heartland to universities. They also conduct online polls and gather people to chat via WhatsApp.

Officers say there is very high interest in the virus, with people eager to find out more.

Mr Marcius Sim, 27, an assistant manager at Reach, said: "People aren't always willing to talk to us, but now with the virus, they are happy to give feedback."

There are three concerns the Reach officers keep hearing: fear of contracting the virus, worry that more people will get it, and its impact on the economy and businesses.

Ms Hillary Lau, 28, also an assistant manager at Reach, said a common sentiment she hears in the 200 or so face-to-face interviews she has done, is this: "I just want this to be over soon."


There have been five key dates in Singapore's fight against the virus so far:

• Jan 23 when the first case - a 66-year-old man from Wuhan - was detected here.

• Jan 28 when a travel ban was imposed on visitors with recent travel history to Hubei, or those with Chinese passports issued there.

• Feb 1 when travel restrictions were expanded to include those with recent travel history to China, or those who have Chinese passports.

• Feb 4 when the first locally transmitted cases were announced.

• Feb 7 when the Government raised its risk assessment of the outbreak from yellow to orange.

The first case here emerged a day after the setting up of the multi-ministerial task force to contain the virus.

Helmed by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, the group is advised by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who is also Finance Minister.

The task force has held several press conferences together with medical experts from MOH. Starting last week, these briefings became more frequent.

Up until the Chinese New Year weekend from Jan 25, Singaporeans were concerned about the virus but not overly so.

The early cases were confined to tourists from China whose movements were largely around touristy areas.

On Jan 27, however, it was reported that one of the visitors from Wuhan had stayed with her family in the residential Ceylon Road.

The next day came news that a male patient from Wuhan had stayed in a condominium in Pasir Ris. The virus, it appeared, had moved to the heartland.

In the days that followed, stories of suspected cases at malls with GP clinics started being shared.

At pharmacies, the demand for face masks began to escalate. As people shared images of queues, it had a knock-on effect and more started queuing, despite reassurances by the Government that it had released five million masks to retailers.

At online mall Qoo10, a listing advertised 30 "anti-coronavirus" masks for sale at $10,000. It was removed on Jan 29.

The Government knew something had to be done to stem the feverish demand for masks.

On Jan 30, it announced that all 1.37 million households will be given four surgical masks each from Feb 1. It also drummed into Singaporeans the message that only those who were sick should wear a mask.

The Singapore Armed Forces was activated to pack the masks and logistics were put in place to distribute them at residents' committee centres and community centres.

The move calmed the panic. When the actual distribution of masks started on Feb 1, there were no queues.


By the weekend of Feb 1, it was also becoming clear that fear of the virus was turning into discrimination against Chinese nationals.

Stories started emerging of how Singaporean landlords were telling their Chinese tenants returning from the new year to stay away.

The Government nipped this in the bud.

On Feb 3, the Manpower, Education and National Development ministries said landlords found to have irresponsibly evicted their residents may face restrictions and even be barred from renting out their flats to foreign work pass holders in future.

On the business front, it was also clear that the travel restrictions to stem the spread of the virus were hurting businesses, especially those in the tourism industry.

On Feb 1, DPM Heng said the Government would provide targeted support to sectors directly affected by the virus.

The next day, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said the Singapore Tourism Board will be implementing targeted measures such as waiving the licence fees for hotels.

As these measures were being rolled out, the Government was also preparing the ground for the possibility of local community spread.

On Feb 3, Mr Gan spoke of this. The next day, it was announced that Singapore had seen its first local transmission of the virus.

Four people connected to the Yong Thai Hang health products shop in Cavan Road were infected without having travelled to China. Their infection, though, could be traced to a Chinese tour group that had visited the shop. The authorities termed this a "local limited transmission".

Following this case, the task force decided that schools would implement staggered recess times and stop certain activities.

On the ground, people started becoming more fearful of picking up the virus. Cleaning products were snapped up at shops.


On Feb 7, rumours went around that the Government would be raising its risk assessment from yellow to orange. True enough, this was announced at a press conference in the afternoon.

Under the orange alert, temperature taking is instituted at buildings. The Ministry of Education also suspended all inter-school and external activities till the end of the March school holidays.

The alert, however, led to a round of frenzied shopping at supermarkets from Feb 7 through to the next day. Some calm was restored on the evening of Feb 8 when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed the nation in a video telecast.

He spoke of how Singapore was much better prepared to deal with the new virus because of its experience in tackling the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak 17 years ago. Fear and panic, he said, would do more harm than the virus.

The team from Reach said its surveys showed that 80 per cent of those who heard PM Lee's message felt more reassured by it.

In the last few days, another large cluster has emerged around the Grace Assembly of God church. Across the island today, mass and some services have been cancelled as a precautionary e measure.

It is clear the current orange alert may be around for some months yet.

On Friday, PM Lee noted that what Singapore is seeing is a "very intense outbreak" and the impact of the coronavirus was much more than Sars. It took five months to eradicate Sars.

"That was, I think, very fast. I expect it not to be so fast this time," he said of the new threat.

Like the rest of the world, Singapore will have to learn to deal with the coronavirus till it, hopefully, goes away.

Fighting the coronavirus, with openness and information
Fostering confidence and trust in public institutions over the years has helped enable Singapore to respond sensibly to the present outbreak
By Warren Fernandez, Editor-in-Chief, The Sunday Times, 16 Feb 2020

It was just before noon, but The Straits Times newsroom was deserted.

The multimedia hub - the operational nerve centre of the revamped ST newsroom - usually abuzz with activity, had fallen silent. Only a handful of my colleagues were about, staring intently at their screens.

Like in many organisations across the island, most of our staff had been told to stay at home, after we made a decision to move into a virtual, distributed mode of operations.

The purpose: To ensure that ST would be able to continue to serve our readers, with the latest news and analysis, across all our platforms, come what may, as the coronavirus outbreak unfolds.

If you have not noticed any difference to your paper or our website, that is thanks to the efforts of the ST team, working doubly hard to stay connected despite the disrupted operations, through a flurry of phone calls and Google Hangout sessions. Reporters continue to do their jobs, with precautions, filing remotely from the field.

In times like these, with so much fake news swirling about, people look to trusted sources of information to help them make sense of developments and how to respond. Indeed, ST's page and video views have seen a surge these past weeks.

Information - timely, reliable and trusted - might be the best antidote to an outbreak, both of viruses and viral rumours, and the panic and anxiety these can engender.

In the absence of this, the vacuum is inevitably filled by falsehoods and misinformation, spread deliberately or otherwise.

To try to counter these, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chair the COVID-19 response task force, have been tireless in addressing queries from the media, openly and transparently, with briefings held almost daily in recent weeks.

Their explanations have been detailed and nuanced, rather than trying to oversimplify the complexities of the situation.

Take, for example, the burning question of whether to wear a mask or not.

Now, the idea that donning a mask might help keep the bug at bay seems intuitive. After all, some barrier should be better than none.

Yet, the authorities here have taken the harder line to explain - that while a mask might be useful in some circumstances, such as when you are sick, wearing one when you are not does not provide all that much of a defence, since the virus is more likely to be picked up when you touch your face with your hands, which might have come into contact with droplets of the virus left on surfaces around you.

The stocks of masks, which can't possibly be infinite, might then be better used by those who need them most - healthcare workers and those who are ill.

To my mind, while this might be harder to communicate, it makes for greater credibility in our public health officials' statements. Similar positions have been taken by top medical officials in the United States, Australia and elsewhere.

Then, there is Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who drew attention from the foreign media for the frank and direct way in which he addressed Singaporeans on the outbreak recently.

A report by the Bloomberg news agency, titled "As Asia panics, one country wins praise for approach to virus", said: "The speech, posted on social media in three languages, appeared to have an immediate impact: The long queues at supermarkets throughout the city-state on Friday night returned to normal levels as of Sunday.

"That alone proved notable in a region where governments have struggled to get the message right, spurring panic buying and confusion over how to protect themselves from the outbreak."

In his video message, PM Lee went on to alert Singaporeans to the possibility that the present approach of trying to contain the virus might need to be changed at some point if it was found to be spreading widely in the community, without traceable sources.

An alternative stance of mitigation might then be more appropriate, with mild cases sent home to recuperate, allowing hospitals to focus on those who were most at risk. But this depended on the mortality rate of the virus remaining relatively low, closer to the seasonal flu rather than the higher rates seen during the Sars outbreak, he made plain.

This tell-it-like-it-is-to-the-grown-ups approach prompted Professor Thomas Abraham, author of Twenty First Century Plague, The Story Of Sars, and a risk communication consultant for the World Health Organisation, to note in the Bloomberg report: "Prime Minister Lee does not hide any facts. Nor does he hesitate to talk about how the situation might worsen."

Now, set this against the recent study by Harvard University, which modelled how the outbreak might be expected to play out, given the region's strong business and travel links to China.

Alarmed by what they saw, they warned that there might be further waves of the current outbreak as countries such as Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand had reported lower number of cases than might be expected.

"Indonesia has reported zero cases and you would expect to have seen several already," said Professor Marc Lipsitch of Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who co-authored the study, which Indonesian officials dismissed as "insulting".

Similarly, in Japan, experts are warning of a "stealth outbreak" with patients having been infected by some whom they are unable to trace, as all efforts to do so run into a dead end for a lack of information on possible sources, including perhaps those from abroad.

Then, there is China, which has drawn much flak for its initial efforts to downplay the severity of the outbreak.

For weeks, experts said they feared that the numbers of infections and deaths being reported were a gross underestimate - perhaps by as much as tenfold - with reports emerging of sick patients being sent home because of a lack of facilities to test them, potentially spreading the disease to their families and those around then.

Then, out of the blue, came news on Thursday that some Chinese provinces had decided to revise their numbers. One, near Russia, is reported to have cut its numbers by reclassifying patients who had tested positive for the coronavirus but did not have symptoms, taking them out of the total count of confirmed cases.

"The documents offered little detail or explanation, and scepticism was immediate. A Hong Kong newspaper called the decision a 'disguise'," reported The New York Times.

Meanwhile, in Hubei, the epicentre of the current outbreak, officials went the other way. They announced that nearly 15,000 new cases and 242 new deaths were recorded in a single day. This was largely because the authorities decided to accept doctors' "clinical confirmation" of cases suspected to have the virus, without the need for a lab test, since these were in short supply.

While many experts from around the world welcomed the move since it enabled patients who needed medical care to receive it, doubts were inevitably raised about the numbers and the motives behind these sudden revisions.

"It's pretty clear that there is an issue with trust about whatever the Chinese government comes out with at the moment," Professor Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King's College, London, was quoted as saying.

"That may be terribly unfair," he said, adding: "To redefine things - even legitimately - at a moment like this is always going to be a presentational challenge, because people are going to be very sensitive, and they're going to suspect there's another agenda."

For its part, Singapore's Health Ministry has said it sees no reason to change its protocols and will continue to classify people as having coronavirus only after a lab test, given that its capacity to carry out such tests remains robust.

The upshot of this is clear: trust is critical, especially in a crisis, which could be exacerbated if the public loses confidence in those charged with managing it.

But trust cannot be whipped up on demand, nor can it be mandated or handed down. As in a bank account, trust has to be earned, painstakingly chalked up over the years, to be available to be drawn on when the chips are down.

And let's be clear: The main beneficiaries of such high-trust societies or systems are not just the political players or public officials, but also the community itself, as it enables everyone to take practical steps on the basis of what is most sensible and sound.

Those who seek to undermine that trust, for whatever reasons, and beat the "drums" - as Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen put it, spreading distortions, rumours, untruths, misinformation and smears - are the ones that society most needs inoculation against, in good times and in bad.

Thankfully, by most accounts, Singapore has managed to foster trust in its key institutions - the political leadership, public services and also the media - in large part because of the open and transparent way it has dealt with such crises in the past.

This was on display, for example, during the Sars outbreak in 2003, when many of us journalists would recall how then Health Minister Lim Hng Kiang would sit patiently answering each and every question reporters threw at him late into the evening, until everyone in the room ran out of steam.

"There was nothing to hide, so it's best to be open," he said with a laugh, when I asked him about his approach some time afterwards.

Wittingly or otherwise, Mr Lim and his successors have been drawing on an old playbook that was first framed by Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Indeed, some years ago, when my colleagues Han Fook Kwang, Sumiko Tan and I were working on the book, Lee Kuan Yew: The Man And His Ideas, we chanced upon a speech in which Mr Lee spoke on how best to deal with a major outbreak of disease in Singapore.

He was addressing community leaders on the 1967 swine flu. Wild rumours had spread that men who ate meat from pigs that had been inoculated against the disease might lose their manhood, quite literally, causing a panic. (Fake news, even then.)

Mr Lee declared: "In other parts of the world, when their pigs suffer from swine flu, they hush it up. They pretend they do not have it. Net result: All pigs get infected, the position becomes permanently chronic.

"We can do likewise, but we will become a permanently chronic society: sick. So when we get swine fever, we announce it, alert everyone so that we can arrest the spread of the disease and bring back normalcy."

Ever one to rally his people, he added that Singapore had to keep pressing forward, come what may.

"This is what is required of this community... we must have an awareness of the realities of life. A good striving, hardy people cannot be kept down."

Ministry of Health - Updates on COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) Local Situation 2019 - COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) situation in Singapore

2019 Novel Coronavirus: Ministerial Statement on Whole-of-Government Response

Wuhan virus: Singapore confirms first case of novel coronavirus infection on 23 January 2020

Wuhan virus: Singapore has to stay vigilant, but has every reason to be confident, says PM Lee Hsien Loong

Wuhan virus: Each Singapore household to get 4 free masks for contingencies; collection starts on 1 Feb till 9 Feb 2020

2019-nCoV: Singapore reports first cases of local coronavirus transmission on 4 February 2020

2019-nCoV: Singapore employers will receive $100 a day for each worker serving the 14-day Leave of Absence (LOA)

DORSCON Orange: Singapore raises coronavirus outbreak alert on 7 February 2020; Singaporeans clear supermarket shelves in panic buying of essentials

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COVID-19: Clinics roped in to help detect and manage coronavirus cases from 18 February 2020

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