The ongoing coronavirus outbreak is the real test to Singapore's social cohesion and psychological resilience, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a speech on Saturday (Feb. 8).
In his speech, PM Lee said that fear can do more harm than the virus itself, and urged Singaporeans to stay calm in the face of the situation.
He also reassured Singaporeans that there is no need to stock up on essential supplies, as Singapore possesses ample supplies.
However, he also warned that if the situation worsens, Singapore may have to reconsider its strategy.
Singaporeans are "psychologically better prepared"
According to PM Lee, the government is better prepared to deal with the novel coronavirus, after going through the SARS crisis in 2003.
The government has an adequate supply of masks and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and has expanded and upgraded medical facilities, including the new National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID).
Singapore also possesses more advanced research capabilities to study the virus, and have more well-trained doctors and nurses compared to 17 years ago.
PM Lee also said that Singaporeans are "psychologically better prepared", as they know what to expect and how to react to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
"Most importantly, having overcome SARS once, we know that we can pull through this too," he said.
Singapore has ample supplies, no need to stock up on essentials
While the novel coronavirus may be similar to SARS, there are two important differences, according to PM Lee.
The new virus is more infectious than SARS, he said, making it harder to stop it from spreading.
PM Lee also said that the coronavirus is also "much less dangerous than SARS," stating that in terms of mortality, the new virus is much closer to influenza than SARS.
"About 10 per cent of those who caught SARS died. With the new virus, outside of Hubei province, the mortality rate is so far only 0.2 per cent", he said.
In his speech, PM Lee reminded the public to stay calm, as the government is not intending to lock down the city, or to confine the public to stay at home.
He also reassured Singaporeans that Singapore has ample supplies, so there is no need to stock up with essential supplies such as instant noodles, tinned food, or toilet paper, citing the rush for supplies witnessed at several supermarkets yesterday.
Singaporeans should not panic as DORSCON has been raised to Orange before
According to PM Lee, most of the confirmed cases of coronavirus in Singapore either originated from China, or can be traced to visitors from China.
He said that when such cases are discovered, the patients will be isolated, and contact tracing will be done, to ensure that close contacts will be quarantined.
While this has contained the spread of the virus and helped stamp out several local clusters, PM Lee also brought up the recent cases which cannot be traced to the source of infection.
He said that these cases were worrying, because it was evidence that the coronavirus was "probably already circulating in our own population".
However, he cited the measures taken by the government since the raising of DORSCON to Orange, which includes reducing mingling in schools and tightening up access to hospitals, and reminded Singaporeans not to panic.
PM Lee also said that he postponed his Chinese New Year Istana Garden Party for grassroots leaders, which was originally meant to be held on Feb. 9.
"We have raised DORSCON to Orange before. You may not remember, but this was in 2009, for the H1N1 swine flu. So there is no need to panic," he said.
Singapore may have to reconsider strategy if things get worse
However, PM Lee also said that he expected to see more cases with no known contacts in the coming days, and that if the numbers keep growing, Singapore will have to reconsider its strategy.
"If the virus is widespread, it is futile to try to trace every contact. If we still hospitalise and isolate every suspect case, our hospitals will be overwhelmed. At that point provided that the fatality rate stays low like flu, we should shift our approach," he said.
PM Lee said that in that scenario, Singaporeans should encourage those who only have mild symptoms to see their family GP and rest at home, freeing up hospitals and healthcare workers to focus on the most vulnerable patients, which are the elderly, young children and those with medical complications.
He reassured Singaporeans that this scenario may not happen, and that he was only sharing this possibility in order for Singaporeans to be mentally prepared for what is to come.
"We are not at that point yet. It may or may not happen, but we are thinking ahead and anticipating the next few steps," he said.
Fear can do more harm than the virus itself
In his speech, PM Lee reassured Singaporeans that he is confident of the medical outcome of this coronavirus outbreak.
He said that most Singaporeans should stay well, and that those who do get ill should expect to recover, citing the fact that those hospitalised thus far are mostly stable or improving.
PM Lee also pointed out that several confirmed cases have already recovered and have been discharged, although a few remain in critical condition.
In fact, he said that the real test of the coronavirus outbreak will be to Singapore's social cohesion and psychological resilience.
He said that although fear and anxiety are natural human reactions, fear can do more harm than the virus itself.
Fear can make the public panic, or do things which makes matters worse, he said, such as circulating rumours online, hoarding face masks or food, or blaming particular groups for the outbreak.
He encouraged Singaporeans to take courage to see through this crisis together, bringing up the examples university students delivering food to schoolmates who are on leave of absence, and the healthcare workers who are on the frontline treating patients in clinics and hospitals.
"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," he added.
Photo courtesy of Ministry of Communications and Information, Jason Fan