With 50 confirmed coronavirus cases, among the highest worldwide outside of China, Singapore’s management of the health emergency is shaping into a key test for the city-state’s political leadership ahead of a soon anticipated general election.
While the wealthy island nation has won wide praise for its containment effort, seen in free face mask distribution and cash allowances for those in quarantine, it has not yet immunized Singaporeans against panic and fear.
Long queues formed in supermarkets as shoppers cleared shelves of toilet paper, instant noodles and rice in a spree of panic buying on February 7 after authorities raised the nation’s disease outbreak alert level to “orange” following an uptick in cases involving local transmission of the disease to people with no travel history to China.
DBS, Singapore’s biggest bank, was forced to evacuate 300 staff from its headquarters at the Marina Bay Financial Center on February 12 after an employee tested positive for coronavirus. The bank said it was conducting contact tracing in relation to the infected employee, while evacuated staff have been advised to work from home.
In a national address lauded by public health experts for level-headed risk communication, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sought to reassure Singaporeans that the city-state remained adequately prepared to deal with the epidemic while cautioning that “fear can do more harm than the virus itself.”
Singapore, which enjoys close bilateral and economic relations with China, was one of the world’s first countries to ban the entry of foreigners arriving from mainland China. Economists are forecasting a heavy blow to the city-state’s bellwether, trade-dependent economy.
After an apparent lull in the number of new cases, China’s Hubei province – the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic – confirmed on Thursday a rise in both new cases and deaths, totaling over 59,500 and 1,300 respectively. The world’s second-largest economy continues to be paralyzed by containment measures and travel restrictions.
Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University (SMU), said Singapore’s island-wide panic buying was a “classic example” of fear spreading faster than the virus itself, a display that he said “raises serious questions about our social resilience, even if it was an aberration.”
“It was perhaps a reflection of people not trusting others enough rather not trusting the government. Singaporeans gauging of and reaction to the threat level did surprise me,” said Tan. “But overall, there is trust and confidence that the government is equal to the task of dealing with the outbreak.”
A 49-year-old financial sector worker in Singapore’s central business district broadly approved of the government’s handling of the outbreak. “Our prime minister has done a good job to assure the public that there is no need for panic buying and that our supplies are enough. No need to worry,” he said.
Singapore last raised its so-called Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) alert level to orange during the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak, which killed 33 people in Singapore, and the 2009 H1N1 influenza.
A category red alert, the highest risk level, would be declared in the event of a severe, highly contagious pandemic.
“What I’m worried about is travels from Singapore to elsewhere if the Dorscon level goes to red,”a 36-year-old IT engineer told Asia Times. “We have business in other countries, so that might have a significant impact in our travels for the next few months, even personal travels as well.”
Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, this week imposed a mandatory 14-day quarantine order on all travelers from Singapore. Several countries, including South Korea, Israel, Qatar and Kuwait, have strongly advised against or warned their citizens not to travel to the Southeast Asian financial hub.
Grocery chains in Singapore visited by Asia Times remain well-stocked, though demand remains high for toilet paper, instant noodles and rice. Surgical face masks, thermometers and hand sanitizer were out-of-stock at grocer FairPrice and pharmacies Watsons and Guardian.
Unable to meet high demand, online grocers such as RedMart showed no available delivery slots. “Over the last few days, we’ve seen demand exceed 300% of our weekly average, including atypical orders such as a single purchase that exceeded 800 [kilograms],” the company said in an online statement.
Temperature screenings have been introduced at some office buildings, hotels, immigration checkpoints and events such as the Singapore Airshow 2020, which went ahead as planned on February 11 with lower visitor numbers reported compared to previous years. A health ministry advisory recommended that non-essential large-scale events should be deferred or cancelled.
In his address, Lee did not shy away from the possibility of a worsening viral outbreak. “If the numbers keep growing, at some point we will have to reconsider our strategy,” said the premier. Singapore has so far used contact tracing to “ring-fence” clusters where local transmission has occurred to prevent the virus from spreading.
The city-state’s health ministry has incentivized quarantine by offering an allowance scheme of S$100 (US$70) per day to employers with workers in isolation and the self-employed. Nearly 900 people are under a 14-day quarantine in Singapore. Those who flout quarantine orders can reportedly be fined as much as S$10,000 (US$7,200) and jailed for up to six months.
Should the contagion become widespread locally, Lee said the city-state would opt to hospitalize only the most vulnerable patients such as the elderly, young children, and those with medical complications, to ensure local hospitals are not overwhelmed by patients experiencing milder symptoms.
“We are not at that point yet. It may or may not happen, but we are thinking ahead and anticipating the next few steps,” said Lee, who has led Singapore since 2004 and is expected to retire after the coming polls. “I am sharing these possibilities with you, so that we are all mentally prepared for what may come.”
“This viral outbreak is a severe test for the government, especially the fourth generation leadership,” said SMU’s Tan, referring to the cadre of younger ministers that will helm the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) – Southeast Asia’s longest-governing incumbent party – after the 67-year-old Lee steps down.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, Lee’s anointed successor, heads a ministerial task force responsible for managing the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Heng, who is also finance minister, will deliver the 2020 budget statement on February 18 and is expected to unveil relief measures for the hard-hit transport and tourism sectors.
“How the government performs will directly impact, in a significant way, on the votes in the upcoming general election for the ruling party,” Tan told Asia Times. The next general election must be held by April 2021, though speculation had been rife prior to the coronavirus outbreak that a snap poll would soon be called.
If Singapore’s color-coded alert system is raised to red, however, polling could conceivably be delayed, Tan believes. “Elections plans will have to be put off indefinitely because there are other pressing priorities – not least of which is preserving lives. Clearly, at red alert, the blowback from the crisis can be significant,” he said.
Irvin Seah, a senior economist with DBS Bank in Singapore, believes the potential economic impact of the new coronavirus could be worse than what the city-state experienced during the SARS epidemic – which in 2003 saw its second quarter gross domestic product (GDP) fall by 0.3% – given the far-closer economic links since forged with China.
China represents Singapore’s largest tourism market, accounting for around 19% of total visitor arrivals, as well as its largest non-oil domestic export market, accounting for 17.3% of all shipments in 2019. Seah forecasts a 0.5% reduction of Singapore’s full-year GDP growth, with a double-digit decline expected to impact the tourism sector.
“We expect a decline of about one million tourists or about S$1 billion ($719.9 million) of lost tourism receipts for every three months of travel ban,” said the DBS economist. “Supply chain disruptions such as extended factory closures within China, will have significant impact on Singapore’s manufacturing sector.”
After a bruising 2019 in which Singapore’s open, export-reliant economy narrowly sidestepped a fourth quarter recession, pre-virus projections of a more buoyant 2020 are now being revised down. “We have lowered our full-year GDP growth forecast to 0.9%, down from 1.4% previously,” Seah said.