We have faced the new coronavirus situation for about two weeks now.
The Ministerial Task Force, advised by DPM Heng Swee Keat, has been leading the Government’s response to this outbreak. They have been dealing with new developments every day, and holding regular press briefings to keep Singaporeans informed every step of the way. Today, I want to speak to you directly, to explain where we are, and what may lie ahead.
We went through SARS 17 years ago, so we are much better prepared to deal with nCoV this time. Practically, we have stockpiled adequate supplies of masks and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). We have expanded and upgraded our medical facilities, including the new National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID). We have more advanced research capabilities to study the virus. We have more well trained doctors and nurses to deal with this situation. We are psychologically better prepared too. Singaporeans know what to expect, and how to react. Most importantly, having overcome SARS once, we know that we can pull through this too.
The new coronavirus is similar to SARS, but with two important differences. First, the new virus is more infectious than SARS. Therefore it is harder to stop it from spreading. Second, the new virus is much less dangerous 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. In comparison, seasonal influenza has a death rate of 0.1 per cent. So in terms of mortality, the new virus is much closer to influenza than SARS.
But the situation is still evolving. Every day brings new developments, and we have to respond promptly and dynamically. So far, most of our cases have either been imported from China, or can be traced to imported cases. When we discover them, we have isolated the patients, done contact tracing and quarantined close contacts. This has contained the spread and helped stamp out several local clusters. But in the last few days, we have seen some cases which cannot be traced to the source of infection. These worried us, because it showed that the virus is probably already circulating in our own population. This is why we raised the DORSCON to Orange yesterday, and are stepping up measures. We are reducing mingling in schools. We are tightening up access to our hospitals. We are taking extra precautions at large public events. I have already postponed my Chinese New Year Istana Garden Party for grassroots leaders, which was to be held tomorrow. 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. We are not locking down the city or confining everybody to stay at home. We have ample supplies, so there is no need to stock up with instant noodles, tinned food, or toilet paper, as some people did yesterday.
Whatever the situation, we can each do our part. One, observe personal hygiene – wash your hands often, and avoid touching your eyes or face unnecessarily. Two, take your temperature twice daily. And three, if you are not well, please avoid crowded places and see a doctor immediately. These simple steps do not take much effort, but if we all do them, they will go a long way towards containing the spread of the virus.
Right now, we are continuing to do contact tracing and to quarantine close contacts. But I expect to see more cases with no known contacts in the coming days.
If the numbers keep growing, at some point we will have to reconsider our 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. Encourage those who only have mild symptoms to see their family GP, and rest at home instead of going to the hospital, and let hospitals and healthcare workers focus on the most vulnerable patients – the elderly, young children, and those with medical complications.
We are not at that point yet. It may or may not happen, but we are thinking ahead and anticipating the next few steps. And I am sharing these possibilities with you, so that we are all mentally prepared for what may come.
I am confident of the medical outcome of this outbreak. Most Singaporeans should remain well, and of those who get ill most should expect to recover. Among those who have been hospitalised so far, most are stable or improving. Several have already recovered and been discharged, although a few remain in critical condition.
But the real test is to our social cohesion and psychological resilience. Fear and anxiety are natural human reactions. We all want to protect ourselves and our families from what is still a new and unknown disease. But fear can do more harm than the virus itself. It can make us panic, or do things which make matters worse, like circulating rumours online, hoarding facemasks or food, or blaming particular groups for the outbreak. We should take courage and see through this stressful time together.
That is in fact what many Singaporeans are doing. Grassroots leaders and Team Nila volunteers have stepped forward to help distribute masks to households. University students are delivering food daily to schoolmates confined to their dorms on leave of absence. Healthcare workers are on the front line, treating patients in hospitals and clinics and helping them get well again. Business federations, unions, public transport workers, are going the extra mile to maintain services, take care of workers, and keep Singapore running. They are inspirations to all of us. This is what it means to be Singaporean. This is who we are.
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.