Coronavirus: Impact on economy already exceeds Sars, recession possible, says PM Lee

SINGAPORE – The impact of the coronavirus outbreak on Singapore’s economy has already exceeded that of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) back in 2003, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday (Feb 14), adding that a recession could be a possibility.

The impact, particularly over the next few quarters, will be significant as the country battles a “very intense outbreak”, said PM Lee during a visit to Changi Airport Terminal 3.

“It’s already much more than Sars, and the economies of the region are much more interlinked together. China, particularly, is a much bigger factor in the region,” he said.

“I can’t say whether we will have a recession or not. It’s possible, but definitely our economy will take a hit.”

Singapore was first hit by Sars in March 2003. It took five months, until July that year, for the disease to be eradicated here.

“That was, I think, very fast. I expect it not to be so fast this time,” PM Lee said.

Singapore is working to contain the coronavirus disease, known as Covid-19, which was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December.

The number of confirmed cases in Singapore has been rising steadily – there are 58 so far, with at least five local clusters.

The tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit sectors. Already, the government is bracing itself for tourist arrivals to drop by between 25 and 30 per cent this year.

On Friday, PM Lee told reporters at Changi that he was visiting the airport and speaking with a range of workers there, as Changi Airport is on the front line of this fight. While flights are down by a third and businesses have been hard hit, staff and crew have to stay at their posts and keep Singapore open for business.

“I came to see how they work, to ask after them, make sure that they are well, make sure they have what they need to do their jobs, and are well supported and all right – and are confident and know what’s happening,” he said.

PM Lee added that he was glad the workers he met were in good spirits.

“We are keeping them informed and where they have issues, we are dealing with those issues, and making sure that the people are confident that they can do their jobs,” he said.

Asked whether Singapore was already witnessing widespread transmission of the pathogen within the community, and if it should shift its approach in dealing with the Sars-CoV-2 virus, PM Lee said Singapore was not at that point yet, adding that shutting down the country was also not an option.

“But it’s an evolving situation. Every day brings new developments and we cannot be sure which way it will go. So we have to watch and we have to respond quickly but you have to go, you have to make a judgment at each point, what is the right thing to do now,” he said.

“We have to keep on, keep Singapore going and we have to keep making a living. Life has to go on. So we have to calibrate and judge as we go on each step, what is the most prudent thing to do.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong taking a photo with workers from baggage handling at Changi Airport Terminal 3, on Feb 14, 2020. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

During the 1½-hour visit, PM Lee, who was accompanied by Senior Minister of State for Health and Transport Lam Pin Min and Mrs Lee, spoke to staff involved in virtually all sectors of airport operations.

From baggage handlers, cleaning staff, immigration and customs officers to cabbies, most staff delivered a grim report of how the virus has impacted business.

Trolley service officer Molly Goh, 62, said she estimated that the number of travellers has plunged by about half.

Taxi driver V. A. Moorthy told PM Lee that his income has dropped by about 30 per cent, and that cabbies have to wait upwards of an hour for a fare at the airport.

“We have to try and get more tourists to come; everyone is suffering,” said Mr Moorthy, 61.

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