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PM Lee’s address to the nation on COVID-19: 10 key takeaways

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In a timely measure that built confidence as well as calm among the nation’s residents, Singapore’s PM Lee Hsien Loong came out on 12 March 2020 to brief the country on the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) situation in Singapore.

In a reassuring speech that lasted about 12 minutes, PM Lee made the following salient points, essentially tackling the issue through three aspects, i.e. medical, economic and psychological:

1. What the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic means

Noting that while China’s situation is stabilising, new cases are emerging all over the world – in Europe, America, and the Middle East. In fact, globally, the number of cases is doubling every five to seven days, which led to WHO’s declaration.

“What does this mean? It means that WHO assesses that many countries will see full blown outbreaks, with sustained community transmission, like what has happened in South Korea and Italy. And unlike SARS, this outbreak will continue for some time – a year, and maybe longer,” he explained.

2. Singapore continues to face a serious situation

From the start, Singapore has taken COVID-19 with the “utmost seriousness”, which earned praise from WHO as an example to emulate, in comparison to other countries that the WHO called “alarming levels of inaction”.

However. Singapore continues to face a serious situation. “We expect more imported cases, and therefore new clusters and new waves of infection, this time coming from many countries rather than one or two,” said PM Lee.

3. Further travel restrictions possible, but no country shutdown 

PM Lee noted that Singapore has already imposed some travel restrictions, for example, for China, Iran, South Korea, Italy. He added: “We will have to tighten up further temporarily, though we cannot completely shut ourselves off from the world.”

4. What residents of Singapore must get used to – albeit temporarily

Admitting that COVID-19 will be with us for a long time, PM Lee said there are baseline things that people must get used to, “like practising good personal hygiene, adopting new social norms and discouraging large gatherings, and generally, maintaining some physical distance from one another.”

As such, the following actions are already underway:

  1. Scaled down community activities, especially for the seniors.
  2. During this period, religious services may need to be shortened, or attendance at such gatherings may need to be reduced.
  3. On this note, he affirmed: “The issue is of course not religion itself, but that the virus can spread quickly to many people in crowded settings, like religious gatherings and services.”  Further, he advised the public to work with their religious leaders on this.

5. Possible spike in COVID-19 cases: Resource allocation between those with mild symptoms and the seriously ill

Singapore needs to plan for a possible spike in COVID-19 cases, a situation wherein with large numbers, it will not be possible hospitalise and isolate every case like what is being done now.

“But we now know that the majority of patients, in fact 80% of them, only experience mild symptoms. The ones that are most at risk are the elderly, and those with pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure or lung problems,” PM Lee explained.

As such, with larger numbers, the plan-of-action is to hospitalise only the more serious cases, and encourage those with mild symptoms to see their family GP and rest at home – isolate themselves. This way, resources can be focused on the seriously ill, response time can be sped up, and hopefully, the number of fatalities can be minimised.

He assured: “In the meantime, we are freeing up ICU and hospital beds and facilities, to create additional capacity to meet any surge in COVID-19 numbers.”

6. Additional social distancing measures, in case there’s a spike

If Singapore does see a spike, PM spoke about the following temporary social distancing measures:

  • Suspending school,
  • Staggering work hours
  • Compulsory telecommuting.

These “extra brakes”, he said, will slow down transmission of the virus, prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed, and help bring the numbers back down. “After the situation improves, we can ease off and go back to the baseline precautions.”

7. Singapore is not going to DORSCON Red

PM Lee took pains to emphasise that the situation in Singapore remains under control.

“We are not going to DORSCON Red. We are not locking down our city like the Chinese, South Koreans or Italians have done. What we are doing now is to plan ahead for some of these more stringent measures, try them out, and prepare Singaporeans for when we actually need to implement them.”

8. The economy is taking a big hit: New package underway to support companies, workers, and the retrenched

After the S$4bn Support and Stabilisation Package in the Budget last month to help businesses, workers and households tide over the immediate period, with things still unfolding, PM Lee said the situation is especially serious for some sectors – hotels, aviation, hospitality, and freelancers in the gig economy.

“But nobody has been spared. Everyone feels the impact, to different degrees.”

As such, the Government is working on a second package of measures with the following objectives:

  • Help companies with their costs and cash-flow, to keep them afloat through the storm.
  • Help workers keep their jobs, and retrain during their downtime, so that when things return to normal, they will be “the first out of the gate”.
  • Give those who are retrenched and unemployed, as well as their families, an extra helping hand to see through this difficult period.

9. Social and psychological resilience: Stay calm, be responsible

Apart from the medical and economic consequences, PM Lee highlighted the psychological aspect of this fight, for instance:

  • He noted that Singaporeans are cheering on the frontline staff who are working extremely hard to keep Singapore going – healthcare workers, immigration officers, civil servants, public transport workers, taxi drivers, cleaning staff.
  • Appeals to only wear face masks when unwell; or not to worry about our supermarkets running out of food or household items, have not gone unheard; “people accepted our reassurances, and behaviour changed”.

To such examples, he said: “I am grateful that most Singaporeans are responding calmly and responsibly. Thank you for your trust and support.”

10. SG United: Do not leave anyone behind

Singapore’s response has received international accolades, underlying which is the social and psychological resilience of its people.

As PM Lee said: “What makes Singapore different from other countries is that we have confidence in each other, we feel that we are all in this together, and we do not leave anyone behind. This is SG United, we are SG United.”

At the same time, he noted: “We will remain in this high risk state, nevertheless, for some time to come. But if we keep up our guard, and take practical precautions to protect ourselves and our families, we will be able to keep our economy going, and carry on with our daily lives.”

Photo / Prime Minister’s Office Singapore

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