As the coronavirus that began its global spread outside of Wuhan, China in the past months menaces populations around the world, Singapore is, in many ways, seeing a familiar foe.
During the SARS outbreak of 17 years ago, Singapore was hit hard by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-causing virus – a close cousin to the current coronavirus. It ultimately infected around 238 people and killed 33 in that nation by December of 2003.
Now, the nation appears to be launching an aggressive fight against the Wuhan coronavirus, sharing with the world its COVID-19 patients' status as the health ministry regularly provides updates in detailed posts. To learn more about the situation there and its lessons for the world, TheStreet tapped several experts who discussed the economic implications of the outbreak there and beyond and views of how the U.S. is handling some patients. Those interviewed by email were Oxford Economics economist Sung Eun Jung, who’s based in Singapore; Oxford's lead economist Adam Slater; and Prof. Ooi Eng Eong of Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School.
TheStreet: Singapore is now at nearly 90 cases. How do you feel the nation is handling the outbreak?
"Things are mostly running business as usual, but many conferences and large events have been canceled together with a drop in tourism. Given that it’s a small, open economy, Singapore will definitely feel the hit from disruptions caused by COVID-19 on Chinese trade and production. But the strong fiscal response should help bolster domestic demand and support growth," said Oxford Economics economist Sung Eun Jung.
TheStreet: Compared to the U.S. where getting up-to-date information about current cases can be difficult, the Singapore Ministry of Health appears to be giving detailed information regularly about the patients, their connections and their status. Do you feel that transparency has been beneficial or does it add to anxieties, which could directly affect the economic situation there?
"In general, the transparent communication has helped the population to keep more calm, although there’s been a persistent shortage of masks, hand sanitizers (and so on). Given the uncertain nature of the virus, people wouldn’t want another layer of uncertainty by not getting timely information. The frequent press briefings and daily Whatsapp messages from the government send signals that the authorities are taking control of the situation or at least trying their best," said Jung.
TheStreet: What lessons do you feel Singapore learned from the SARS outbreak, and is now applying, or not applying, to the current coronavirus?
"The government is reacting much faster with guidelines set in place. The Disease Outbreak Response System Condition was created in 2006 after the SARS incidence, which provides a comprehensive framework. Closing borders with China at a relatively early stage was also an unprecedented measure," said Jung.
TheStreet: Early on, this was drawing a lot of comparisons to SARS and its potential economic toll globally. Do you feel that assessment has now changed?
"The authorities in Singapore have been communicating that COVID-19 is behaving more like H1N1 flu than SARS in terms of how easily it can spread, but with much lower fatality rate. In terms of economic impact, it is widely expected to be worse than in 2003 given the much bigger role that China plays in the global economy," said Jung and Oxford’s lead economist Adam Slater.
TheStreet: In your most recent Oxford report, you talk about two potential scenarios for how this could impact Asia alone or the global economy. What do you feel needs to play out in the next few weeks or months to determine which is most likely?
"It’s hard to put an exact number to the probability of each scenario. One could look at the speed at which China is returning to business as usual to gauge the extent of the negative impact. Business surveys of sentiment and activity coming out over the coming weeks could give us a sense, but they are also notoriously volatile. We continue to forecast the negative economic effects to be concentrated in (the first half of) 2020 and the outbreak would then start to come under control," said Slater.
TheStreet: In the U.S., there are still patients who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, but are told to stay at home until they recover. It may seem strange based on what is known and unknown about the disease's infectiousness. What are your thoughts?
"The ability to isolate patients will depend on the health care infrastructure and capacity in each location. Singapore is able to carry out this (aggressive containment) program due to the surge capacity they have built into the hospital systems after the 2003 SARS outbreak. It will be very difficult for places without such capacity to implement a control program similar to Singapore’s," said Prof. Ooi Eng Eong of Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School, in an email.