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It might take ‘several years’ for Covid-19 to run its course, says PM Lee

SINGAPORE — It might take “several years” before Covid-19 has gone around the world and run its course, unless “something happens to abort that process”, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview with CNN that was aired on Sunday (March 29).

PM Lee in a live interview on CNN programme Fareed Zakaria GPS.

PM Lee in a live interview on CNN programme Fareed Zakaria GPS.

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SINGAPORE — It might take “several years” before Covid-19 has gone around the world and run its course, unless “something happens to abort that process”, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview with CNN that was aired on Sunday (March 29).

This was in response to a question asked by the US broadcaster’s journalist Fareed Zakaria on how long it would take to “flatten” the pandemic curve, which essentially means slowing the virus’ spread through measures such as safe distancing.

“I am not a professional epidemiologist or infectious disease specialist, but I do not see this problem going away in a couple of months,” said Mr Lee.

He added that although it has taken several months to bring the pandemic under control in China, it is taking off in Europe and America, and it is “not going to disappear soon”.

“And there are other huge parts of the world, where we do not quite know what is happening, but I think that it will happen. It will happen in India, it will happen in Southeast Asia, it will happen in Africa and Latin America,” said Mr Lee.

The interview touched on Singapore’s measures which have been lauded internationally. Among other questions, Mr Zakaria asked Mr Lee for his response to the perception that Singapore handled the outbreak well because of its “paternalistic” system.

In his reply, Mr Lee noted that the Singapore Government has not used “extraordinary powers” but instead maintained the trust of its people by remaining transparent.

“I think the key thing is people must understand what we are facing and must support what we are doing, co-operate with us, and have confidence in the government,” Mr Lee said.

“We put a lot of effort into explaining to them what is happening, speaking to them and I have done it a few times directly on television, so people know that we are level and we tell it straight,” he added, reiterating that by maintaining trust, measures could be implemented more easily.

Pointing to the S$48.4 billion supplementary budget that the Government unveiled on Thursday, Mr Zakaria also asked about the economic consequences the coronavirus outbreak has on the Republic.

To this, Mr Lee acknowledged the virus’ impact on various sectors such as aviation and tourism.

“Aviation has died, for example, tourism is dead and all the travel industry which is associated with that — the hotels are in considerable difficulties. So that is an impact which is not going to go away in a hurry,” he said.

Mr Lee noted that supply chains are also disrupted now that many countries are not operating in full steam, which in turn has affected production and exports.

In addition, those in the gig economy who are self-employed have seen that their jobs have “evaporated”.

“I do not see that coming back until such time as people gain confidence that they have a hold on the virus, that we can resume normal socialising, normal travelling, normal human intercourse. I think that is quite some time down the road,” he said.

When Mr Zakaria asked if the idea of herd immunity — which refers to infecting about 40 per cent of the population — is on the cards, Mr Lee said that is a “painful” route to take, as it might cause uncontrolled outbreak like in some cities in northern Italy or China.

“You have got to hope for an off-ramp to get off that path, and the only visible way to get an off-ramp is to have either a treatment or an effective vaccine,” Mr Lee said.

“That is some distance down the road, but many very smart people are working very hard at it. I can only hope and pray that they will make some progress soon.”

ON US-CHINA TIES

Giving his take on how some have blamed the pandemic on China, Mr Lee said: “I am sure that there were many aspects of the Chinese response to this outbreak which they will look back upon and believe that they should have done better.

“But I do not think overall that one can say this would not have happened if only the Chinese had done the right thing.”
 

Mr Lee pointed out that the outbreak has also spread to many countries and yet, they have not found it easy to keep it under control.

“I think that we are in a very difficult situation and it is most constructive for us now to look ahead and find the best way to move forward and deal with a problem which we now have,” he said.

In response to Mr Zakaria’s observation that US-China relations have worsened over the pandemic, Mr Lee noted that ties between the two giants “have been complicated even before this”.

“But if we are going to deal with this virus, you have got to get all the countries to be working together, in particular, US and China,” Mr Lee said.

“Under the best of circumstances, it is going to be a very difficult challenge for mankind. But if the US and the Chinese are swapping insults and blaming one another for inventing the virus and letting it loose on the world, I do not think that that is going to help us solve the problem sooner.

Asked about the absence of US leadership in the global response, Mr Lee noted that the world “has greatly benefited from American leadership in situations like this for decades”.

He added: “If America is in a different mode, well, we will get by and I think other configurations will eventually work out, but it would be a loss.”

The US has the resources, the science, the influence, the soft power, and the “track record of dealing with these problems convincingly and successfully, and in the greater good of many countries, not just the US”. “It is a pity not to put those resources to work now, to deal with this very grave challenge to mankind,” Mr Lee reiterated.

At the tail end of the interview, Mr Zakaria asked Mr Lee if this crisis would make him postpone his decision to leave politics, adding that “there are a lot of people in Singapore, who tell me that they wish that you would stay on”.

Mr Lee had previously indicated that he would step down after the next General Election, which is due by April next year.

The prime minister replied: “I think this crisis keeps my hands full. Let us just focus on that for now.”

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Covid-19 coronavirus Lee Hsien Loong CNN Fareed Zakaria

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