Coronavirus’ economic impact could last a year: Singapore foreign minister

With the new coronavirus now spreading globally, countries around the world must be prepared for the economic aftermath of the outbreak to last at least a year, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Wednesday.

“The genie’s out of the bottle,” Balakrishnan told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia,” adding that the disease had “exploded” after it spread beyond Asia to countries such as Iran, Italy and the U.S.

He said that containment would have been possible if the new disease, named COVID-19, had been like SARS.

The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak 17 years ago was largely contained within East Asian countries including China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore. It infected more than 8,000 people in total, of which 774 died, according to data from the World Health Organization.

This is a new virus, it is very dangerous and wistful to believe that it will behave according to previous viruses. So, we do not make that assumption that this will disappear in the summer months.

Vivian Balakrishnan

Singapore’s Foreign Minister

In comparison, the new coronavirus has infected more than 110,000 people across at least 110 countries and territories, with over 4,000 deaths worldwide, WHO said.

Balakrishnan pointed out that the SARS outbreak lasted about four months and its economic impact took around six months to wear off. Meanwhile, the spread of the new coronavirus could last longer and its impact may also be bigger due to the scale of the outbreak, the minister said.

“I think you have to be concerned about a major impact because it’s a global phenomenon and it’s going to last quite some time,” he said. “You need to be psychologically prepared.”

The minister — who’s a trained medical doctor — said there are two possibilities on how the current outbreak could pan out:

  1. The virus spread turns into “a global pandemic” with potentially “horrendous” impact;
  2. It becomes endemic, which means it turns into one of the usual viruses that cause illnesses in people.

Outbreak a test of country’s preparedness

Singapore, a tiny Southeast Asian country, was one of the earliest countries to report cases of COVID-19. As of Tuesday noon, Singapore had 166 confirmed cases, of which 93 have been discharged from hospitals, according to the country’s Ministry of Health.

The country hasn’t reported any deaths relating to the new coronavirus. But Balakrishnan said Singapore cannot assume it will remain that way and is prepared for the worst.

The Singapore government’s response to the virus outbreak has received praise from the WHO. On Tuesday, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “Singapore is a good example of an all-of-government approach” in tackling the outbreak, according to local newspaper The Straits Times.

Balakrishnan said Singapore took many years to build up its capabilities to manage a situation like the ongoing outbreak. He added that the outbreak puts such capabilities to the test.

“This is a new virus, it is very dangerous and wistful to believe that it will behave according to previous viruses. So, we do not make that assumption that this will disappear in the summer months,” he said.

“In fact, this is an acid test of every single country’s quality of healthcare, standard of governance and social capital. And if any one of this tripod is weak, it will be exposed and exposed quite unmercifully by this epidemic.”