Singapore urges calm—but its tourism industry is being pummeled by the coronavirus outbreak

February 11, 2020, 9:28 AM UTC

How do you seal a deal without a handshake? Attendees as the Singapore Airshow are about to find out.

As fears over novel coronavirus spread throughout the city, organizers of the airshow—which runs February 11-16 and is the largest aerospace and defense expo in Asia—are encouraging attendees to adopt a “no contact” policy.

“For the welfare of all attendees, please adopt alternative greetings. Let’s all play our own part to stay safe!” the event organizers posted on Twitter yesterday, along with a helpful video on how to perform alternatives to the conventional handshake, such as a “brief hand wave.”

For some attendees, however, the “hands off” approach is not enough. More than 70 exhibitors, including Lockheed Martin Corp, pulled out of the air show, which drew 54,000 attendees and over 1,000 exhibitors in 2018, and contributed $247 million to the local economy.

The relative quiet of the air show is just one symptom of the strain the coronavirus is exerting on the vulnerable city state of Singapore, where the government is attempting to maintain business as usual while infections slowly rise.

Keep calm and carry on

“There is no need to panic. We are not locking down the city or confining everybody to stay at home. We have ample supplies, so there is no need to stock up with instant noodles, tinned food, or toilet paper, as some people did yesterday,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Saturday, after concerned citizens emptied supermarkets in a spate of panic buying—similar to events seen in Hong Kong.

The rush on supplies was sparked by the Ministry of Health’s decision to increase its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) rating to Orange—the second highest level of public health alert.

The ministry raised the alert after three new cases of coronavirus were discovered to have been transmitted locally—as opposed to being brought into the city by a tourist—increasing the total number of confirmed cases in Singapore to 43. Dorscon Orange was also implemented during SARS, which infected 238 and killed 33 in the city during 2003. The warning indicates that the outbreak is “severe and spreads easily from person to person” but is not yet pandemic in the city.

Singapore currently has the second highest number of confirmed infections outside of China. The highest number is in Japan, but that’s largely due to the presence of a coronavirus-carrying cruise ship docked in Yokohama.

Singapore PM Says Virus Response 'Major Test' as Hoarding Spikes
A woman wears a protective mask walks on the observation deck of Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino in Singapore in early February. Singapore authorities urged residents to relax on their shopping sprees that have emptied supermarket shelves, saying supplies aren’t under threat even as the coronavirus outbreak escalates.
SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Despite having more confirmed cases than Hong Kong, Singapore officials haven’t followed Hong Kong’s lead in encouraging citizens to stay home or promoting widespread use of surgical masks.

Singapore authorities acquired five million masks and distributed just four to each household, advising them to only use the mask if they become sick. Meanwhile, there’s no advice on working from home, but the government has mandated that body temperature check points be deployed at the entrances of office towers.

“I think what the government has been doing right now, such as restricting the use of masks and keeping a calm tone, is a plus. That’s something they’ve learned through SARS that over communication is better than no communication at all,” said Lian Jye Su, principal analyst at Singapore-based ABI Research.

But amid its measured response to the outbreak, Singapore appears to have become an unwitting hub for the novel coronavirus’ global transmission.

Super spreader event?

Over the weekend, France confirmed that five Britons sharing a ski chalet in the alps had contracted the virus from another British man who had recently attended a conference in Singapore. One of the skiers then travelled to Mallorca before discovering he had contracted the coronavirus. The conference attendee, meanwhile, travelled back to England and is thought to have infected 11 people across three countries on his journey.

The Singapore conference was hosted at the Grand Hyatt in late January by a British company called Servomex. A spokesperson for Servomex, a gas analytics firm, confirmed several of its employees have contracted the coronavirus and are undergoing “self-isolation.”

“We are working closely with all relevant public health authorities and are following their advice to ensure the welfare of our people, including supporting our affected employees, and the wider community,” the spokesperson said.

The employee believed to have carried the virus across seas is being referred to by various media as a “super spreader,” but Olivia Lawe-Davies, communications manager for the World Health Organization (WHO) Western Pacific office, seems to disapprove of the term.

“Super spreader isn’t an official public health term. If used, it shouldn’t refer to an individual, but you may see it used in reference to ‘super spreading events’,” Lawe-Davies said.

According to Lawe-Davies, Singapore authorities informed WHO of the hotel outbreak, and WHO is “aware of cases in other countries that may have epidemiological links.”

“However,” she said, “based on current information, there is not evidence of effective and sustained community transmission.”

Tourism troubles

Although Singapore’s official guidance doesn’t advise people to avoid public gatherings until Dorscon Red is implemented, a number of conferences across Singapore are being cancelled and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) predicts tourist arrivals will drop by up to 30% this year. Singapore implemented a ban on arrivals from mainland China, which account for 20% of visitors, on January 31.

“Tourism is a significant component of Singapore’s economy, which has been responsible for a large part of growth in the country, because the government has placed a huge emphasis on developing the industry,” said Antonio Fatas, professor of economics at INSEAD. A report last year from the World Travel and Tourism Council said tourism was responsible for 10% of Singapore’s GDP in 2018.

Even still, the city state may be well-positioned to endure whatever blow the coronavirus ultimately delivers.

The government has already announced some measures to help the tourism industry—such as waiving licensing fees for hotels and travel agencies in 2020—and full details will be announced in the annual budget, due for release on February 18.

“Singapore is a very rich economy with a large surplus, tons of savings and an infinite amount of foreign assets, so it has buffers it can use in a crisis,” Fatas said. “It’s not ideal, but relative to any other country in the world, it has a lot of room for maneuver.”

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