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Lessons of COVID-19 must be learned to prepare for 'Disease X': PM Lee Hsien Loong

Wheelchair-bound voters arrive at a polling station at a time band allocated to seniors and elders as part of preventive measures against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, during the general election in Singapore July 10, 2020.  REUTERS/Edgar Su
Wheelchair-bound voters arrive at a polling station at a time band allocated to seniors and elders as part of preventive measures against the coronavirus disease outbreak, during the general election in Singapore on 10 July, 2020. (PHOTO: Reuters)

SINGAPORE — It is only a matter of time before a novel pathogen that is “highly infectious, deadly, and mutates easily”, termed Disease X, strikes humanity, warned Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (1 September).

“When COVID-19 appeared, people asked whether this was Disease X,” said Lee, alluding to scientists’ prediction that the world was overdue for the emergence of a new disease in the wake of SARS. He noted that in the 17 years since the SARS outbreak, H1N1, Ebola and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) have all emerged as threats.

“COVID-19 has been a disaster for the world, but it is not Disease X. It is by far not the worst new disease that can befall humankind.

“COVID-19 will not be our last public health crisis. So we had better learn from COVID-19 how to deal with a pandemic, and be as ready as we can, should the worse one, when the worse one, befalls us,” added Lee, who was delivering a parliamentary speech in lieu of the annual National Day Rally (NDR). The NDR is widely considered the most important political speech of the year.

Lee said that the country must begin preparing for life after COVID-19. “What must we rethink and reinvent, so that Singapore can continue to be successful in this new world?”

The 68-year-old also alluded to a recent Straits Times survey that showed almost half of the respondents were weary of pandemic safety measures. A university student even wrote to him, complaining that Singapore’s reaction to COVID-19 was “one of the greatest overreactions to a public health issue”, pointing out that hospital systems are far from overwhelmed.

“The irony is that the more successful we are in keeping cases low, the more people wonder whether all these painful measures are necessary. (But) the COVID-19 virus remains as infectious and potent as it was before. This has not changed.”

The PM warned, “If we relax these measures now because the numbers have come down, we will have a resurgence.”

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