Four big questions as Singapore prepares for the next pandemic: Ong Ye Kung

SINGAPORE – As Singapore prepares for the next pandemic, it will have to keep four big questions in mind, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Friday (Jan 14).

First, there is the speed at which a disease spreads.

Next, there is the problem of how to keep people from falling ill, which is linked to vaccinations, he said.

There is also the question of how the healthcare system copes with those who are very sick.

Lastly, countries have to consider the impact on their non-medical infrastructure.

“Can children go to school? Can people go to work? Can social amenities continue to open so that people have a sense of normalcy?” Mr Ong asked.

“Does the psychology of the society remain strong, resilient and intact?”

All these are aspects of urban preparedness, he said.

The minister was speaking at an information session on strengthening health emergency preparedness in urban settings, jointly organised by Singapore and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Singapore is represented on the WHO’s executive board, an international group of 34 health experts who meet regularly to discuss the agenda for the World Health Assembly – the WHO’s decision-making body – and help implement its decisions.

While the work on preparedness started before Covid-19, the pandemic has magnified the role that urban settings play in health emergencies, Mr Ong said.

“We must build on the political momentum to strengthen global, regional, national and sub-national preparedness,” he added.

He also underlined how strengthening preparedness contributes towards countries’ obligations under the International Health Regulations, and noted that independent experts have advocated for global pandemic preparedness response systems to be transformed.

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Singapore, as a city-state and international travel and trade hub, is especially vulnerable, Mr Ong said.

It developed a set of protocols to deal with infectious diseases in 2003, when the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) crisis hit.

But when Covid-19 emerged, the country found that parts of these were still inadequate, Mr Ong said.

For example, it became clear over time that containment was not an option for such an infectious disease.

“We had to switch our rule book to one closer to managing influenza.”

One day, the country will have to confront Disease X, Mr Ong said.

Disease X is the code name for a future, unknown disease that is highly infectious, deadly and whose pathogen mutates easily.

“Is the world prepared enough? And in Singapore, we constantly ask ourselves, is our city prepared enough?” he said, noting that the country has learnt much from the Sars and Covid-19 outbreaks.

“We will continue to learn from other cities and other member states of WHO.”


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