- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

SINGAPORE, April 19 (UPI) — Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said Saturday the country would use what he said is a "Total Defense" concept to fight severe acute respiratory syndrome.

He announced plans for new stricter measures to prevent those under home quarantine from breaking stay-home orders.

The "Total Defense" program is about the different things Singaporeans can do everyday in every sector of the society to strengthen the nation's resilience.

"There must be an all-out fight involving everybody in Singapore," he said. "We must insure there is no hole in our ring of defense. … We are in for a tough fight because the common enemy is invisible."

Speaking at a news conference, Goh warned that if the country failed to contain the SARS outbreak it would become the "worst" crisis the country has faced.

Goh pointed to the heavy cost of the outbreak, both human, with now 16 deaths, as well as economic. The government is estimating that SARS if contained rapidly will cost the economy in excess of $850 million (S$1.5 billion). Earlier this week, the growth forecast for the year was cut from 2 percent-5 percent to 0.5 percent-2.5 percent.

"This crisis is a crisis of fear, not just SARS," Goh said, pointing to the need to rapidly contain the spread of SARS to re-instill confidence of Singaporeans and tourists alike.

"We've got to show in the weeks to come we are on the top of the problem. The stakes are very high and we cannot afford to fail on this matter," he said

The government is battling SARS on three fronts: points of entry, hospitals and homes.

At the point of entry, whether by sea or air, the government is screening passengers from affected areas as identified by the World Health Organization.

Earlier this week it deployed military technology at the Changi airport, using a thermal imaging sensor system to screen all disembarking passengers from Hong Kong and Guangzhou looking for those with fevers.

Travelers with fevers are then checked by nurses to determine if they need to be transferred to Tan Tock Seng Hospital, which is now dedicated to SARS patients, and to see if they have other SARS symptoms.

Goh said it is also very important to prevent infection crossing from one hospital to another, as well as to prevent visitors to hospitals from catching and spreading the illness.

So far, Singapore has been able to mostly contain the spread of the virus to a hospital, with nine out of 10 cases being hospital workers. However, it has been less successful at containing the spread throughout the health care system, with now cases being reported at a different hospital.

Each hospital has been assigned an audit team to ensure the proper procedures are followed which will help contain the spread of the outbreak. And to lend political weight to those audit teams, several ministers have been assigned to oversee them, Goh said.

On Friday, the Singapore General Hospital announced that visitors are limited to one per patient to restrict even further the possible spread of the disease. In fact, Goh indicated that the government would prefer no visitation at all, though it realized there would be an uproar if this was imposed.

On the home front, Goh announced Parliament would fast-track an amendment to the Infectious Diseases Act Thursday when it next meets, which will permit quarantine breakers to be fined immediately without having to be taken to court.

Of the hundreds under home quarantine orders, only 12 people have broken the order, prompting the government to set up web cameras and start tagging offenders. "This isn't good enough," Goh said, noting that one person alone breaking the law could create havoc in the system.

"Like it or not, people understand fines," he said, explaining he felt this was the best way home quarantine could be made to be respected. If people refused to pay the fine they will be imprisoned, Goh warned, in isolation wards.

Meanwhile, the government is studying ways to help restore public confidence in Singapore as soon as the outbreak is contained. Goh indicated that as soon as there is a reliable testing kit for the virus, SARS-screened certificates could be issued to all passengers leaving the country.

"This would give some insurance wherever they go (that they're SARS free)," he said.

Members of ASEAN are meeting on April 29 to discuss SARS and Goh is planning to put forward this proposal, which he hopes would help boost confidence in the region amidst threats of heavier economic damage.

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