The coronavirus outbreak is “intense” and its impact is already much greater than that of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said. In a visit to Changi Airport on Friday, Lee said it was too early to tell whether the city state would have a recession, but that it was possible. “Our economy will take a hit,” said Lee. The coronavirus would have a significant impact on the next couple of quarters, he said, because regional economies were more interlinked than in 2003 and China’s role in the region was much greater. Singapore’s first case of Sars was detected in March 2003 and the outbreak peaked at 238 infections and 33 deaths. Consequently, the Singapore economy registered a drop of 4 percentage points in GDP in the second quarter of that year. But the outbreak was contained by May 2003 and in the third quarter GDP climbed by 5.6 percentage points. The country eventually reported a full-year expansion of 4.5 per cent for 2003, higher than the 3.9 per cent of the previous year. However, economists have already downgraded Singapore’s GDP forecast for 2020. DBS Bank has cut its forecast from 1.4 per cent to 0.9 per cent; brokerage Maybank Kim Eng from 1.8 per cent to 1.1 per cent; and OCBC widened its forecast to between 0 and 2 per cent growth, as opposed to between 1 and 2 per cent. Lee said he visited the airport because the travel industry had been heavily affected. “The flights are down by a third, the shops here are hard hit, and at the same time the crews have to keep the airport running and stay at their posts and keep Singapore open for business,” he said. The new airport mall, Jewel, has already halved the rent for food and beverage tenants for this month and next. Can Asian economies survive the coronavirus? Lee said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) was coordinating a regional response and that a statement would be released in the next couple of days. “We do need to exchange information and cooperate with one another to avoid working at cross purposes,” said Lee, adding that Asean ministers had met during the Sars outbreak. “This time, I think we should do something similar within the region because for us in Singapore, if the region has a problem, it’s going to be very, very difficult for Singapore to isolate ourselves and to keep the problem outside our boundaries,” he said. Singapore now has one of the highest number of coronavirus cases outside China, with the country’s tally standing at 58. Of these, 15 have been discharged and seven are in intensive care. Globally, there have been more than 64,000 infections and more than 1,300 deaths. While the bulk of infections and deaths have occurred in mainland China where the outbreak started, the virus has spread to more than 25 countries and killed three people outside mainland China, with one each in Hong Kong, the Philippines and Japan. The outbreak has already disrupted the travel industry, with Singapore projecting a loss of 18,000 to 20,000 visitors daily. This is partly due to a travel restriction introduced on February 1 that prevented the entry of anybody with recent history of travel to mainland China and partly because leisure and business travellers have been giving Asia a wide berth since the virus was discovered. Some countries, such as Israel, South Korea, Kuwait and Qatar have advised their citizens against travelling to Singapore. Singapore bracing for coronavirus to hit tourism harder than Sars Lee said that while the number of reported cases in Singapore looked high, it was because the country was working hard to identify cases and “in a city like Singapore, it’s possible for us to be quite thorough” compared to health authorities in bigger countries with wide land masses and many rural areas. He said travel advisories were understandable and Singapore had also issued similar advice against travel to other jurisdictions hit by the virus. But “to go beyond that”, other countries would have to make “a sound scientific and medical judgment”. He warned against “knee jerk” reactions based on “somebody’s headline”. Lee had on Saturday addressed the nation on television and online, saying the country may have to move from a containment strategy to one of mitigation if the virus continued to spread. A mitigation strategy would involve people with mild symptoms staying home to free up the health care system to concentrate on more severe cases. “I don’t think we have reached that point yet but it’s an evolving situation. Every day brings new developments and we cannot be sure which way it will go,” said Lee. He said even if Singapore were to shut down completely, it did not mean the virus would disappear. “We have to keep on, keep Singapore going and we have to keep making a living. Life has to go on,” he said.