Coronavirus impact continues to spread 

Singapore’s factory activity collapsed last month as the flu-like coronavirus sent sniffles through Asean, disrupting global supply chains.

However, the number of coronavirus deaths is still dwarfed by fatalities in road accidents and from the air pollution that envelopes East Asia. Air pollution is largely a result of the travel and factory activity that is currently being reduced by Covid-19. 

Factory activity fell across Asean in February because of Covid-19.

While the media coverage of the coronavirus could lead many to conclude that the human race was on the brink of extermination, the death toll from the virus is still tiny compared to outbreaks of seasonal flu and other more prosaic factors.

The coronavirus has, as of today (Tuesday), killed more than 3,117 people: fewer than the numbers who die each day from air pollution in China, which is around 7,671 deaths per day.  

A revised number produced this week for annual premature deaths from air pollution in China is 2.8 million, 2½ times the World Health Organisation’s earlier estimates.

Air pollution shortens lives by nearly three years on average around the globe and is responsible for 8.8 million premature deaths each year, according to a report in the journal Cardiovascular Research.

“Air pollution is a larger public health risk than tobacco smoking,” said lead author Jos Lelieveld of Germany’s Max Planck Institute.

“Much of it can be avoided by replacing fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy.”

The scientists said air pollution each year killed 19 times more people than malaria, nine times more than HIV/Aids and three times more than alcohol.

China is the worst-hit country, with citizens losing 4.1 years on average and six years in Hebei province, according to the Air Quality Life Index, based on research by the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago.

Air pollution damages blood vessels through greater oxidative stress, increasing blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, heart attacks and heart failure.

In the months to come a study should be conducted into whether the falling pollution as a consequence of the coronavirus saves more lives than the virus kills. 

Satellite pictures have clearly shown pollution clearing across China in recent weeks. 

Factory activity in China tumbled at a record pace and US manufacturing also slowed in February as orders contracted. Observers will be looking for signs of economic suffering in the US as Donald Trump seeks re-election in November. 

Incumbents rarely lose US presidential elections: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush stand out as recent examples. The phrase most associated with Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory over Bush was: “It’s the economy, stupid.” If the economic waves from the coronavirus can ripple through to November in the US, Trump might well struggle to invigorate his blue-collar voters. 

Japan’s factory activity was also hit by the sharpest contraction in nearly four years.

Singapore’s ambassador to Indonesia, Anil Kumar Nayar, said the Lion City remained open for business and there were effective measures in place to stop the coronavirus spreading.

He said a complete lockdown of Singapore was impossible and regional co-operation was needed.

“I have to emphasise that Singapore is safe as far as Covid-19 is concerned. Our Indonesian friends who have business in Singapore, who would like to visit Singapore, please continue to do so,” Kumar Nayar told the media in Jakarta.

He said travellers from areas like Wuhan in China and Daegu in South Korea would be quarantined.

“We give a stay-at-home notice to people coming back to Singapore from those places. This is strictly enforced and we can deport or ban the entry of people who refuse to comply,” the ambassador added.

The Singapore Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) dropped by 1.6 points from the previous month to 48.7 for February, the largest monthly decline since August 2014, the Singapore Institute of Purchasing and Materials Management (SIPMM) reported. Anything below 50 points separates growth from contraction. It is the lowest level since February 2016’s 48.5, which followed two months of expansion.

On Sunday, Singapore has confirmed 106 coronavirus cases with seven patients in critical condition or intensive care.

Dr Chua Hak Bin, an economist at Maybank, said: “We think the PMI will likely jump in the second quarter as companies restart and catch up on pent-up orders, as supply disruptions dissipate.

“Manufacturing and exports will likely stage a V-shaped recovery, while tourism and air travel are likely to see a prolonged U-shaped slump,” he told the media.

“The latest PMI reading was attributed to first-time contractions for the key indicators of new orders, new exports, factory output, inventory and employment,” said the SIPMM.

While the economic impact of the coronavirus is tangible and serious, the resulting reduction in air pollution should cause us to address how we organise our societies. Our governments must question whether constant growth and profit is the only measure of success, rather than human and environmental health. 


Singapore on a particularly polluted day. Will more lives be saved by the reduction of pollution as a consequence of the coronavirus-inspired economic downturn than die from the virus itself? Picture credit: Wikimedia