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Welcome Address by Minister for Health Mr Ong Ye Kung at Information Session on Strengthening Health Emergency Preparedness in Cities and Urban Settings on 13 January 2022

1          It has been two years since the emergence of COVID-19 and the world continues to experience the impact of the pandemic on all aspects of our lives. Collectively, I believe we are in a better position than 2020.

2          We know more about the virus. We have safe and effective vaccines against it. We have diagnostics and therapeutics to help manage the pandemic. We have gained valuable experience in implementing non-pharmaceutical public health interventions to slow down the spread.

3          However, the world remains in a fragile state as equitable access to medical countermeasures continues to be a challenge in many parts of the world. It is sobering to start 2022 with the observation that both Delta and Omicron are driving up global case numbers at record high levels, stressing even the most well-resourced healthcare systems.

4          And one day, we will have to confront Disease X. Is the world prepared enough?  And in Singapore, we constantly ask ourselves – is our city prepared enough?

5          As a city-state and an international travel and trade hub, we are especially at risk from infectious threats. During SARS in 2003, we experienced first-hand the economic, health and social devastation that an infectious threat was capable of. We have thus invested heavily in pandemic preparedness and response over the years and that has put us in a better position to respond to COVID-19.

6          However even when COVID-19 arrived, we find that there are areas that we are inadequate, in terms of our preparedness. From SARS, we developed a set of protocols that is heavily based on contact tracing, quarantine and containment. But once you have a much more infectious disease such as COVID-19, containment is over time not effective. We had to switch our rulebook to one closer to managing influenza. The world is now 55% urbanised. In 2050, it is estimated 68% will be urbanised. And between now and then, new diseases will hit our countries and our cities. And all cities around the world, where the majority of the population now resides in, will have to come under a system that is prepared enough to protect them, to respond to the disease.

7          I think ultimately, we want to preserve human lives. You can’t run away from three major factors, which are: How fast a disease spreads – the R as we call it. How well we prevent people from falling severely sick, which is a function of vaccinations. And then if they do fall very sick, how well does the healthcare system respond to it. And then there is actually a fourth dimension, which is how well the non-medical systems respond to a pandemic like this. Can children go to school? Can people go to work? Can social amenities continue to open so that people have a sense of normalcy? Does the psychology of the society remain strong, resilient and intact? And these are all key aspects of urban preparedness. Singapore has learned a lot through two big episodes of SARS and COVID-19. We will continue to learn from other cities and other member states of WHO.

8          In our capacity as a WHO Executive Board member, Singapore has been working with WHO on championing preparedness, especially in cities and urban settings, which is all we have. While the work started even before COVID-19, the pandemic has magnified the essential role that cities and urban settings play in preventing, preparing for, responding to, and recovering from health emergencies. Three broad perspectives worth highlighting:

·    First, strengthening preparedness in urban settings contributes to the efforts of State Parties in realising their commitments to the International Health Regulations (IHR 2005).

·         Second, independent experts and distinguished luminaries have strongly advocated for the transformation of global pandemic preparedness and response systems. This is an important area to follow up on.

·      Finally, we must build on the political momentum to strengthen global, regional, national and subnational preparedness.

9          In closing, I would like to express Singapore’s appreciation of the leadership shown by the WHO during this difficult period. I would also like to acknowledge Western Pacific Regional Director Dr Takeshi Kasai’s leadership in guiding important work done in our region. We must learn from the painful lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure that we are prepared for the inevitable emergence of Disease X. But by working together, I believe we will succeed and I am very much looking forward to hearing from all our distinguished speakers today.

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