Canton Repository

April 12, 2003

SARS has deadly impact on economy

Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON — A rapidly spreading virus that appears to have originated in the Far East has caused a dramatic drop in tourism, business meetings and economic activity in Singapore, where Canton native Franklin Lavin serves as U.S. ambassador.

“There has definitely been an impact on daily life, although I think people increasingly recognize that you can go ahead with day-to-day life and not have it dramatically altered by SARS,” Lavin said in a phone interview from the island nation this week.

Tourism and business travel to Singapore have fallen since Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome broke out. There is no known cure for SARS, which has symptoms similar to pneumonia and has killed at least 116 people and infected more than 2,800 across the globe.

“If you look at shops and restaurants, there has been an enormous drop-off in business,” Lavin said.

Singapore, a prosperous city-state, has reported 133 cases of SARS, compared to more than 2,300 in China and 166 in the United States, the World Health Organization said Friday. In Singapore, nine people have died from SARS.

Federal health officials have advised Americans to defer nonessential travel to China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam, where the disease is spreading.

Lack of knowledge about SARS and how it is spread, and the absence of a cure, have stoked fears of the disease.

Most of those who have caught the virus in Singapore have been health workers or others who contracted it at two hospitals. No Americans or other foreigners are among those infected.

“The disease has been largely concentrated in a very small group of people who are somehow connected to these index cases — individuals here who got the disease from visiting China and came here and spread it,” Lavin said. “No one in the American community here has yet contracted this disease, though of course there is concern.”

Travel to Singapore is down not just because of SARS, but also because of fears of terrorist activity generated by the war in Iraq.

No terrorist incidents have occurred in Singapore or Southeast Asia since the war began more than three weeks ago.

While there have been anti-American protests in the region, “they were smaller than expected and much smaller than those we saw during the Afghanistan war,” Lavin said.

Lavin had only been ambassador for a few months in 2001 when intelligence officials foiled a terrorist plot to blow up the U.S. embassy and attack other American interests in Singapore.

After SARS hit Singapore, the American School followed the lead of Singapore schools and shut down for more than a week. Lavin said it was “sort of like snow days back in Ohio” when his children were home from the American School. The K-12 school serves American students.

“One snow day is kind of fun,” Lavin said. “But we are looking at one to two weeks of snow days, so it is no longer fun. In fact, after a few days, it can drive the parents a bit nuts.”