Comparing Covid-19 with SARS: How history can tell us the impact of the new coronavirus to Singapore Businesses

January 7, 2020
Comparing Covid-19 with SARS: How history can tell us the impact of the new coronavirus to Singapore Businesses

The first case of the novel coronavirus arrived in Singapore on 20 Jan 2020 from Wuhan, China. Several weeks later Singapore raised its level to DORSCON Orange, and started restricted travel between affected countries, and canceled large events locally. All of these measures make a substantial impact to businesses whose revenue relied heavily on crowds.

SARS was the first virus within the coronavirus class that made a huge global impact. Similarly originating from China as Covid-19 did, we can look to statistics from 2003 to get some indication of how businesses in Singapore will be affected.

Tourism, Hotels, Retail, and Transportation industries will get hit the most, but rebound is quick.

International Visitors to Singapore Data taken from

International Visitors to Singapore dropped from 1.5 million visitors in Mar 2003 to 507K visitors in May 2003. However, the number of visitors quickly rebounded in July 2003.

Not all industries were hit equally by SARS

Singapore GDP by Industry Source: Economic Survey of Singapore 2003, Singapore Department of Statistics website.
Table depicting the above information on coronavirus impact to Singapore in 2003

Financial services continued to grow in Q2, and all industries rebounded in Q3.

Psychological fear impacts the market in multiple cycles

While this is not a direct metric of how businesses were impacted, market sentiment often correlates with consumption behaviour, especially during world epidemics.  

Here we compare two index funds: S&P 500 Index, and Heng Seng Index. Hong Kong was severely impacted by the SARS epidemic, so it would make a good comparison to more globally watched index.

Data taken from, as publically released information of both indexes.

Overall during the Sars period, S&P 500 Index and Heng Seng Index went down ~13%, but they both came down in cycles across 3 months. Both indexes however rebounded within 3 months. Virus outbreaks are often delayed when they reach new countries, and Singapore as an international hub is highly sensitive to the global economy. Thus businesses are impacted not just by domestic infections but severely impacted countries overseas over time as well.

So where we are now?

Data taken from, as publically released information of both indexes.

Where the market was still recovering at the tail end of 2019, we are currently seeing the likely first cycle of market dips, with more to come if the trajectory follows that of SARS. After China’s major outbreak, Korea, Italy, and other countries are now experiencing a rise in cases. More regional quantines and travel bans are sure to follow.

But there are a few key differences between SARS and Covid-19 which will impact businesses around the world:

  • Covid-19 is 5 times less lethal than SARS, but is several times more infectious**
  • Covid-19 can spread asymptomatically.
  • Previous sufferers of Covid-19 can easily get infected again
  • Technology advancements in medicine show promising but early results for treating and curing Covid-19

**The Epidemiological Characteristics of an Outbreak of 2019 Novel Coronavirus Diseases (COVID-19), Covid-19 mortality rate of 2% versus SARS mortality rate of 9.6%

After Covid-19 was found to be mild comparative to previous epidemics, many countries have delayed their efforts to provide preventive measures to control the virus, and are often caught unprepared for outbreaks. Unlike SARS which had very clear symptoms of the virus, we are increasingly learning how difficult it is to diagnose a person with this novel coronavirus accurately.

Since 2003, the world’s economy has become more interdependent. We might find that the cyclic impact of the virus could be more pronounced, and last longer than SARS did. But just like the previous corona viruses, the global economy will likely pick up before the end of the year. Businesses who manage to use this time to train employees and upgrade infrastructure will often benefit once the market rebounds.

To outwit the challenges that face us in this difficult climate, we can learn from past data to learn about potential risks and opportunities impacting our business. We may need to revise our business goals and regularly track how Covid-19 has impacted our business. But as we did during the SARS epidemic, we can make the best out of this crisis and come out stronger.

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