‘Some of our officers are still hallucinating’: Ambassador to China Lui Tuck Yew on the hard work behind Singapore’s COVID-19 evacuations from Hubei

BEIJING: Singapore was among a number of countries that evacuated its citizens from Chinas Hubei province, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Two evacuation flights that landed on Jan 30 and Feb 9 brought home nearly 270 Singaporeans from Wuhan, the provincial capital.



In an exclusive interview with CNA, Singapores Ambassador to China Lui Tuck Yew described how the Foreign Service worked around the clock to secure the relevant approvals from various levels of the Chinese government, including those in 16 cities and counties.

READ: Singapore leaders stand in solidarity with China over COVID-19 outbreak

“We did so without any presence on the ground, as none of our officers could actually get into Wuhan or Hubei – because the whole province was locked down; and so we had to plan, communicate and execute the whole operation remotely here in Beijing,” said Mr Lui.

Mr Lui, who is just three months into his new role, described the entire exercise as “an amazing race” – one that was carried out under extreme time pressure.



According to him, Singapore was only the third country – after Japan and the United States – to be given approval to evacuate citizens, and it was the first country to evacuate citizens from across Hubei province.

A screen shows cancelled flights is pictured at Tianhe airport in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on Jan 23, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Leo Ramirez)

READ: Wuhan virus: 92 Singaporeans flown home from Wuhan; some remain in the city as they are symptomatic

He recounted that there were evacuees who lived 10 hours away from the airport, in a remote village in the Shennongjia nature reserve.

In such cases, the time pressure was intense because departure approvals came just 12 hours before flights, and the transport system was non-existent.

Fortunately, there were Singaporeans who stepped up.

“We know of Singaporeans who – though they decided not to return home – volunteered to drive other Singaporeans to the airport. Because transportation was very, very challenging," said Mr Lui.

With public transport unavailable and many of the rental vehicles already hired by local officials, getting around was not easy. Many rental companies also pulled out when they found out their drivers would be quarantined if they went to Wuhan.

This photo taken on Feb 20, 2020 shows two staff members crossing an empty road as they deliver vegetables to a hospital in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province. (Photo: STR/AFP)


Since the evacuations, Mr Lui said morale among his staff was high because they believe they played a significant part in helping Singaporeans return home safely.

But he added the workload had taken a toll on some of them.

“Some of our officers are still hallucinating, sometimes hearing their phones ring even when the phones aren't ringing,” he said.

“Because over the course of those few weeks, you were just constantly on the telephone, talking to Singaporeans, talking to Chinese officials, talking to officials in Hubei. And sometimes in your dreams, you were reliving some of these experiences.

“But our time together in a concentrated and intense manner has actually brought the team closer."

READ: Second flight bringing Singaporeans from Wuhan lands; medical screening and quarantine for 174 passengers

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The workload over the past monRead More – Source

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