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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

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Keep calm and follow instructions

When quarantine orders were issued during the 2003 Sars crisis, nobody here batted an eyelid. There was no outcry about restricting freedom of movement, as there was in Hong Kong. Those who flouted the stay-at-home rule, like an elderly uncle who waved his quarantine notice around while quaffing beer at a coffeeshop, were instantly condemned. They should be jailed! Preferably in a solitary cell.

Singaporeans generally followed the Government’s lead. Note that at that time, social media was in its infancy.

If there is something to be optimistic about today, it is that the  Wuhan virus hasn’t spread into the community. (Touch wood!) So far, all 10 victims hail from Wuhan and there seems to have been no spread of the infection here. The hotels on Sentosa where they had stayed would have been off-limits to everyone if so, just like Pasir Panjang Wholesale Market had to be shut down during Sars.

Of course, the fear of community spread is ever-present, and we’ve come to the point when some people want to ring-fence the whole of Singapore from outsiders, especially those from China. So far, the entry ban is on those who have something to do with Hubei province where Wuhan is.

The World Health Organisation has not (yet) issued a global health alert which would have required countries to co-ordinate their responses. During Sars, one critical response was checking for the authorities to screen people leaving for abroad through thermal imaging and temperature checks. If each country does its part to keep the infected at home, then there is less chance of them infecting a plane-load of people or start the virus in a new destination.

There was no worldwide travel ban probably because by the time scientists came to grips with the nature of the virus – no thanks to the feet-dragging Chinese authorities – it had already surfaced in so many countries. Nevertheless, air travel and tourism were still badly hit.  You should have been on Orchard Road in those days; it was unrecognisably empty of cars and people.

Now because of the quick spread of information, everyone can be a Wuhan virus expert, knowledgeably discussing contagion rates and the lethality of the virus. So we know that it is more contagious than Sars, that is, it spreads more quickly. An infected/contagious person might not exhibit symptoms at all; during Sars, a stray cough or sneeze would set people scurrying. So that’s the scary bit about the virus.  But it doesn’t seem to be as deadly as Sars, as it killed those who already had underlying medical conditions. Sars, on the other hand,  killed perfectly healthy relatives of the infected and even doctors and nurses who treated them.

Older people who have experienced those dreadful months of Sars would be able to put the current Wuhan season in some perspective. We knew nothing of the disease then, and it had to be given a new name, but we know more about this virus. While China tried to cover up the start and spread of Sars, it is now keen to show that it is a responsible global citizen, locking down its cities and imposing bans.

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Much of the fear and anxiety has to do, I suppose, with how the media, local and global, play up/down the virus. Viruses are sexy. Just look at the number of movies and television shows which have to do with an unknown virus signalling an apocalypse, unleashed as a biological weapon or  simply as an act of God

It’s easy to panic when you see terms like “deadly”, “mysterious” and read about people who can’t get their hands on a mask – even if they don’t really need it now. In the usual Singaporean way, we demand action from the G. Methinks we must be careful not to pile pressure on the G for action based on irrational or unfounded fears. Even as they heed public concerns and anxieties, politicians and health experts must be left to make decisions based on available information.

During Sars, the mainstream media was the only source of local news, delivering government messages, reporting on what was happening in affected areas and to affected households. It also acted as a feedback channel to the authorities on the anxieties at ground level. Reams of columns were written, including those which aren’t complimentary of the government’s handling of the crisis.

But in general, the media took on a confidence-building role mindful about sensationalising people’s fears.  At that time, the ministers excelled, not at information management or control (which they left to the media) but in being honest about what was known, as well as what was not known. No question was out of bounds. In fact, I recall that both sides of table actually worked on a common way to explain how Sars was spread, because different media were using different terms. 

In times of crisis, it behoves the government to take the lead with the best men and women in charge. This job has been given to the 4G leaders although, frankly, I don’t think people really care “what” G so long as they know what they are about.

But whatever G is in charge, the question is whether people will follow and co-operate. Or whether they would be more intent in breaking down confidence that people have that we will ride out the crisis. Such troublemakers have far greater access to woolly minds than they did in the Sars period. The number of supposedly well-intentioned WhatsApp messages and social media posts about avoiding this or that place is increasing. The G has used POFMA – and rightly so – but it is also for the rest of us to add some sanity to the mis-information mix which has been spiced up with racist and xenophobic overtones.

For example, I don’t understand those who attribute nefarious motives to the G for not instituting an all-out ban immediately on Chinese nationals entering the country. I would rather believe that the G has worked out the pros and cons and its calculations must definitely have included the risks of infection, the impact on the economy and other interests. That’s what governments do : calibrate moves in the interest of the people at various points in time. No elected government decides to put its citizens at risk in a willy-nilly manner.

II also don’t understand those who politicise the Wuhan virus crisis and immediately pour cold water over whatever the G is saying or doing. Public health issues shouldn’t viewed through a political lens. It is, for example, far too early to compare the work of the 4G leaders with those who dealt with the Sars crisis. While the 3G leaders now generally earn acclaim for their handling of Sars, those with longer memories will remember that they too had a few stumbles, especially in the beginning. For example, there was one official who mixed up confirmed and suspected cases and quarantine numbers so much so that he made it sound like the whole of Singapore should be walled up. He was quickly replaced.

It is more important for the people to ask if the healthcare system is up to dealing with a possible epidemic and see how as individuals, companies or groups, we can help plug any gaps or counter misinformation or mischief. One opposition politician, for example, was driven to take down his post when he intimated that the virus inflicted on the Chinese was retribution for misdeeds. Too many people weighed in against him.

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It is also more important to give our support to front-line staff who continue to man their stations: the immigration officers, temperature-takers, doctors, nurses and hospital attendants who would be more exposed to the virus than the rest of us.

I would say that Singapore is mightily prepared because of our experience with Sars.  In its aftermath, more isolation wards were built and medical records of hospital patients were put up in a shared database. Even procedures like a quarantine allowance were instituted as a standard operating procedure and certain buildings, like university housing, already marked as temporary homes for the quarantined.

If schools had to be locked down, the e-learning experience which was first forced on students at time, has already reached a high level of implementation. The police too have plenty of experience doing contact tracing and there is probably some kind of war room already set up somewhere.

We can complain that the G is arrogant, high-handed and believes it is always right. I think in matters such as a disease outbreak or a financial crisis, it would always be more “right” than wrong. So let’s keep calm and follow instructions.






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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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