I was at Bedok Mall last night and saw the crowd at NTUC FairPrice supermarket. I thought it was just people who got off work getting ready for Chap Goh Mei dinner today. Then I got home and realised that domestic helper had been sent to the nearby supermarket to buy…rice. There’s no arguing with my mother, who maintains that those people must know something that we don’t.
My mother is a practical woman. If everybody does something, you’ve got to get on the bandwagon. You can also call it kiasuism or fear of missing out. Some call it “being safe rather than sorry’’. Other labels : “self-preservation’’, “survival instincts’’ and “being prepared for the worse’’. The irrational behaviour is covered by a sheen of self-righteousness. But it is also a reflection of whether we understand the circumstances we are in and believe that the authorities have the virus well in hand.
It doesn’t help that my mother’s paranoia is being fuelled by WhatsApp messages with pictures of emptying shelves. Frankly, there is some sense of excitement in the air. People are shopping not just for themselves but for relatives and neighbours. The excitement/panic spreads. It is as infectious as the virus.
You can’t argue against irrationality. People are calmed only by good and strong leadership. I maintain that the G hasn’t done badly at all.
In fact, I am pretty flummoxed at the way some people are hitting out at the G for not doing enough or being too late with action. So many people are still fixated on getting their hands on more masks, even though the G is giving out four to each household and we’ve been told time and again not to wear them unless we’re sick. But people read that other countries are telling their people to do just the opposite and some doubt creeps in. Then the rumour spreads: The G actually doesn’t have enough masks, which is why it says only the sick should wear them.
The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation laws have been invoked on a few rumour-mongers and malicious malcontents but even the mighty machinery of government isn’t able to squash all silly talk. In fact, it would look downright abusive of the G to clamp down on people who believe they mean well by passing on scraps of what they know or read or heard, and coming up with their own “protective’’ measures which they want to share with others. They aren’t people out to bring down the G. They are scared. They want evidence that things are okay, like being shown the stockpile of masks and being told exactly how much food we have – although I wouldn’t discount them clamouring for their immediate release so that they can hoard them and feel safe.
Some people have said the current buying frenzy reflects a level of distrust with the G and 4G leadership. I think it’s more to do with mixed signals that have been thrown out by the G wittingly and unwittingly, bad prediction of ground reaction and an inadequate Internet strategy to calm the people.
Having the Singapore Armed Forces packing masks and instituting a massive distribution strategy only fuels the perception that the masks are necessary, rather than pre-cautionary. Unpleasant or undiplomatic as it seems, more elaboration on why we take a different tack on mask-wearing compared to other countries would be good. Even if the jury is still out on mask wearing, it would be comforting to hear that the G has considered all points – and that this is why it decided to do it this way.
Then there is the inadequate elaboration on the colour-coded alerts. The last time we used them was during the H1N1 scare in 2009 when Singapore went to orange. But this Disease Outbreak Response System Condition or DORSCON only entered the public vocabulary a couple of days ago, when we are told that it’s yellow. So almost overnight, we’re suddenly told it’s code orange. How many people will realise that it is a “system’’ response, with instructions that go out to schools, workplaces and are national level control measures? What is the individual or household supposed to do? Keep washing their hands?
My hope is that someone will quickly explain what the different colours mean in effect, especially code red.
The “problem’’ with an effective government is that we expect it to be able to see the future and not have a single mis-step. In fact, that’s what the G boasts of constantly – its ability to think long-term and strategically. Some quarters are calling it out on this, disregarding the unknown nature of the virus and how it spreads or how scientists have conflicting views. When comparing Singapore’s actions with others, we might want to remember that it is politically pleasing to make big gestures, but they may not always be meaningful and hurt the country in the long run. How long, for example, do we think that businesses facing a shortfall of manpower can last, even with an extremely generous Budget package, if we impose a ban on travellers not knowing when it can be lifted?
I must trust that in making decisions, the G has done its calculations and various cost-benefit analyses based on circumstances and information available at a specific point in time. What is important is that it is flexible enough to change measures, upgrade or downgrade when circumstances change or more information surfaces. When it does, it is not the time for people to say “I told you so’’ and start slagging off the G for being late. Better a G that makes quick decisions based on close tracking, then one stuck in a groove because it thinks it’s right.
While some “infrastructural’’ developments have been made and welcomed, like MaskGoWhere and a dedicated WhatsApp channel, methinks something needs to be done about people-to-people communication at the personal level and through social media. MSM must be chuffed at the amount of G ads recently, but besides throwing more money into advertising, some concerted social media campaign should be rolled out to counteract the panic. We can’t always be depending on ministers’ Facebook postings! Plus the G’s grassroots networks don’t seem to have been effective in conveying sentiments upstairs or calming people downstairs.
I don’t recall any panic during the H1N1 scare. Perhaps, it’s because the SARS outbreak was only five years before. And there was very little social media in place. Ten years have passed and instead of being confident that we have response measures in place, we’ve gone the other way. Instead of becoming more informed because of the Internet, we’ve become more confused. If the G is unable to make its voice heard in the cacophony of social media, then it behoves rational citizens to play their part, much like an anti-virus patch.