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Covid-19: Do we need rules to live by?

My mother has just made her way to the store to buy biscuits. Masked up. She said the biscuits I bought yesterday were more like high-class snacks, rather than the cheap “filling” cream cracker type. Our freezer is close to bursting, with all types of meat. She worries that she hasn’t stocked up enough fish. The vegetable compartment in the refrigerator is filled with greens and fruits, making we wonder if we would be going vegetarian or will be eating salads everyday.

Yesterday, when news of an impending “lockdown” (false; just tougher measures) seeped out from our leaky G, I sat in front of the food cabinet to count the amount of tinned food we have. What about cooking oil? Evaporated milk? What, no condensed milk?

Yes, I went out to the supermarket yesterday before the Prime Minister came on TV. So did a whole lot of other, mainly young, people. All of us seemed to have got the same “leaked” memo. Because I had an inkling that we won’t be eating out for some time, I we had lunch in a restaurant, which had only four tables of customers out of about 25 tables.

Life is changing.

I’m counting the number of masks we have and got a little flummoxed when my mother asked if she could use the same mask (the sort handed out by the G) again. She said she had only donned it for half an hour. I guess so, I said – and I wonder if I am right. I said it might be better to use a scarf because it’s washable, but she said that would make her look like some sort of crazy woman.

I looked out the window today and it’s like last Saturday. People lugging groceries in trolleys, or carrying take-aways from the nearby coffeeshop. More people were masked, but not the elderly. I wonder if the coffeeshop is thronged by the regulars who while their time away there. Does the coffeeshop owner know that he will have to shoo them away from Tuesday and patrons can only ta pao? I wonder if the manicure and massage outlets know what’s coming too. You can’t do any kind of social distancing in these places, but it seems we can still get a “basic” hair cut. So ladies, you have to let the grey peep out of your head for a while.

I think the next few days will be confusing times for the people, as well as for business. I think about the industrial park located at one end of my neighbourhood. I’m used to fighting for space on the pavement with the workers who cycle to work every morning. Maybe, I’ll have the pavement to myself soon. Except you know what? I think more people are out exercising today.

So everybody should stay at home from Tuesday, even if they are doing work that can’t be done remotely. Some businesses which have already started their workers on tele-commuting will have an easier time making the transition to “closed shop”. At my university, the gradual move towards e-learning over the weeks has become a complete transition. Examinations that used to take place in halls have gone online or replaced with assessments that don’t require group work or sitting in close quarters.

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I wonder about the offices and factories who thought they could still operate because they put in social distancing measures, like seating workers further away. I bet they’re thinking now that they’ve been wasting their time.

Parliament sits on Monday and I wonder if I should make a trip there since it can’t be considered an essential trip. I hope the authorities realise that they’re not practising what they preach: They’re talking about big national issues, like what sort of money should be spent on saving lives and livelihoods, in the old analog style. If not live-streaming now, then when?

For me, the “non” lockdown in what is still Dorscon Orange isn’t too much of a bother. I am used to amusing myself at home with my hobbies and am actually more solitary than social in nature.  My work is not subject to the ups and downs of the private sector, that is, my university still pays me the same.

I think now about those whose employment will be affected and what other measures Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat can pull out of his suitcase to make sure that even if they are idling at home, through no fault of their own, they will still have money to tide them over this one month, and still have a job when the damn virus has been contained.

That $54 billion in stimulus measures don’t seem like very much any more. Nor does that Job Support Scheme that covers a part of salaries that employers have to fork out. Even property tax rebates properly filtered down to the tenants can’t have much impact – when the tenants aren’t open for business. (I am correct in saying this right? Because it cannot be that boutiques and departments stores are considered essential business. They are like Toto and 4D outlets aren’t they?)

People will start comparing the Monday package to what other countries are doing to save their workers’ jobs, like providing 100 per cent wage subsidy. When the second stimulus package was announced, most of us went “wow”, un-used to so much generosity from the G. We should take a step back and ask if this is enough, and whether the approach of putting money into employers’ hands instead of the workers is the right one. We shouldn’t be trying to zip up the loopholes, like mandating that landlords pass on the benefits, by rushing out legislation. I thought that was remiss of the G, to presume that people will do the right thing, instead of putting in place measures to ensure that public money will be spent correctly.

Likewise, I was surprised that one of the latest clusters was a nursing home. I would have thought that a place full of vulnerable people would have been ring-fenced from the start, with no-visitor rules in place. It seems like people will only do what the G told them to do. Worse, they will get around it if no penalties are in place to ensure compliance.

I think this is the problem with the G’s approach to containing the virus. It seems dependent on moral suasion.

Look at how every minister at yesterday’s press briefing assiduously avoided the word “lockdown” with Mr Wong reiterating that the focus be on the measures, now made much more stringent, rather than trying to stick a label on them. Nor is Singapore at Dorscon Red, despite the school shutdown and closure of non-essential workplaces, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong. People can still go out, ta pao food, exercise and buy groceries. So it’s not quite a state of emergency with curfews and penalties for loitering in groups.

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So, the G is actually depending on everyone to “know what to do”.

I think most of us are more used to being told which line we can’t step across, and I don’t just mean that very useful 1 metre apart tape that is now patterning the floors of public places. Let me use that taped floor as an example.  If those lines weren’t there, we’d be hapless and helpless wondering if we’re too close or too far apart and thinking that we can’t possibly tell someone we don’t know to move away. With the line, we can say: Stand there. You blind ah? Didn’t see line ah?

You know what I mean.

I find it odd that the G seems suddenly to have so much faith in our ability to do the right thing in a crisis, but not as trusting with the people in normal times. You do realise that our everyday lives are criss-crossed by rules and regulations, laws and OB markers right? We do not make a U-turn on a road if there is no U-turn sign. Why? Because we’re afraid that we’re doing the wrong thing. We’d rather have clear signs telling us we can U-turn – or cannot U-turn.

It’s like the “to mask or not to mask” debate that has been going on. The G was emphatic in telling the people to only wear masks when they’re sick. It has scientists and the World Health Organisation on its side regarding the efficacy of mask use. The other more prosaic reason is that even healthcare workers will run out of masks if all of us start buying them. (We didn’t make a distinction between masks – surgical or DIY). We even got berated for pressing for more free masks per household.

But those who believe that masks should be worn can still do so – and persuade others to their point of view. Are we so afraid of G admonition that we delegate all our thinking to it? The one (or few times) that we have the flexibility to do what we think is correct and what do we do instead? Berate the G for changing its stance on mask use.

I think it’s perfectly normal for positions to change in the light of new information. But I think the G has to account for how most Singaporeans would react to official pronouncements. When PM Lee Hsien Loong said people will no longer be discouraged from wearing masks, people ask if this means they are encouraged to. They want a dictum, a rule, so that everybody will be in line.

It is the same for those who badger for closure of schools, citing risk to their children. There’s nothing wrong with pulling your kid out of school if you are so concerned about health risks. That must surely outweigh any fear that your kid is missing out on valuable lessons. I think the G did right to keep children in the safe setting of schools. No student got infected by their classmates. Those who were, caught the virus from adults in the family. There is another practical reason to keep schools open – will parents be able to watch over them at home since it is still business/work-as-usual for them? Instead, students, and teachers, were gradually eased into home-based learning.

If I have a quibble, it is about how that one-day-a-week home-based learning experiment might not be enough to get every student used to sitting at home  staring at the computer. You also have to hope that the technical glitches would have been ironed out by April 8. But the silver lining is that most parents would be at home, and those working in essential services can still drop their children off at school. I am glad because these students in school who have no family support would be getting close attention; they are the ones who probably need it more in non-crisis times.

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I suppose people who are already ideologically opposed to the G will bash it whether it does or doesn’t do anything.  They are free to do so. Hindsight is perfect, they say. For example, should we have done the drastic thing and shut the borders and stop all intra-travel and mingling from Day 1? The G said that at that point in time, with mainly imported cases, it did not make sense to have such a shock to the system.

That’s something I can wrap my head around. Singapore did not face the flood of cases now experienced in the United States and Europe with near immediate high community transmission numbers. Based on the evidence, the G did most things right. If it changed its mind because of new evidence, the only issue is whether it could have decided on the change earlier. 

More importantly, we  have to ask ourselves  whether we are doing any thinking of our own when there are no rules, but guidelines. I feel sorry that Mr Wong has to keep referring people who ask him if it’s okay to have 11, not 10, people in a gathering. It’s not just about “missing the point” about social distancing but reflects this need for a hard and fast rule for everyone to adhere to.

It almost makes me wish that we are in total lockdown, with a health emergency declared by the State. We need this one month to put a brake on the virus or we’ll be watching the number of infections climb. We don’t need the G to tell us to stay at home as much as possible. We don’t even need to talk about social responsibility. We just need to exercise some common sense.






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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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