Commentary: Fighting fear is key part in battling COVID-19
A perceived lack of transparency and accountability has seen governments around the world deal with trust issues as they tackle the outbreak, says Eugene K B Tan.
SINGAPORE: The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak will eventually come to an end – hopefully sooner rather than later.
But the impact of the outbreak, be it to governments, healthcare systems, the economy, people’s lives, may linger for some time to come.
However, as countries endeavour to deal with the public health threat, they will also have to inspire and provide confidence that they (and the people) are equal to the task.
Unfortunately, fear of the virus has spread faster than the virus itself.
SELF-CENTRED ATTITUDES IN SINGAPORE
In Singapore, this has resulted in people engaging in self-centred or irrational behaviour, which often make matters worse. The irresponsible use of social media has given virility to fear and panic.
Notwithstanding the valiant efforts by frontline healthcare, security, and other professionals, a foreboding sense of dread or even apocalyptic premonition appears to have developed over the outbreak.
For example, last weekend we saw people heading in droves to supermarkets to panic buy and hoard basic necessities and essentials. Face masks, bread, rice, formula milk, instant noodles, and even toilet paper, were some of the more coveted items.
Besides the panic-buying, some Singaporeans also felt entitled to frown upon nurses in their uniforms using public transport.
A social media post by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung on Feb 10 pointed out that people were also shunning Victoria Junior College students in uniforms because one of its teachers was recently reported infected with the coronavirus.
Such social distancing measures are not only socially irresponsible but will fuel exclusionary and dehumanising responses against certain groups.
Previously, it was xenophobic reactions to mainland Chinese in our midst; now, it’s nurses using public transport and refusing to serve students. Might others in the frontline combating the outbreak and those who recover from the virus be next?
PUBLIC CONFIDENCE LOST ELSEWHERE
Elsewhere in the world, there have been examples of what can happen when there is a lack of general trust in efforts to address the outbreak.
In China, public trust in the management of the threat is critically low primarily due to an initial cover-up by the provincial authorities. Not only was precious time lost in preventing the spread but it accelerated many more infections within and without China. There remain concerns China has been vastly undercounting cases of the virus.
READ: Commentary: Protecting public health is key in novel coronavirus fight but we must also tackle xenophobia
Dr Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor in Wuhan, had in December last year first raised a red-flag on a mysterious virus infecting people in the city but was quickly silenced. He had said in a subsequent interview:
If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier ... I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.
Similarly, distrust in the Hong Kong government’s strategy prompted protests and strikes by healthcare workers to demand full border closure with the mainland to stem the infections.
In South Korea, the not-in-my-backyard attitudes have emerged as residents in two towns protested when the government planned to quarantine Korean evacuees from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, in their towns.
This was primarily because of poor initial communication by the government in explaining the rationale of the move and to assure residents that their safety is of priority.
Such protests also emerged in Natuna in Indonesia where the country has quarantined about 280 citizens and flight crew evacuated from Wuhan.
It did not help matters that the Indonesian Health Minister’s claims that the country has taken all the precautions needed to maintain zero cases was met with wide public ridicule, cynicism and disbelief. The government’s nonchalance has raised severe doubts whether it is ready to tackle the virus.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF SINGAPORE
As such, the reaction of Singaporeans in these aspects is curious.
The Government here has done relatively well in keeping communications open and fluid. Press conferences helmed by the multi-agency task force chairs, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, have provided important information and timely updates.
Pre-emptive measures and swift and decisive action were and are being taken to manage the public health threat. There has also been transparency. Collectively, they provide stability and normalcy amid a rapidly evolving situation.
The number of cases in Singapore appear relatively high given the aggressive and methodical approach to detecting cases.
Trust that the healthcare system is well prepared, coupled with free medical treatment for those infected with the virus and financially assisting those in isolation have incentivised those unwell to come forward. The containment of clusters of local transmission has helped prevent the virus from spreading.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in his remarks to the nation last Saturday that the current outbreak may morph into widespread infection.
But he also used his speech, in Malay, English and Mandarin, to calm the palpable public fear and assure Singaporeans that Singapore is prepared for the outbreak. He also contextualised this outbreak against other outbreaks in the past.
Government leaders have also come out firmly to caution against unsavoury behaviour. When the panic-buying began last Friday afternoon, several leaders had come out that evening to urge calm, explain and provide assurance that national stockpiles of essential items like rice are plenty.
Supermarkets also quickly followed up and replenished stocks to assure Singaporeans that there is enough for everyone without hoarding. And when assurances weren’t enough, NTUC supermarkets imposed purchase controls on some key items to prevent over-buying.
Many of Singapore’s leaders, like Ministers Chan Chun Sing, Desmond Lee, Masagoes Zulkifli, Ong Ye Kung and K Shanmugam, have also called out inappropriate behaviour of shunning healthcare workers and students or engaging in xenophobia.
Where needed and relevant, the Government has also used the legal tools at its disposal to thwart profiteering, disinformation and divisive comments.
READ: Commentary: Singaporeans queued for toilet paper and instant noodles – there is no shame in that
The fear and anxiety among Singaporeans has probably little to do with a lack of trust and confidence in Singapore’s ability to fight. It is perhaps more the belief that individual self-help, on top of government’s efforts, is preferred.
Perhaps memories of the SARS episode of 2003 may have returned to instil fear. Or perhaps the fact that the virus cannot seem to be localised, contained, and is spreading means that fear is being continually stoked.
But one can’t levy too much blame on Singaporeans for this fear. After all, not much is still known of the virus and it was only around the Chinese New Year period that its severity dawned on us.
To keep things in perspective, it is worth noting that there have been 15 million cases and 8,200 deaths worldwide during the first few months of the 2019 to 2020 flu season alone. Outside of China, with three deaths out of 583 reported cases so far, the mortality rate for COVID-19 can still be considered low.
The aphorism of “Keep calm and carry on” is useful in these challenging times. That mantra should apply to both Singaporeans, in looking beyond fear, and the Government in continuing with efforts to dispel this collective fear by inspiring confidence.
The leaders will have to maintain a high public profile and speak frankly about the good, the bad and the ugly of our efforts. Their staying in front of the issues will provide needed leadership, calming assurance, and bolster public confidence.
The regular updates from government official channels, including through WhatsApp, has been helpful.
To add more stability to and improve communication, the Government should have press conferences regularly at fixed times so that the public can expect regular updates, rather than ad hoc ones. The Government should also explore telecasting these press conferences so that the public gets information quickly and directly.
Improving the communication of why certain measures are taken and ensuring that there are no mixed signals are also crucial. For instance, there was some confusion with the elevation to DORSCON Orange despite great efforts by the Government to explain and communicate it clearly.
"When we went around asking, there was some misunderstanding, or even a lack of clarity around what was going on, what DORSCON Orange meant, despite our best efforts at explaining," Minister Lawrence Wong told reporters at a press conference on Feb 12.
"We briefed editors beforehand, but you know, in times like this, it just goes to show how challenging it is to get accurate information out," he said.
Indeed, it is challenging to ensure accurate communication in a climate of general fear. But efforts have to continue to improve this dissemination.
Perhaps, more outreach would have been useful to inform the general public of the various levels and that an upgrade to orange was not a cause for panic. As would have been the opportunity to pre-empt business leaders beforehand so that they would be prepared for any panic behaviour once the announcement was made.
LISTEN: Getting to grips with DORSCON orange in Singapore's fight against COVID-19, a Heart of the Matter podcast episode
Ultimately, Singaporeans have good grounds to trust that the authorities are committed to and competent enough to protect public well-being. What they have done so far also should not give cause for too much worry.
Equally important is for Singaporeans to trust their fellow citizens to not undermine public health and confidence through irresponsible and callous actions.
We still have a lot of work to nurture our social resilience and cohesion. There is no cause to mistrust our ability and determination to overcome the clear and present danger - other than fear itself.
Eugene K B Tan is associate professor of law and Lee Kong Chian fellow at the Singapore Management University.