SINGAPORE: A new face of the novel coronavirus has emerged on social media – that of a masked Singaporean aunty absconding with vast amounts of toilet paper and instant noodles.
Online backlash has been hilariously scathing. Many of us laughed really hard. How dare these inconsiderate people hoard more than their rightful share of toilet paper and instant noodles – a shared “national” resource? Then, we self-consciously went to check on our own toilet paper supply.
This was last Friday (Feb 7) evening around 7pm or 8pm.
Back up a few hours to around 5.30pm. My mobile phone began beeping. Even before I had time to read the news, my friends had messaged about the DORSCON Orange update, indicating that the disease is severe and spreads easily, though not widespread in Singapore. Concerned friends urged me to stay safe and avoid large crowds.
READ: Coronavirus outbreak: Singapore raises DORSCON level to orange; schools to suspend inter-school, external activities
Within 30 minutes, these sensible warnings morphed into pictures of supermarket sprees that got more and more hysterical with each passing hour. Panic became the new “virus”.
THE SYMBOL OF THE TOILET PAPER
Within that very Saturday, things got so bad that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave a speech to reassure the nation that Singapore had ample supplies. That was the first time I’ve ever heard our PM mention “instant noodles” and “toilet paper” in the same sentence.
Global news agencies quickly picked up the most absurd supermarket images, leading Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing to worry that other countries may infer that “Singaporeans cannot react well in times of crisis and could be taken advantage of in the future”.
Vocal netizens guffawed in agreement. A viral video of an aunty with a bomb shelter stockpiled with “goodies” like a “minimart” started circulating.
But are these characterisations a fair representation of Singaporeans and why we reacted in that manner?
THE SUPERMARKET PANIC VIRUS
When most people first learnt of the “Code Orange” alert, they probably intended to stock up for a couple of weeks. Frequent grocery shopping seemed impractical given the heightened risk of disease transmission.
Most of us have never experienced a disaster and are not exactly sure how to shop for one. But because preparedness is in our Singaporean blood, many took a leaf from Hong Kong and honed in on whatever seemed to be the scarcest commodity.
After all, orange is just one level away from red, and the drivers among us suspect it might not take long for us to get there, so we best to be ready.
Perhaps eerie images of “ghost towns” in Hubei, the lockdown of some 50 million people, and the empty shelves in Hong Kong seared themselves on our national psyche and triggered the protective instincts of many Singaporeans towards their family and friends.
READ: Commentary: Modern medicine, health systems have created illusion we have complete biological control over our fate
LISTEN: Novel coronavirus – the search for a cure (and a name experts can agree on) intensifies, a Heart of the Matter podcast
On Friday night, I would say one or two of 10 friends spent their precious pre-weekend evening at the supermarket. Those who were there doubled their shopping list because in times of chaos, there is comfort in preparedness. Yet unfortunately, this synchronised shopping led to a strain on the supermarket system.
When the queue-time went from minutes to hours, many decided that it simply made sense to buy more. Wanting to spare their family and friends from knee-numbing queues, they decided to multiply their shopping list.
I was still slogging away at work when I began to get unsolicited offers from friends to help buy certain items that have never occupied my mind space before – toilet paper, instant noodles and rice being three of them.
At this point, many of my friends still could not believe what they were seeing - until the next morning when their elderly mothers went on their weekly grocery trip and encountered for themselves what they described as a “doomsday” scenario at their local wet market.
Two of my friends’ mothers activated them to help buy these highly coveted items. A nationwide quest for toilet paper had begun.
THE ETHOS OF PREPAREDNESS
I cannot speak for the people who bought 60kg of rice and 200 tins of canned food, and I am just as disgusted by those with try to profit from a public health crisis – these people and suppliers should be called out.
READ: Commentary: Hot and humid weather may end the novel coronavirus – as well as the development of a vaccine
However, for most people, “stocking up” is not “hoarding”. Buying an extra sack of rice and some canned food is also quite a common response in times of crisis, and practised around the world.
If anything else, it speaks of a spirit of alertness and planning for an uncertain future – it is an ethos our pioneer generation share.
An aunty of mine who survived World War II always keeps one or two extra sacks of rice at home. As a child, I remember being tasked to sieve out weevils for her.
These memories also made me wonder whether we’re unfairly virtue-signalling and decrying Singaporeans in the queue for supplies and other essentials who might be badly misunderstood.
At the peak of the grocery crisis, an acquaintance pre-emptively posted on Facebook: “Saturday is my regular day for buying groceries for the entire family. If you see me on social media or in person with a whole cartload of groceries, please do not un-friend me.”
This struck a chord with me. Why should regular Singaporeans be subject to such scrutiny when grocery shopping, have their cart scrutinised, or be toilet-paper-shamed? What gives others the moral high ground to judge?
THE KAMPONG SPIRIT IS VERY MUCH ALIVE
In fact, a lot of people I know braved these crazy queues out of love for their family and friends.
After spending half a day hunting and queuing for toilet paper, one of my friends bought S$52 worth of supplies for her family of six. She got disdainful glares from other shoppers but tells me that she feels no shame.
Yet another one of my friends bought S$67 worth of toilet supplies and shared some with her elderly uncle staying alone.
READ: Commentary: SARS was scary, but the experience was invaluable in shaping our Wuhan virus response
I think it is cool that as Singaporeans, we have the ability to hold a mirror up to ourselves and laugh at ourselves – as pictures of mask-donning Singaporeans with trolleys of instant noodles in queues stretching all the way to supermarket entrances saturated social media.
But instead of vilifying strangers in the supermarket, ask yourself if none of your family members, friends or friends’ mothers have braved the queues.
These are the same hardworking people who run their household tirelessly, the unsung heroes of each of our families, who offered to share their hard-fought food and supplies with other loved ones.
Personally, I am both relieved and somewhat embarrassed that NTUC Fairprice had to go to great lengths to announce on Sunday limits on the purchase of rice, toilet paper, instant noodles and vegetables to quell the panic buying.
Hopefully in the weeks or months to come, sundries will not be one of our worries when it comes to fighting the virus.
Speaking for myself, I did not join the supermarket queues because I had already amply stocked up on milk and food for my toddler a week ago – what I considered to be true necessities.
And when it comes to toilet paper, I am down to my last two rolls at the point of writing.
But if the toilet paper situation gets dire, I know I will not have to look far for someone to share their “reserves” with me.
We Singaporeans are kiasu, but we do watch out for one another.
Annie Tan is a freelance writer.