The Big Read: Panic buying grabbed the headlines, but a quiet resilience is seeing Singaporeans through COVID-19 outbreak
Now that a sense of normalcy has returned, questions remained. What caused all that panic buying, which had left some quarters fuming and embarrassed, and others to question whatever happened to decades of efforts aimed at building a resilient society?
SINGAPORE: Tired and hungry after a long day at work, Mr Derrick Tay was looking forward to returning home for a warm shower, having something to eat and watching Netflix in bed.
But something caught his attention while he was mindlessly thumbing through his phone in the train around 9pm on Friday a week ago: Images of shoppers making a mad dash for groceries at supermarkets across the island.
While Singaporeans have earned a reputation for being kiasu (Hokkien for the fear of missing out), it was a scene that no one has witnessed here before - not even during the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) crisis in 2003 or the H1N1 pandemic in 2009.
Just hours earlier, the Ministry of Health (MOH) had raised the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) risk assessment level from Yellow to Orange.
READ: Coronavirus outbreak: Singapore raises DORSCON level to Orange; schools to suspend inter-school, external activities
The DORSCON level was raised after several COVID-19 cases were detected in the Republic without any links to previous cases or travel histories to China.
“I was shocked by what I saw on my phone. When I got home, I told my parents about it,” Mr Tay, 31, said.
His mother had planned to do her weekly grocery run on Saturday but he told her to do it that night as he “wasn’t sure if there would be anything left for her to buy in the morning at the rate people were wiping out the shelves”.
The mother and son then headed to their neighbourhood’s mini-mart in Choa Chu Kang.
“It was crazy that day. I’ve never seen so many people inside before, and at such a late hour. There was a queue that wound around the inside of the store,” said Mr Tay, who ended up having to wait for more than 30 minutes to pay for his purchases.
His basket of groceries held a bag of rice, four packs of assorted instant noodle flavours, a bottle of oil and several cans of tuna and sardine.
His 72-year-old mother, who helped carry two bags’ worth of toilet paper, told him that she could not remember Singaporeans panicking like this.
READ: COVID-19: Supply chain remains robust, 'panic buying' situation has stabilised, says Lawrence Wong
READ: Commentary: Singaporeans queued for toilet paper and instant noodles – there is no shame in that
Despite reassurances from Government leaders including Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing who took to Facebook to call for calm, Mr Tay and many Singaporeans were not entirely assured as the panic buying continued through the night.
In fact, Mr Tay was still in the queue when he read Mr Chan’s Facebook post but he went on to complete his purchases.
He said his actions were partly shaped by the mask situation. The Government had made clear that it has a stockpile of masks but this did not prevent long queues or stocks running out at shops and pharmacies.
What happened was that the Government had released five million masks to retailers over nine days last month but these were sold out within hours. As a result, the Government decided to distribute the masks from its stockpile directly to families, capped at four masks per household.
At the same time, it has reiterated that there is no need for people to wear a mask if they are well and it is more important to practise good personal hygiene such as washing hands.
Singapore, like many countries, has been grappling with a mask shortage since the health crisis started, sparked by a sudden surge in demand.
While many like Mr Tay understood the constraints and logistical challenges involved, as far as they are concerned, the takeaway was that they had great difficulty getting masks from retailers and ultimately, had to rely on a limited number given out by the Government.
And even if supplies are in no danger of running out, Mr Tay argued that it would not hurt to be prepared.
“Anyway, if there’s no emergency, we’ll just take it as having done a few days’ worth of shopping beforehand,” he said.
While Mr Tay and his mother had joined the hordes of shoppers at the supermarkets, their purchase was relatively measured compared to the others: Pictures of shoppers with overflowing trolleys went viral, along with photographs and videos of empty vegetable and fruit baskets, and chillers devoid of meat.
Still, some like Dr Paul Tambyah felt it was understandable why these shoppers behaved the way they did.
Noting that Singapore, along with the rest of the world, would have to deal with the outbreak for the next several months, Dr Tambyah – who is president of the Asia-Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection – noted that in such a situation, it was practical to keep some essential supplies on standby in case one has to be put on quarantine, for instance.
“As far as I know, when a quarantine officer comes to put a person on quarantine, they do not let you go shopping at the supermarket first,” he said.
To allay public anxiety, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a speech a day after the panic buying, assuring Singaporeans that there was no need to panic as the city was not being locked down, and there was ample supply of food for everyone.
READ: PM Lee urges Singapore to take courage amid coronavirus outbreak, see through stressful time together
Now that a sense of normalcy has returned, questions remain to be answered: What caused all that panic buying over that fateful weekend, which had left some quarters fuming - and embarrassed - over the behaviour of “ugly Singaporeans”, and others to question whatever happened to decades of efforts aimed at building a resilient society?
And what does it say about Singaporeans, many of whom have stoically and quietly got on with their lives, despite the uncertainty and disruptions to daily life?
THE SITUATION ELSEWHERE
So far, apart from Singapore, there have been no reports of panic buying in places outside of China. Residents in Thailand for example said the situation was calm and there has been no run on daily essentials.
Some experts believe that events in Hong Kong, which was gripped by scenes of panic buying recently, had influenced Singaporeans’ behaviour.
Mr Wong Bai Chun, a Hong Kong citizen, said that two weeks ago, there was a brief but acute shortage of toilet paper and other paper goods in the territory, which was sparked by an Internet rumour that the Chinese spring holiday was being extended and there would be insufficient supplies of such products.
Mr Wong said the fear over paper shortage had spread to other goods in Hong Kong. “Now you can’t find rice anywhere,” said the 26-year-old who works in the finance industry.
Unlike Macau or mainland China, there are no regulations in Hong Kong to curb such behaviours, he added.
He said the panic buying and hoarding of daily essentials in Hong Kong stemmed from the shortage of disposable masks.
“At the moment, people are sourcing their masks from all over the world and there’s simply not enough,” he said. “Hong Kong doesn’t have the capacity to manufacture sufficient amounts of them.”
While the panic buying in Hong Kong mirrors what happened in Singapore, the similarity ends there.
For one, there is no risk of Singapore running short of essential food and household items like toilet paper from short-term disruptions, such as the COVID-19 outbreak, said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli.
The country has managed to be resilient due to astute planning by the nation’s food agencies and its well-connected transport network, he said on Feb 10 during the launch of the 2020 Singapore Food Story. The food security strategy aims to meet 30 per cent of the country’s nutritional needs by 2030 using less than 1 per cent of its land area.
On the evening of the panic buying in Singapore, Mr Seah Kian Peng, who is the chief executive of supermarket cooperative NTUC Fairprice, also assured the public that there were sufficient supplies of daily essentials in the warehouse.
However, as experts pointed out, rationality and logic get cast aside when panic sets in.
“Research suggests that when people are in panic, the thinking part of our brain gets hijacked by the emotional system and we start to act illogically,” said a spokesperson for the Singapore Psychological Society (SPS) council. “Our ability to decide on our own is minimised.”
READ: Commentary: What to do with all these health rumours and forwarded messages in the time of COVID-19?
Among the possible factors behind the panic buying was negativity bias where people’s brains tend to focus more on negative information than positive ones, said the SPS spokesperson.
“Our brains are hardwired to register negative stimuli more readily and also to dwell and worry on them for a longer period of time,” the spokesperson said.
Furthermore, whenever there is a life-threatening epidemic or emergency, the notions of safety, protection, and self-preservation usually come into play.
The spokesperson also noted people also tend to follow others in the hope that the latter could get them out of a dangerous situation.
In Singapore’s case, this could be a possible reason why people started to hoard or buy things impulsively if everyone else around them was doing the same, or if they were told to do so on social media platforms.
This phenomenon of group-think results in irrational and dysfunctional thinking and outcomes.
“In this case, our brains focus more on the fear generated rather than on the reassurance given,” said the spokesperson.
Mr Lars Voedisch, the managing director of public relations firm PRecious Communications, said that such behaviour is triggered by one or two initial incidents which then get amplified by social media.
“(This leads) to a snowball effect of more and more people thinking of it, then hearing from the first people acting on their fear, sharing about it and through that fuelling the whole panic,” he said.
The images of empty shelves circulating on social media played a big part, said Singapore Management University sociologist Paulin Straughan.
“This meant that people were no longer reacting to rumours that essentials might run out, but this new development itself,” she said. “Which is: The shelves are empty. Better start to go now.”
Professor Straughan, whose research interests include medical sociology that encompasses infectious diseases, said it did not help that the public was seeing these images circulated on social media late in the night. As a result, these became the abiding images for many Singaporeans overnight.
“For the next 12 hours, the shelves remain empty (in their minds),” she said. “And that’s 12 hours of festering, and it entrenches (the fear that there are no supplies).”
Agreeing with Mr Voedisch’s observation about social media, Prof Straughan reiterated that while technology has helped to disseminate information a lot faster, it has similarly allowed misinformation to spread just as quickly as well.
This was not something that Singaporeans had to worry about during the past virus outbreaks, she added.
The SPS council spokesperson noted that when the COVID-19 virus was first made known, there was an overwhelming amount of news and social media coverage.
“When the DORSCON Orange was finally announced, it became a trigger tantamount to saying ‘the coronavirus has arrived’, resulting in the accompanying hoarding behaviour as response,” the spokesperson said.
Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Professor May Oo Lwin, whose research interest at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI) includes strategic and health communications, said it is likely that the public was responding to certain levels of fear and stress that the deluge of messages had aroused.
She explained that scientists have pointed to a phenomenon where communication leading to fear and stressful emotions can cause unintended consequences.
Such messages, she said, needed to be concurrently countered with provision of strategies for coping with perceived threats.
“In this particular case, all the media information is likely to have induced strong emotive elements which were managed by some population segments by embracing these forms of rational or irrational, but culturally symbolic, behaviours,” said Prof Lwin.
In other words, some segments of the population “may undertake actions based around daily priorities to respond to their perceptions of the threat”, said the health communications expert.
For example, in extreme cases of crisis like an earthquake, people could be seen taking their television sets while evacuating, she noted.
That could explain why stacks of toilet paper were snapped up by Singaporeans during the panic buying. Prof Straughan had another theory: They were relatively cheap and easy to hoard. “We all want to do something to make ourselves feel better,” she quipped.
PUBLIC COMMS "COULD HAVE BEEN BETTER"
Communications experts said the panic-buying in Singapore might have been avoided if the information disseminated by the authorities had been clearer.
“The problem with the message was that it was too bureaucratic at the start,” said Assistant Professor Liew Kai Khiun, who teaches at NTU's WKWSCI. “Much of the Government’s message involved military terms (and) colour codes."
Prof Straughan agreed, noting that the definition of DORSCON Orange was not explained enough as well.
DORSCON is a colour-coded framework that shows the current disease situation.
Orange refers to a situation in which a virus is spreading in Singapore but not widely, and is being contained. Previously, the risk assessment level was at Yellow, signifying that the virus was severe and could infect from person to person, but was chiefly occurring outside Singapore.
The highest level, Red, indicates that the virus is spreading widely and can result in major disruption such as closing schools.
“Some people didn’t know what it meant. All they saw was the visual,” said Prof Straughan. “There are four levels. Green, Yellow, Orange and Red. Red is bad, everybody knows that right? Green is good. Now Orange. It is closer to Red than it is to Green. So visually, it lights up all your flags.”
LISTEN: Getting to grips with DORSCON orange in Singapore's fight against COVID-19, a Heart of the Matter podcast episode
Asst Prof Liew pointed out while the message from the authorities was accurate, it did not cater to the layman. To that end, they could have used dialect or Singlish to reach out more effectively, he noted.
During the SARS outbreak in 2003, local sitcom character Phua Chu Kang was used to educate Singaporeans on the importance of washing their hands. This, he said, was an effective way of reaching out to the public, and many people still remember it today.
A leaked MOH press release a few hours before the official DORSCON Orange announcement, which left many befuddled, might have also fuelled the public panic.
The press release was circulated on social media and through messaging platforms such as WhatsApp.
Up till this incident, Prof Straughan felt that the Government had been doing well in being upfront with Singaporeans about the virus situation. But when the press release was prematurely leaked out, it created some confusion.
She said it did not help that recipients of the leaked document were initially told by others that it was fake news, only to be informed by the authorities a few hours later that it was indeed true.
Such contradictory information would have led some to question if the authorities were trying to hide something, she said.
The authorities have yet to announce the source of the leak, but Trade and Industry Minister Chan said on Feb 9 that the various agencies involved in tackling the virus will remind their staff that they have a professional responsibility not to prematurely share information that has not been finalised.
Despite these short-comings in public communications, some experts felt that Prime Minister Lee’s nine-minute long speech on Feb 8 went some way in restoring a sense of normalcy.
The SPS council spokesperson said Mr Lee’s message gave people very concrete actions that “handed back a measure of control to people whose sense of control felt threatened”.
Mr Voedisch of PRecious Communications said having the Prime Minister step in to address the public helped, because it went beyond technocratic statements and directly addressed what people were concerned with.
“While authorities should not get emotional when communicating, they have to be empathetic appealing to the hearts and minds of the audience,” said Mr Voedisch.
However, he was uncertain if an address by Mr Lee to the public at an earlier juncture would have helped.
Instead, he said that the authorities should have foreseen the responses from the public as part of proper scenario planning with “ready-to-go action plans”.
Also, they should have anticipated and addressed the public’s concerns and fears across the different platforms, he added.
Mr Chan, the Trade and Industry Minister, had spoken out against panic buying and hoarding behaviour by a “small segment of Singaporeans”, even though he noted that this was to be expected.
In a Facebook post on Feb 8, he noted that it was “natural” in times of uncertainty that people want to protect ourselves and the ones that they love.
“However I urge all of us to think of the larger communities we belong to. Hoarding means that we deprive others of things that they really need,” he said. “That could be your neighbour who needs to buy rice for her children’s meals or even organisations looking after the vulnerable who require cleaning supplies.”
Speaking to the media the next day, Mr Chan also said that the panic buying at supermarkets will signal to other countries that Singaporeans cannot react well in times of crisis and could be taken advantage of in the future.
One potential consequence, he warned, is that suppliers and retailers who observe the panic buying might take advantage of the situation and jack up prices of goods.
Ultimately, the hoarding behaviour was “a fight-or-flight response that has arisen primarily from fear and a need for self-preservation”, said the SPS council spokesperson.
And this fear can breed distrust and hostility towards others. “With a constant overemphasis on fear, people may start to behave in less caring or more complacent ways in order to maintain self-preservation,” the spokesperson added.
HERE COMES THE GOOD
Still, despite the panic buying grabbing the headlines, Mr Chan and other government leaders took pains to point out that a large majority of Singaporeans had been “calm and rational”.
Many Singaporeans had come forward to thank the cashiers and supermarket staff constantly working behind the scenes to restock the empty shelves, Mr Chan noted.
Countless others have also stepped in to do their part for their fellow citizens, with numerous ground-up initiatives started in the community.
READ: 'We intend to stick it out with them': Volunteers write notes, send food to healthcare workers fighting COVID-19
Away from the public spotlight and media glare, ordinary Singaporeans have got on with their lives, despite the disruptions and worries brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Scores of Singaporeans — such as taxi and private-hire drivers, as well as those in the retail and tourism industries — have seen their livelihoods taken a hit. Others have had to adjust to working from home as business continuity plans swung into place.
Cleaners, for example, are putting in longer hours while healthcare workers not only have to work longer each day but are also putting themselves at risk on the frontlines.
A 23-year-old outbreak nurse who works with COVID-19 patients said that while her family understands the risks of her occupation, it does not stop them from worrying.
“Most nurses are worried too, but it’s our job and this is what we do for a living,” said the nurse, who wanted to be known only as Sharmaine due to the sensitivity of her role.
When she was first assigned to handle suspected COVID-19 cases, Sharmaine said she was scared as no one knew what exactly they were dealing with.
“But over time, I grew immune to it, even if a patient were to test positive for the virus. Now I don't feel so scared anymore.”
However, she feels disappointed at the discrimination against healthcare workers shown by some Singaporeans, even as many others expressed gratitude for their work.
“It truly is demoralising when you hear of such incidents. We feel ostracised at times because all we want to do is perform our job and go home,” she said. “But we continue to keep an open mind because we are the first line of defence.”
A taxi driver, who wanted to be known as Mr Ahmad, said he is not scared and has no qualms about picking up healthcare workers.
Although his wife worries for him, as there is no way of knowing whether a passenger might be infected with the virus, the 56-year-old CityCab driver said he still has to continue driving to support his family.
The virus outbreak, he added, had drastically affected his earnings lately, though he declined to reveal by how much.
“So far, even my friends (who are also taxi drivers) have all been continuing to work as per normal,” said Mr Ahmad.
The only difference is that he has taken some precautions, such as winding down the windows to air his vehicle after dropping off each passenger and disinfecting his steering wheel with Dettol, he added.
READ: Commentary: Hot and humid weather may end COVID-19 outbreak – as well as the development of a vaccine
For 37-year-old father Lucas Chiam, he sought to turn the situation around by using it as an opportunity to spend more time with his two sons, aged six and four.
Due to COVID-19, the lecturer and his wife decided to limit their children’s outings to the parks and playgrounds, where they would typically just keep an eye out for the youngsters’ safety.
Instead, they introduced the boys to home-based activities which could involve the entire family, such as arts and craft, reading and even playing Xbox console games.
“I think the best we can do right now is to stay positive. This is an opportunity to bond with the kids, work on some home improvement tasks and plan for the year ahead,” Mr Chiam said.
“Maybe through these tough times, we can develop some new good habits for the family that will stay with us even after the threat is over.”
Some businesses have had to adjust their operating models due to the outbreak.
Ms Jazz Chong, the owner and director of contemporary gallery Ode To Art, has noticed fewer people visiting the gallery as well as the Raffles City Shopping Centre, where the gallery is located.
“With the virus outbreak becoming more severe, we have now decided to take the extra measure of bringing the art to our clients directly,” she said. “If they like the work then it can remain in their home, making it extra convenient for them as they do not even have to leave their house.”
Meanwhile, curtain maker and supplier MC2 held its first Facebook Live event on Feb 11.
Mr Wilson Chew, the founder and managing director of the company, said: “During this time of crisis when people may be worried about attending events with crowds, we thought of using Facebook Live.”
By broadcasting live on the social media platform, customers were given the chance to ask questions and interact with the company’s salesperson in real time as he gave demonstrations of the company’s various zip-blind products.
Business owners like Ms Chong and Mr Chew are hoping that people would continue life as normal, albeit taking the necessary precautions.
Or as NTU’s Asst Prof Liew put it: “We must have a courageous sense of normality and go on living life normally.”
Indeed, Prime Minister Lee noted on Friday that the COVID-19 outbreak is expected to last longer than SARS, with a greater impact already hitting the economy.
But he stressed: “We have to keep Singapore going and we have to keep making a living. Life has to go on.”