Here we are – one and a half months after the world learnt that there is a new coronavirus testing the limits of mankind’s ability to cope with spiralling deaths and disruptions. That is the big panoramic picture story. For the ordinary Singaporeans, the issues are a bit more down to earth but no less life and death ones.
First question is: What happened to the supply of masks? Where can one go to buy these, not to hoard or stock but to use as and when, just in case? I am talking about the man in the street, struggling with the daily routine of work and other activities and with hardly any time to queue for the miserly four masks per individual offered by the authorities. All the usual pharmacies say they are out of stock. What happened? Were we caught with our pants down? The supply of something so essential at a time like this should not have been allowed to be sporadic and subject to a priority strategy – the healthcare people first and then whatever’s left for others.
Singapore is not an isolated community in a far-flung corner of the planet. And we learnt that very well when SARS hit us in 2003, that viruses can spread fast and furious on this small congested island of 5 million people in unending contact with visitors and businessmen and workers from all parts of the world. The public stocks of essential medical items should have been checked and monitored all the time and not to be hogged by anyone.
Make it easier and not unnecessarily difficult for all Singaporeans to take care of themselves. Don’t draw lines and play God.
Talking about God leads us to the next question: Should all religious congregations be suspended indefinitely until Orange turns Yellow and White (?).
I notice that some of the churches where COVID-19 cases have been found have stopped congregating for “a fortnight” (which is the mandatory 14-day leave of absence period said to coincide with the supposedly incubation/clearance period for the virus). I think some have started Skype sessions. Commendable precautionary steps, all.
But this may not be enough.
There are congregations and congregations. Some are small groups. And some are mega ones, held in massive auditoriums and halls. It would be the responsible thing to stop any kind of such gatherings, especially those involving huge crowds, indefinitely.
Having so many people in one place in a static enclosed position and place for hours and not in flux like in a shopping mall is a recipe for potential disaster.
All the churches should follow the example of the Catholic Church.
It has suspended mass for the time being. In a letter released on Friday (Feb 14), the Archbishop of Singapore Reverend William Goh said that “both weekday and weekend public masses from noon on Saturday will be suspended indefinitely … until there is greater clarity on the way forward“.
The Church is also suspending large public events such as formation sessions, retreats and seminars.
CNA reports: According to the 2015 General Household Survey, there are about 220,000 Catholic residents aged 15 and above in Singapore.
Some of the other large-congregation churches, including City Harvest, which hold their masses in very public and high-density places frequented by other people have also suspended their on-location activities. They have gone online.
This leaves us with an elephant-in-the room question: Why aren’t mosques and temples suspending their congregations?
They should. The coronavirus may have started in China but it can affect anyone, whatever race or religion. So I hope our Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist communities will make the right decisions, however unpopular, to ramp up their efforts to help contain a potential existential threat to a country which cannot isolate itself from the rest of the world.
And in the struggle with this threat, the future really starts with our children – the subject of the final question: Should the schools be closed?
In the simpler days, whenever there was an outbreak of anything – flu, measles, etc – the authorities simply called a curfew, so no school. They then lifted the curfews periodically for people to buy their essential items.
Life was really simpler. No ATMS to go to, hardly any supermarket to visit for your then non-existent low-GI bread, no shopping malls, no tuition centres. Most of all, our hygiene standards were not particularly high.
Opening or closing schools was a no big-deal question. But not today.
Should we over-protect our young? Should we over-react? Should we close the schools?
I believe our children have been growing up over-protected and have developed a play-safe attitude which may work against them in Mother Nature’s survival of the fittest world. They go to the cleanest places to dine when they are abroad. They avoid the rough places in this region, preferring the familiar and septic tourist-friendly spots in culturally familiar comfort zones or bubbles. Encouraged by their kiasu parents.
The real more imminent danger to our children’s health across all races and religions? Irresponsible adult members who do not take care of themselves or who believe they are immune to the virus. Do the right thing.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of The Independent.Sg, is a former senior leader with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.