The citizens of Europe, and to a lesser extent the US, are now paying the price for their leaders’ inaction, with Italy reporting more than 2,500 deaths, Spain more than 500, and the UK and US both surpassing 100.
These countries suffered from one fatal mistake: willful ignorance of how interconnected the world is – you can’t shut yourself out from what is happening, even in faraway places like China. Take travel. The world has shrunk, making travel cheaper, faster and easier. Many years ago, my trip to Kerala in South India would have taken me 16 hours. Today it takes just four. Add to this the mass movement of people which immigration has brought about. Borders have become so open that when an economic power like China sneezes the rest of the world can catch pneumonia. Viruses know no borders and don’t distinguish between good and bad, or poor and rich.
As the world burns with infection though, oases of calm are springing up: Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong are all showing single-minded purpose and sincerity in trying to “flatten the curve” of transmission. The statistics show a stubborn resilience among these communities, reflected in a low case count and death toll. One common strand is the memory of 2003’s deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic – these communities learned their lessons from that deadly outbreak and were quick to put plans into action when the next one rolled around.
Hongkongers, in particular, didn’t wait for government orders to act. They displayed their public spiritedness when a filmmaker started a mask factory, helping to produce hundreds of thousands of pieces of protective gear at just HK$1 a piece. Such ground-up actions spurred businesses into action to source and donate face masks.
Singapore’s story, meanwhile, is a well-publicised one. With politicians, civil servants, scientists, businesspeople and citizens all marching to the beat of the same drum to keep the virus at bay, the country has received accolades from the world community with even The Economist praising its efforts.
It has also been quick to use what Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan called test-kit diplomacy, offering the kits to countries that need them most. All that Singapore has to do now is show that it will not cash in on the crisis by holding its impending general elections in the next couple of months.
P N Balji is a veteran journalist in Singapore. He is also the author of the book, Reluctant Editor: The Singapore Media as Seen Through the Eyes of a Veteran Newspaper Journalist
This article first appeared in SCMP on Thursday (Mar 19).