So far there is a certain calm in the way Singapore takes the Wuhan coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak in its stride. No doubt, the experience gained from tackling SARS in 2002 has helped. The very fact that both originated from China – SARS in Guangdong and coronavirus in Wuhan city in central China – does not make things easier, given the close links and high volume of human traffic between China and Singapore.
This perspective has to be borne in mind always. There is hardly any distance between the two countries because of ease of travel and social and business intermingling. The World Health Organisation may have declared the outbreak a Global Public Health Emergency on January 20. But a casual scan of the top news headlines in the West over the weekend showed interest mainly on Brexit, the Donald Trump impeachment trial, deaths of basketball superstar Kobe Bryant and his daughter and 18-year-old multiple Grammy awards winner Billie Eilish. Not that much attention was paid to the Wuhan virus.
Somehow, Asia has to be on its own. The Wuhan virus may be our equivalent of Aids. Between the early 1980s and 2018, that pandemic killed an estimated 32 million deaths worldwide, with a huge number of fatalities in Africa. Handling the 2019n-CoV crisis may well be some kind of defining moments for both Singapore and China.
I just had an interesting conversation with a well-travelled young Singaporean, who has worked in Shanghai for more than a decade, on Thursday Jan 30. He saw the Wuhan virus crisis as an important opportunity for the Beijing government, or rather the Chinese Communist Party, to strengthen its legitimacy. He said: “The last time, during SARS, it was a bit of struggle. China wasn’t all that ready. But since then, as with most things in the country, Beijing has accumulated enough experience and developed all the necessary templates to deal with such a crisis. It knows that not only are the eyes of its citizens but also the attention of the world is on how it goes about stopping the spread.
“This whole thing is not about window-dressing or putting up a coming-of-age party like during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It is about applying all the necessary best practices to make a statement that it is as responsible a government as any elsewhere.”
I agree with him, up to a point. Speed of action and transparency are vital in today’s Internet world. The social media in China was already grumbling about the situation in the early stage. The Communist Party chief of Wuhan Ma Guoqiang said that the impact of the virus on the rest of China and on the world “would have been less” if the containment measures had been come sooner. He added: “The measures we took on Jan 23 to suspend flights, high-speed railway, ferries and to restrict cars could have yielded better results if we had taken them earlier, perhaps on Jan 12 and 13…Right now, I’m in a state of guilt, remorse and self-reproach.”
Beijing will deal with its problem in its own way but it certainly cannot afford to act like it is still a closed society or can continue to depend on a wait-for-instructions party machinery to move heaven and earth. Better to be safe than sorry. Here is the chance for it to get its act right, so that the public gets the proper information to understand and help cope with the outbreak. If it does not, there are political, social and life-threatening consequences far, far greater than simply having to apologise for incompetence.
In Singapore, the situation seems less scary on the ground than during SARS but the calibrated measures being taken do not mean that everything may not get worse as, according to National Development Minister Lawrence Wong on Friday Jan 31, “The situation remains fluid, it’s constantly changing and we do not rule out taking further measures.” He was announcing the ban from Feb 2 on new visitors of any nationality with recent travel history to mainland China. These visitors will also not be allowed to transit in Singapore. Those with Chinese passports, with the exception of Singapore permanent residents and long-term pass holders, will also not be allowed to enter Singapore.
Far more important to the ordinary Singaporeans is: what exactly is the coronavirus , how does it spread and what can they do to prevent its spread? Of course, many would have already read the news and learnt through the media the answers to the three questions. They can also check out this authoritative WHO link: https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-coronaviruses
There is now a whole-of-government action plan to contain the outbreak. No doubt, the government will have put in place all the best practices it has developed since SARS. These would include: zero-error entry point checks for air, sea and land, comprehensive quarantine procedures and facilities, state-of-the-art medical treatment and counselling and so on.
Right at the heart of the containment strategy must be public education. It may seem obvious. It is not. It is not enough to disseminate information through mainstream and traditional channels or to believe that the standard establishment grassroots outlets will automatically see it as their duty to explain because they themselves need to be educated in the first place.
I would suggest a whole-of-nation approach.
Do not exclude. Rope in all the social media platforms to pass the message. There is a whole new universe out there of people who do not now read newspapers or watch “national TV”. The government is worried about fake news. It should be equally worried that being turned off by MSM really means not tuning in to conventional media.
Finally, if it is not too late, the whole exercise of handing out masks is actually the best opportunity to educate everyone on everything that they ought to know and do about the Wuhan virus. Don’t waste it.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of Theindependent.SG, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also the managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.