International COVID 19 I don’t expect this government to be perfect. But I do expect...

I don’t expect this government to be perfect. But I do expect them to be accountable: Alfian Sa’at

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Singapore — Playwright Alfian Sa’at shared his thoughts on Facebook, regarding the recent MOH announcement on Saturday (May 15).
His full Facebook post: “When I saw this statement by the Ministry of Health, the first thing that caught my eye was how a variant was named. The good: the variant was not named after any geographical region, in line with WHO best practices. The bad: the variant is not called B1617, it is B.1.617.
Honestly, this kind of naming probably makes more sense to scientists and epidemiologists, but nevertheless it should be the duty of any Health Ministry to stick to the formal nomenclature. The naming system here is based on the Pango lineage system: “…every Pango lineage can be read essentially as a family tree. The earliest viruses that first circulated in China are denoted as lineages A or B. As they evolved and spread across the globe, their descendants are marked by a series of numbers. For example, B.1 includes the outbreak in northern Italy in early 2020 and is the first descendant of the B lineage to be named. Meanwhile the variant of concern identified in South Africa, named B.1.351, is the 351st descendant of the virus that caused that Italian outbreak.”
In other words, those dots are important. A variant called B.1.617 is not the same as one called B.1.6.17.
The second thing that struck me was the defensive tone. The statement takes the form of an explanation that assumes that Singaporeans are making unreasonable and ignorant demands. So the elite technocracy has to spell things out for the people: “These cases all originated from imports because all borders are porous. All it takes is one case to cause an outbreak, and no country can seal itself off totally.”
One of the rules of journalism is to assume that your reader has general knowledge; what they lack is specific information. Otherwise you risk talking down to them. Of course we know borders are porous, that a single case can cause an outbreak, that no country, especially one that relies on the global economy, can seal itself off. The question on everyone’s mind is how exactly did the virus enter the community? And here is where explanations have been less than satisfactory.
In the statement, it says that “the virus breached our safe measures”, and in a press conference a couple of days ago, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said, a “very virulent” variant “broke through” the layers of defences at the airport. Metaphorical language is often used to explain abstract and complex concepts and processes, and many science writers employ them with finesse. Unfortunately, the usage here is obscurantist.
A virus is not some human infiltrator waiting at the airport to dupe border control and sneak in, or to overwhelm the fort and force its way in. It’s practically nonsense to say that a virus “breached our safe measures”; only humans can breach those safe measures. And they can do so through various means: by not masking properly, not observing proper social distancing, etc.
But what if the visitors had not breached those safety measures? What if those safe measures were actually inadequate in the first place? I am not in favour of closing the borders, and I believe that Singapore citizens and PR’s have the right to enter Singapore from overseas, especially if their home country can offer them safe harbour from pandemic hotspots as well as medical treatment. And of course special dispensation must be provided on compassionate grounds (funerals etc).
A list of questions: was there universal pre-departure testing for all inbound visitors? What is the justification for some exemptions (like citizens and PR’s)? What are the rates of false negatives for these tests? What safety protocols were in place in zones which received visitors from high-risk countries? Were airport staff wearing PPE? Was a high-risk zone treated like a “bubble”, where rightly one would prevent movement of staff and visitors to other zones? What were the custodial precautions taken for visitors—were they escorted throughout from the point of disembarkation to the point were they started serving their SHN?
I’d rather know that the “safe measures” instituted were not safe enough, than have to imagine with alarm that there is a new super-virus that has managed to break through a supposedly perfect system. I don’t expect this government to be perfect. But I do expect them to be accountable, to own up to mistakes if they have been committed, and to remedy the situation by offering as much support as humanly possible to Singaporeans who are now suffering because of these failings.”
In addition to this letter by Mr Alfian Sa’at, an earlier Straits Times forum letter titled ‘Stricter measures needed for inbound passengers at airport’ also addressed a similar concern. The writer, Ong Cheng Hin, had predicted a wave if loopholes were not addressed.

When I saw this statement by the Ministry of Health, the first thing that caught my eye was how a Covid-19 variant was…

Posted by Alfian Sa’at on Saturday, 15 May 2021

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