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Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan: the real coronavirus world leaders

Governments across Europe and North America have showed an almost callous disregard for the health of their citizens, and the world. In Asia, meanwhile, oases of single-minded purpose have sprung up, sincere in their efforts to ‘flatten the curve’ of transmission




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When I was made editor of The New Paper in Singapore in 1990, I had only one question: what must I keep in mind as I go about my job? I sought my editor-in-chief’s advice. A man known to cut to the chase, he said: “We are paying you to make sure we avoid a major crisis. If we do fall into one, then your job is to get us out of it quickly.”
Those sage-like words have stuck with me all this while. As I watch global leaders fumbling in their handling of the stealth killer called Covid-19, his words add a touch of scary realism. And most of the leaders have failed – miserably, let me add – in saving lives and pulling their citizens out of misery. Here was a great opportunity for a country like the United States and a group like the World Health Organisation to step up to the plate and show global leadership. Instead, we saw one deriding China for exporting the virus to the world and the other trying to mollycoddle the Asian powerhouse.
And it’s not just the US, either. Italy, Spain, France and Britain have all displayed an almost callous disregard for the health and safety of not only their citizens but people the world over by arrogantly ignoring the signs of a creeping killer. This is a foreign illness too far away from our shores, they kept insisting, thus stoking xenophobia among their populations.
The US under a president who is only interested in listening to the sound it makes when he blows his own trumpet is the biggest and most dangerous culprit. The crisis in Wuhan became common knowledge on January 7. Yet 15 days later Donald Trump was saying: “We have it totally under control … It is going to be just fine.” As evidence of the speed with which the virus spread in his own country mounted, however, we saw a very different man. About a month after those brave words, he said: “It’s bad. It’s bad.”
His body double across the Atlantic even had the gall to talk about “herd immunity” as a strategy to come to grips with the crisis. It is a novel but alarming tactic because it involves letting people catch the virus, recover and become immune – if that is even possible – showing the British leadership‘s total disregard for the most vulnerable: older people with pre-existing illnesses.

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.

And for those who say messy democracies can’t act quickly and decisively, just look at Taiwan. Despite the self-ruled island being closely linked to China, where 850,000 Taiwanese live; having trouble with international organisations like the World Health Organisation; and having a political system described as fractious, it has managed the crisis very well. It was alert in putting up measures like health checks on passengers from Wuhan well before most of the world woke up to the havoc the virus could cause.
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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 also scored on two other fronts: science and diplomacy. Huge investments in science meant test kits capable of detecting the virus were produced as early as January, helping Singapore carry out 21,000 tests so far.

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).

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