What I Learnt From Your Appearance, Covid-19

(Note: this was written in late Feb, before the series of lockdowns in different countries across continents took effect in March.)

Sometimes in life, you will have an encounter or experience that will change your direction in life quite drastically. You know it when you meet it. It also holds true for a society.

Covid-19 is one such experience for Singapore. Just like how SARS redefined the way the nation manages health crises, or how the Asian Financial Crisis revamped the financial and economic systems of the day, Covid-19 brought out a few areas that needs watching and tweaking.

What Has Covid-19 Done?

Covid-19 brought along many disruptions to the way of life in these few months. Here are just some examples of the disruptions it brought along:

a. Several large-scale public events were cancelled or postponed, leading to loss of revenue and business for the MICE industry. For example, concerts scheduled to be held in Singapore, the annual NATAS travel fair, and at least one annual race was cancelled. But some high signature events continued, although with slight modifications – the Singapore Aerospace Show continued, as with the Chingay procession, with cancellations of the roadshows.

b. The pace of construction projects slowed down considerably. For instance, the Home Improvement Programme for my precinct was disrupted as some workers for the company were placed under Leave of Absence for 14 days before they can resume work. These workers have returned to China to celebrate the Chinese New Year and hence had to submit to the required LOA to make sure the risk of community spread of the Covid-19 stays minimal.

c. Many businesses were hit by low footfall, volume or patronage. The Jewel at Changi was one of the hardest hit by the travel restrictions imposed on travelers from China, as well as the travel advisories issued by other countries to their citizens to reconsider their travel plans to Singapore. The shops along Orchard Road and Chinatown were two other areas hit by Covid-19. Restaurants experienced lower patronage in general. Some businesses had their prior engagements cancelled or rescheduled as businesses review their operations going forward.

d. Certain products gained popularity overnight. Yes, surgical masks, hand sanitizers, thermometers, alcoholic swaps, just to name a few. Not only these but some household products became popular too – rice, instant noodles and toilet paper. There was a rush to stock up these household items during one February weekend, shortly after the Singapore Government announced that it was raising the DORSCON level to orange, the second highest level. Since these items became popular, they became scarce, and consequently the prices for some of these items went up, especially the surgical masks.

e. People became very aware and sensitive to anyone with respiratory symptoms. A friend of mine took the public train one afternoon. She sat down and after a while coughed a little. That attracted some glances from nearby passengers. As she continued the occasional cough (with her mouth covered of course), she could distinctly make out the nearby passengers getting out of their seats. A few minutes later, the entire row of chairs was empty, save for my friend.

What We Can Learn From Covid-19

I want to lay out my own thoughts here on what I feel needs a bit of tweaks in Singapore. Let me put out my assumptions here first, for clarity’s sake.

1. I look at issues and incidents from an educational perspective. Which means, I come from the point of what is there to learn and improve. I don’t condemn or pass a judgment on what I see. Instead, I write about what I see as valuable learning moments from this situation.

2. I write based on what I feel should be done to improve the situation. It can be the strategies introduced, the steps taken, or the way people manage a crisis. Whether what I propose is practical or feasible is secondary. I write to help myself think and generate conversations.

3. What I write has no affiliation or inclination to any political ideologies. Of course one can point out the underlying ideologies in my writing and make connections to existing framing at large, but that is to be expected when you are socialised within a system of thinking, unless you learn to break out of a system of thinking. Which brings me to the next point.

4. To move out of a system, or think out of the box, requires intentional thinking and exploration of ideas. This is different from thinking critically about an issue. I will not claim to have thought through critically about the way the crisis was managed, as this will call for comprehensive research on what was done, piecing perspectives from different sources, and understanding what was done in entirety. I am more interested in musing about what has happened so far, if there are lessons to draw from within.

What do all these mean? It means one can choose to disagree or agree with what I write. You are also free to challenge my thinking about the issue. But it does not mean that your perspective is more valuable and correct than mine, if you choose to challenge my thought process. We can choose to agree to disagree.

Several articles were published recently that studied the way the Singapore Government handled the situation, with some praising the Government for their style of management. You can read what a Harvard study reported, and what this website (one of many) said about good risk communications standards the Singapore Government had taken. There is a media report that posits why Singapore has more cases compared to Hong Kong, a result of stricter standards of detection the Singapore Government adopts in this situation.

I refrain from using the word ‘crisis’ to describe Covid-19, as honestly I do not view the situation as going into a state where the Government is unable to do anything to remediate the situation. If anything, the Government’s way of handling the situation showed that it has distilled a number of lessons from its handling of SARS and H1N1.

Lesson #1: People Need A Common Vision In Times Of Needs

You don’t need a general election or war to prove that a country’s population is not united in outlook. You just need a small organism called a virus. During such times people will scatter if the self-interest is many times stronger than community interest.

In such times of needs, people need a common vision or message to be united and look after one another. Standing together will help the entire society endure and go through the situation better.

The question is how should such a common message reach everyone, and foster the communal bonds? It calls for sustained community efforts to get people to know who are their neighbors, to think about common issues, and perhaps, community emergency drills.

Lesson #2: Manage The Good, Bad, Ugly And Beautiful Differently

Having a common vision will not remove the different personalities you see in society though. The bad will remain so (maybe worse). The ugly will continue. To balance things, the good and beautiful should be magnified.

We saw for ourselves the self-centered behaviour some Singaporeans exhibited in this period. The soar in demand for masks and sanitizers caused some to be entrepreneurial and raise their selling prices. I recall one man pricing a mask for $1 and selling from the back of his car, and a shop selling a box of masks for $35. And what about retailers who refused to serve nurses in uniform because they are afraid of getting the virus?

Yet there is much good happening during this period. An appeal for blood donors saw a huge surge in volunteers trooping down to the blood bank. Groups got together to pool resources and give away masks, teach people to make sanitizers, or provide meals and treats to the medical workers in hospitals.

Perhaps what is needed is for society to find ways to bring out the good and beautiful, and ways to reduce profiteering and opportunists. Which brings me to the next point.

Lesson #3: We Need A Refreshed Approach Towards Total Defence

Most if not all of us would have learnt about Total Defence in school. Total Defence should be present in different segments of society. While theoretically so, this episode showed that Total Defence is not a concept permanently embedded in the minds once we leave school.

Today, nobody likes to be told that something is important and we must follow. People want to be engaged and drawn into seeing the purpose behind an initiative. Yet that also means inviting a self-centered and self-serving mentality to creep in. Whatever happen to the sense of communitarianism of the 20th century?

It is in this light that I suspect we should refresh our approach towards Total Defence. It is no longer just an educational topic of pursuit, but a societal endeavour to build up the national spirit. And not just a top-down approach. We need the different communities to rise and pull their weight together.

So whether it is heeding the government’s call to manage the ground, or thinking and going beyond to be proactive in managing sentiments of people, every organisation and company has a part to play in total defence. Not just organisations but individuals too ought to do our part by practising good hygiene practices.

Lesson #4: When Life Is Uncertain, Plan To Live With Uncertainty

Some people dislike living in uncertainty. They prefer knowing for sure what will happen next, wanting to be assured of what they are going to experience next. Uncertainty unfortunately is the rule of the game when an outbreak happens. You cannot determine even with the best drawer plans what will happen next.

We are all fearful of the future in a way. That doesn’t mean we have to live in fear. If we can reduce uncertainty then our fear can be reduced. I also heard someone say before that perfect love can drive out fear. Yes, if we can have love inside is, we can remove a lot of insecurity in us. For a start, maybe we should be more aware of the needs of those among us.

Perhaps this is also the reason why subsequent to that weekend panic run to stock up, a relative sense of resilience has crept back to Singapore since. Perhaps that panic run became a wake-up call to many to think about what we should do in the midst of uncertainty. Plan to stay nimble by keeping an eye over news? But the question is, how can we stay nimble? Will relying less on authorities be one answer? But can everyone do this on their own? Not everyone is physically and mentally capable of planning for uncertainty.

Lesson #5: Help The Next Generation Draw Lessons From Covid-19

I always hear from others how the younger generations do not really appreciate the benefits of residing in Singapore. Some said that Singapore is too boring, too sterile. Others commented that the younger generations have it all on a platter.

With Covid-19, I think I can safely say the younger generations could realise the benefits of having a well-developed government machinery in dealing with such situations. Yet I wonder if young Singaporeans have ever thought of how they could contribute towards the collective resiliency of the society. Better still, what can they learn from Covid-19?

We should help the younger generations take some lessons away from this episode, when the virus is defeated. And these lessons should be etched into their minds where possible – celebrate the unsung heroes who led the efforts to contain Covid-19, the growth in volunteerism to care for the less fortunate, and the resilience of businesses and people in living with the virus. Remember how we work as a country in preventing Covid-19 from spreading. And how we managed our bilateral relations with China even when there were emotional calls to shut the borders immediately.

I must confess that when I started planning for this post, I was writing more from the point of view that we may be overly unduly worried about Covid-19. After all, fatality rate is not much high when compared to other flu bugs.

As the days go by however, news of mass infection in different countries began to pop up. South Korea and Italy are two instances where there were sudden spikes in confirmed cases within days. More countries start to have cases. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem that Covid-19 is a minor threat. Instead, it could be a major derailer to many economies.

Seeing news of South Koreans, Japanese and New Zealanders rushing to stock up on groceries, hearing that the country has raised its alert level to the highest, and learning that more countries are experiencing their first Covid-19 cases, my current conclusion is that the Singapore government was fast enough to contain the first set of infections from China, and to contain the risk of a community spread within weeks. Plus stocking up is not exactly a uniquely Singaporean phenomenon.

We should not rest on our laurels though. While trying to perform more data analytics on the cases, doing contact tracing and keeping an eye and ear glued on the developments around the world, we should also ask ourselves what lessons to draw so that we can refine the collective resilience as a society. The Government can draw their own lessons in tackling the situation. We individuals should also draw our own lessons on how we manage such situations.

What is one thing you are grateful for in the way the Singapore Government handled the Covid-19 situation? What is one thing you wish we as Singaporeans can improve in the way we handle this situation?