Five lessons from fighting Covid-19

19 Mar 2020

Straits Times, 19 Mar 2020, Five lessons from fighting Covid-19
Lim Sun Sun For The Straits Times

It's a long-haul fight. Go about life normally, but not complacently

One month after Singapore upgraded its coronavirus alert level to Dorscon Orange, the disease has since hurtled on to wreak havoc in other countries in Asia, Europe and North America.

Singapore was briefly the country with the second most infections and its early exposure to the disease led it up the steep learning curve ahead of others. The brutal experience with Sars - severe acute respiratory syndrome - in 2003 has prepared Singapore well for the coronavirus, and it has since drawn praise from the World Health Organisation and international experts for its effective containment measures.

However, it would be premature and indeed foolish to celebrate, given that the coronavirus continues to lob curveballs at us.

As it is also highly contagious, containing this insidious pathogen involves everyone and this is why effective communication is especially vital.

Even in the span of weeks, Singapore's brush with it has been intense, enabling it to distil crucial lessons in what has worked, floundered or faltered in communicating during a crisis.

I identify here five lessons.

The coronavirus first reared its head in Singapore in late January to massive confusion. There was grave uncertainty on whether it would be as deadly as Sars. Data from China was alarming yet inconclusive, and worse, headlines and images from Wuhan on the rising fatality rate and high profile deaths of several doctors heightened fears. It was in such chaotic circumstances that the Singapore Government had to exert control and assert authority.

Its response was one of transparency. Singapore convened regular high-level press conferences involving its multi-ministerial task force, with leaders giving unambiguous information about the measures being taken. This included quarantining contacts of those infected, imposing travel bans and advisories, testing and treating cases, and implementing healthcare-related precautions. Channels were set up to provide the public with reliable and timely information to counter fake news.

The transparency and regularity with which information was provided, including hard data on the number and profile of cases and their mutual connections, offered welcome clarity amid a fog of doubt.

Despite these efforts, confusion reigned because of the lack of clear information on the disease. One salient point of contention was whether to mask or not to mask.

Footage from China depicted people donning masks, as if to suggest that masks are vital protection. In Singapore's initial weeks of reckoning with the coronavirus, people were increasingly seen wearing masks on trains and in crowded areas.

However, as health experts advised, masks have limited use in preventing infection in casual contact and pales in comparison to the mundane practice of hand-washing. With people in Singapore beginning to stockpile masks, setting the record straight to ensure a healthy supply of masks for healthcare workers was critical.

To arrest this trend, consistency of messaging was key, not just in words but also in deeds. So political leaders were never seen wearing masks in public engagements. This was in sharp contrast to Hong Kong or South Korea, where Chief Executive Carrie Lam and President Moon Jae-in were often pictured with masks on.

With all-round reinforcement of the message that masking up was neither necessary nor useful, the wearing and hoarding of masks tapered off. Consistency of messaging thus trumped confusion.

As the coronavirus knows no geographical, cultural or demographic boundaries, Singapore's collective resistance is only as strong as its weakest link.

Hence, top-down communication alone cannot effectively reach everyone. A groundswell of supportive voices rose, including celebrity blogger Mr Brown's Kim Huat Takes The Bus videos, artist Weiman Kow's appealing infocomics on the virus and other community initiatives that organically emerged to strengthen the chorus around socially responsible behaviour.

A slew of community efforts also sprung up, such as #braveheartsg that supports front-line medical staff and that connects people with extra masks and sanitisers to those in need, demonstrating the importance of partnership with the community to bring everyone on board the fight against the virus.

We cannot underestimate the adverse psychological impact of a threat such as Covid-19 that seems simultaneously immediate, yet remote. People feel beleaguered and desperate to protect themselves and their loved ones, and to achieve some semblance of control over this amorphous hazard. To ensure that public messaging hits home, an empathetic stance that does not dismiss people's fears but acknowledges their concerns will more greatly resonate.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's two national addresses on the coronavirus have been commendable in this regard: authoritative yet reassuring.

Notably, the mixed response to the leaked audio of Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing's closed-door discussion at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry suggests that old-fashioned common sense delivered with candour may appeal to some, but grate on others. It is safe to say that reassurance ultimately prevails over condescension.

The final and perhaps most difficult lesson to fully grasp is how Singapore must now build a sense of normalcy without falling prey to complacency.

The Republic has so far managed to contain the virus to some extent without needing to lock down the city. People have mostly gone about business as usual, albeit with minor inconveniences such as contact tracing measures and workplace adaptations.

However, we must avoid becoming cavalier about the disease, especially given the concern over imported cases sparking a second wave of infections here. The fight with the coronavirus is predicted to be long-drawn. Even as cases stabilise in China, where the virus initiated, infections are now rising into the thousands in Europe, the new epicentre of the pandemic. Should cases be imported to spark a rise in community transmissions here, we may need to consider stricter procedures as well.

This means we must steadfastly accept that managing this disease is part of our lived reality, proceed with life as normal, but not let up in taking the necessary safeguards.

Inevitably, people do experience campaign fatigue over time, so strategies must be developed to maintain awareness about the coronavirus and refresh public messaging at appropriate intervals. This may be achieved through crafting novel slogans, recruiting new spokesmen or experimenting with alternative communication platforms.

Attaining normalcy without breeding complacency will be a formidable challenge, but one Singapore must strive to achieve.

In the ongoing bid to stamp out the coronavirus, we have also had to combat fake news and herd mentality such as panic buying. While we have yet to decisively win these battles, we can nevertheless draw valuable insights to sharpen our communication and messaging, so as to inoculate everyone against disease, distortions and disinformation.

Lim Sun Sun is professor of communication and technology and head of humanities, arts and social sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. She is also a Nominated Member of Parliament.