It’s 17 April, the very date which PM Lee had hoped to see positive results of the Circuit Breaker measures according to this TODAY Online article after he had spoken with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Ever since New Zealand had implemented measures similar to what we are now going through, they had already seen their number of COVID-19 cases charting downwards by the 11th day.
Going by that logic, PM Lee had hoped to see Singapore replicate results that are parallel to that of New Zealand’s, since similar remedies should produce similar recoveries, right?
Not quite. In an unexpected turn of events, we’ve ironically reached a record high of 728 new cases as of 16 April. But it is not without reason. Unpacking this situation in all its complexity and mystery, I’ve narrowed down five reasons as to why Singapore still has yet to reap the fruits of our Circuit Breakers.
1. Non-compliant ‘Covidiots’
If you aren’t already familiar, the term ‘Covidiots’ was locally coined for citizens who—against all odds—decide to throw caution to the wind and make very questionable decisions despite the tense times. The condition, as stated by PM Lee, was that all Singaporeans have to comply with the measures in order for the Circuit Breaker on a whole to be effective. “We cannot wait to save lives,” said our Prime Minister, “Please do your part today.”
Yet, some of us will not be tamed. As with most things, there will always be that outlier group—the black sheep of the herd.
A long, snaking queue was spotted outside Tampines Mall’s Din Tai Fung outlet, which lo and behold, was running a 50% promotion off their Fried Rice with Pork Chop dish. Where there are deals and promotions, Singaporeans are sure to follow—rain or shine, global pandemic or not. They might contract a life-threatening disease with no known cure at the moment, but risking that to save S$6.90 is truly, such a worthy sacrifice!
Yet, some of us will not be tamed.
2. Migrant Worker Dormitories — A Ticking Time Bomb
Many deemed it unfortunate that there’s been an unforeseen, sudden spike in coronavirus cases in dormitories, but allow me to suggest something more realistic—the problem was always there, it was just left unaddressed.
Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong had claims of not having the “luxury of the benefit of hindsight” in a news conference on 9 April, to which journalist Kirsten Han had to say, “recent developments have demonstrated that you can’t have foresight for things you refuse to see”.
“You can’t have foresight for things you refuse to see” – Kirsten Han
With a large number of people packed into tiny spaces, safe distancing becomes an impossibility, and more often than not, hygiene gets compromised as a byproduct as well. Sounds hauntingly familiar yet? That’s exactly what our hardworking, humble migrant workers live with every single day, and they do so without complaint.
One might argue, “well if you think about it, the majority of recent cases are linked to the migrant worker dormitory clusters. So technically locally transmitted cases have been falling.” But get off your privilege, xenophobic-coated high horse, for there is no “technically” in “we”.
These migrant workers and work permit holders have just as much to play in Singapore’s nation building as everyone else does. Our migrant brothers and sisters walk amongst us. Before COVID-19, there was no physical divide. They were shopping at the supermarket alongside us, at the coffeeshops with us, and they will continue to be amongst us when this all ends. No matter your perspective, the truth is that our healthcare system is one that serves us all—Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans. The burden is very much shared.
And for those who can’t seem to find an empathetic bone in your body, let me promptly remind everyone that our migrant friends came to Singapore to do the jobs that Singaporeans do not want to do. And now, they are the ones paying the price for our irresponsible behaviour.
I guess the only silver lining, if any, is the light that has been shed on this matter at large, opening our eyes to a realm horrifying living conditions that exist just a few streets away, shaking us from our blissful oblivion.
But thankfully, not all hope is lost—for every ignorant, hateful keyboard warrior that exists, there will be an empathetic, kind individual motivated to invoke change. And you can, too. Many initiatives set out to better the lives of our migrant friends—no matter how small—have already surfaced, such as the #HOMEFORALL movement by 8EyedSpud.
This initiative encourages Singaporeans to donate a meagre S$40 out of their S$600 solidarity payout, which is a small amount that will go a long way. For S$40, one can help to sustain a migrant worker with two meals a day for 10 days. Your voice can also make a difference simply through signing a petition, which you can do so here.
And they will continue to be amongst us when this all ends.
3. Unmasked for too long
Since 22 January, the early days of the novel coronavirus, the Taiwanese government already had the foresight to encourage citizens to mask up and wash their hands regularly, way ahead of their other counterparts. This very foresight has come a long way in slowing the spread of COVID-19 in the island state.
It was not until very recently—3 April, to be exact—that the Singaporean government had urged its citizens to don masks in public, and even made it mandatory to do so on 14 April. Before that, the stand for three long months was that only the ill need to wear masks, and the healthy should not be unnecessarily masking up.
The logic behind this claim was initially backed by scientific advice and guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO), and also during a time when Singapore did not have community spread of the virus in Singapore. While that has validity in its own right, one can’t help but wonder whether local transmissions would have been lessened if every individual were more conscientious in preventive measures such as mask-wearing from an earlier date.
4. Words Matter — Defence vs Offence
In the age-old hypothesis of linguistic relativity, linguists Sapir and Whorf have long posited that language shapes thought. It shapes the way we perceive and process the world around us, and therefore, simply put, words matter. And the Singaporean government is well aware. Using the terms “Circuit Breaker” goes a long way in managing panic as opposed to the forbidden “lockdown”.
Instead of catapulting the nation into a state of widespread panic and fear, they have instead chosen to take what I call the “muted route”. But who could blame them? Recalling the tizzy that Singaporeans were in during our dark days of panic hoarding, I wouldn’t trust us to act calmly in an overnight ‘DORSCON Red’ scenario either.
As such, these “muted” measures came from a place of caution, as the government treads a fine line of public health—both physically and mentally, and that of economic considerations.
Governed by our conservative asian values, it is not out of character for our leaders to undertake more defensive—rather than offensive—measures. In any team sport, there will always exist an offensive player, one whose objective is to put himself out there, aggressively doing whatever it takes to score a point, and also a defensive one, always protecting, always goal-keeping. We can think of ourselves as the latter, but it takes a two-pronged approach to be effective.
“Defensive moves…are effective only when combined with rigorous, systematic efforts” – William A. Haseltine
We are now living in extraordinary times. And extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. Something as drastic as combating a global pandemic requires aggressive action, and “defensive moves like closing businesses or social distancing are effective only when combined with rigorous, systematic efforts to get ahead of the spread of the disease,” says William A. Haseltine, infectious disease expert and President of the global health think tank ACCESS Health International.
5. Too much hemming and hawing
Perhaps in that aspect, we’re already too slow. Drawing an example from our neighbouring nation, Malaysia did not hesitate to impose a lockdown and shutter their borders overnight, right after the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country had surpassed 500 in a single day.
This pivotal move left little to no turnaround time for all the Malaysians who were seconded overseas to return to their home state, but that didn’t stop the Malaysian government. In comparison, Singaporeans were given a total of three days—a full weekend and one working day—to prepare ourselves for the partial lockdown that we call Circuit Breakers, which could have possibly created a lag time in the grander scheme of things.
In the span of these three pre-Circuit Breaker days, some chose to spend it queueing up at IKEA, creating an echo chamber for the virus to fester and spread. Perhaps moving forward, we’ll need to have strict bills that govern our every move, poking us in the back with a stick that is law-enforcement. It seems like the only way we know how to behave, anyway.
This myriad of factors, all working together in some twisted way, appears to be the reason why our numbers are climbing, and not falling the way we expected them to. 728 new cases in a single day might seem like a lot to take in, but it is hardly the time to panic now.
More than ever, we need everyone’s cooperation, compassion, and solidarity in this crucial period in our battle against the deadly virus. Check up on your friends at home, donate what you have in excess to those who need it more, and find it within yourself to empathise with the authorities who face immense stress in this metaphorical pressure cooker.
Realistically speaking, we will have to see a peak in the case numbers before they will begin to fall. I hold on to the hope that that day will soon arrive. But until then, let’s all do our parts to contribute in whatever way possible. There is no effort too small.
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