Life has changed in Singapore during the coronavirus, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s the end of the world. Imagine masses of people wearing surgical masks and walking whilst glued to their mobile phones, it is eerily cognisant of a zombie movie! Unfortunately, we now live in the age of social media, which means the news spreads quickly, facts are easily distorted and fears can spiral out of control.
However, I for one feel safe living in Singapore during the coronavirus outbreak (check out photos from my more recent blog here). It brings me great comfort to know the Singapore government is open and transparent – they are not fudging numbers or hiding critical information, unlike China or Indonesia. Singapore declared a code orange on Friday, 7 February after three cases of coronavirus from unknown origin were identified. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong released a subsequent video with context on how the epidemic is unfolding and being handled in Singapore.
How Coronavirus is spread
The coronavirus originated in the Hubei province of China. Symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath, a runny nose, sore throat, headache, and fever. The first cases were publically reported on 30 December 2019 and within two months the virus has spread rapidly throughout the region and beyond. The below graphic, real-time available here, shows the spread of the virus as at when code orange was announced in Singapore.
Coronavirus is not the first mass outbreak in recent times. In the 1990s, bird flu (strain A/H5N1) was responsible for numerous deaths, followed by the more fatal SARS virus in the early 2000s, and then the swine flu pandemic in 2009 and 2010. The world has battled against these viruses before and come out stronger for it.
Coronavirus is not nearly as deadly as some of its predecessors; the fatality rate outside of China is only 0.2% compared to SARS, which was 10% (although it is worth noting that people who die of pneumonia as a result of coronavirus are not included in those fatality figures. The fatality rate is 2% in China). What is scary, however, is how quickly coronavirus is spreading. The number of cases in China has surged to over 35,000. Outside of China, the next most impacted country is Japan, which has reported over 60 cases (the majority of infected people were passengers on a cruise ship). The Philippines reported the first coronavirus death to occur outside of China. In Singapore, over 33 cases of coronavirus have been identified thus far with the numbers steadily inclining.
Scientists still cannot say with certainty how the virus is spread, although it is thought to occur primarily through respiratory droplets. When a sick person sneezes, coughs or spits, moisture droplets can land in the mouths or noses of others who are nearby, which are then inhaled into the lungs.
Why does everyone wear surgical masks?
Even before the coronavirus, surgical masks have become popular accessories in most Asian countries, especially Japan, China, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The trend really took off after SARS and today, you can even buy designer face masks from Louis Vuitton and Etsy.
Many Westerners, however, become frightened at seeing people wear face masks since the practice is uncommon in Europe or America. Older generations are reminded of Michael Jackson, who used to wear a surgical mask after his nose fell off; otherwise, they worry the person wearing the mask has an infectious disease.
Having lived in Asia for three years now, I’d like to dispel those concerns. Most of the time, people wear a face mask if they are sick as a courtesy to others so they don’t spread their germs. Otherwise, individuals who have a low immune system, such as the elderly or invalids, are encouraged to wear a mask in crowded places for protection.
The most effective type of face mask is the 3-ply variety used in hospitals; one side is coloured green or blue and the other side is white. People who are sick themselves and do not want to contaminate others wear the coloured side (which is liquid repellant) facing inwards, whereas those who want to protect themselves from getting sick will wear the coloured side facing outwards.
Some cynics argue that surgical masks do very little when it comes to containing the spread of a virus. However, that is not entirely true. For respiratory borne illnesses, such as the coronavirus is thought to be, wearing a mask can help stop fluids from leaking through into your nasal cavity. For example, if someone spits or sneezes whilst talking to you, the mask will stop those saliva droplets entering your respiratory system.
Residents going kiasu
Kiasu is Singaporean vernacular, referring to anxious and selfish behaviour characterised by a fear of missing out. The word originates from the Chinese phrase 怕输 meaning fear of losing.
After Singapore declared code orange, kiasu fever swept the nation! Residents sieged supermarkets and convenience stores, buying up all the instant noodles, rice, and toilet paper on the shelves.
Over this weekend, the supermarkets have worked around the clock to stock up shelves and dispel concerns that food will run out. When I went to my local FairPrice supermarket, I saw massive crates of dried food and cans being unloaded. Fortunately, the shelves were not bare and I was able to buy enough groceries for the rest of the week. As I don’t really eat rice or noodles, I was spared the kiasu grocery aftermath.
Kiasu has also spread to the pharmacies. Surgical masks have sold out everywhere and paracetamol and hand sanitiser are also running low. However, for people desperately in need, many schools and hospitals have extra supplies they are willing to share. The Ministery of Health (MOH) has also committed to giving every Singapore household a packet of four masks. More information on the collection of masks is found here.
Social media stirs the pot
Based on my conversations with locals and colleagues, everyone is a lot more uptight and fearful of the coronavirus compared to the SARS outbreak ten years ago. Social media is mostly to blame. In Singapore, every time you turn on the news or scroll Facebook or Twitter, you are bombarded with coronavirus updates. For some, it has almost become an obsession.
There is also a lot of misinformation shared on social media, which has gotten so bad the World Health Organisation (WHO) has branded it an infodemic. WHO recently published a series of Pininterest graphics aimed at dispelling such harmful myths, such as the one below.
Social media is also being used to spread rumors and incite racist attitudes towards Chinese people. Videos and photos showing Chinese people eating live or unusual animals are being circulated as so-called evidence of the cause of the virus. Most of the images are from many years ago and almost none of them are from the Hubei region, but posters don’t let such details get in the way of a good story. In the UK, a significant rise in xenophobia towards people of Asian-appearance has been reported in The Guardian.
Victims of the abuse are responding with their own tagline, #iamnotavirus. Yuli Yang, a Wuhan native who currently lives in Hong Kong, also posted a tribute to Wuhan on her Facebook page, which humanised the epicenter of this crisis.
Impact to daily life
Since the government announced code orange several days ago, daily life in Singapore has been significantly impacted. Foreigners must declare any recent travel to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and every student and worker is required to declare their travel as well as any flu-like symptoms to their school or employer. People who have traveled to China since January, or been in close contact with those who have, are required to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Temperature screening booths are set up outside all schools, hospitals, and large office buildings. The technology is pretty cool and they can check your temperature instantly by zapping your forehead with a laser light. Anyone who records a high temperature is not cleared to enter the premise and advised to either self-quarantine or go to the hospital. More advanced temperature screening booths have also been set up at Woodlands and Tuas checkpoints where people cross the border from Malaysia to Singapore, per the picture below. MOH advises residents against any unnecessary travel.
I’m thankful that Singapore is putting in place appropriate precautions now, before things get any worse. What we do know is that the virus is spreading quickly. The good news is that viruses, in general, tend to thrive in cool conditions. Therefore, Singapore’s early vigilance combined with the increasingly hot weather should hopefully stop it in its tracks. I hope so, as I would like life to get back to normal.