The world is gripped by coronavirus pandemic. Coming from Singapore, we are one of the early countries that have been hit. At one point, we were right behind China in the number of detected infections. We have participated in supermarket panic. Masks & sanitisers were out of stock islandwide. A neighbour saw us coming home and yelled, “Quick wash your hands, virus!” I could only give every family member a small bottle of soap and 2 masks for emergency use. Then over time, life went back to normal. Work meetings resumed. Supermarkets stocked well. Sanitisers on sale again.
However, this calm was suddenly halted by the global pandemic. Gradually and yet swiftly, we saw other countries overtake us – South Korea, Iran, Italy, then Europe became the epicentre and US has recently declared a state of emergency. Toilet roll snatching is now a global phenomenon. Major events around the world have been cancelled. Travel restrictions, border control and lockdowns are in full force.
In some ways, it feels like we have gone through what the rest of the world is going through now. Of course, it is not over for Singapore. But I see stark differences in how we handle the pandemic and draw the underlining thinking and social compact that underpins this.
Diamond Princess vs. Costa Fortuna
Passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship were placed on a 2-week quarantine at Yokohama. When I first read about this, I thought,
“Isn’t this sentencing the passengers to death? Who has the right to decree this? This is an ethical issue.”
What started as 10 coronavirus cases ended with more than 630 cases by the end of the quarantine. Keeping a large number of people in a confined space is a sure way of spreading the virus quickly. Indeed 2 people from this cruise ship had died, both Japanese in their 80s. Many on board were elderly who are most vulnerable.
Who ordered the quarantine? Japan’s Ministry of Health. Was there a better way? Probably.
Here is the alternative. Costa Fortuna, a cruise ship with 1631 passengers including 60 Italians was rejected at several ports. This happened when the outbreak of cases happened in Italy. But all 1631 passengers disembarked within 14 hours on docking in Singapore; no infection and no deaths. This is not a vanity mention of my country.
But it shows it is possible to take care of the passengers, who are the impacted group and the larger community. All passengers were certified well by the doctor before they could leave the ship. Passengers from high-risk locations such as Italy and South Korea were also screened by doctors and taken to the airport directly for their flight. Granted in this case, there were no infected passengers, so one can argue that it was easier to manage. However, this same ship was rejected at several ports in Thailand and Malaysia over coronavirus fears.
What are the differences in how these two cruise ships were treated?
One failed to regard the well-being of the passengers, made a poor decision with dire consequences and another found ways to manage risk and take care of the passengers and their citizens.
Why make this contrast? In the current pandemic, decisions made in fear without considering the well-being of both the impacted group and the larger community compromises the former group. I appreciate the complexities and risks involved, but in whatever our position we have the responsibility to make the right decisions for collective good. Seek the genius of the ‘and’, find ways to mitigate risks and do what seems impossible.
Money vs. Safety
Now in Singapore, any meeting or gathering of more than 250 people are to be cancelled or deferred. Being the chairperson of a 300-pax Asia Professional Speakers Convention, we made the decision to postpone it 2 weeks before this directive was announced. Central to this consideration is taking responsibility for the delegates. Knowing that travel declarations are ineffective with global infections along with the long incubation period without any symptoms, there is no foolproof way to detect the virus. Bringing people from all over the world together without being able to mitigate the risk is irresponsible.
So I wonder why other large scale events are not postponed. The Tokyo Olympics is a prime example. The answer? There is too much money involved, the loss that comes from investments already made, the sponsorship money already paid and the potential loss from ticket sales.
I am not an expert in these high-level events, but could this be another example of the misplaced priorities.
Money vs. the safety of people; how will others judge me vs. the well-being of the people involved? This boils down to values.
The decision of the organisers will tell a lot about what they deem as more important. (As of 23 March, IOC has announced the postponement of the Olympics, bowing down to pressure from athletes and participating countries.)
Hoarding vs. Sharing
Now back home to the simple daily purchases. Singaporeans were one of the first countries to demonstrate the effect fear has on people. Hoarding of essentials. Reports of this same phenomena are now in many other countries. The survival instinct to self-protect under threat is natural. At that moment, normally good people stop thinking about others. To make matters worse, profiteers snap up all the available supplies and resell online for a tidy profit.
However what happened next to reverse this downward spiral? The Singaporean leaders assured the citizens that we have enough supplies and persuaded us to buy only what they need. We realise hoarding deprives people who really need these supplies. If you are not sick, then don’t wear a mask. Instead of showing empty shelves, local newspapers splashed pictures of well-stocked supplies. Now we even have communal hand sanitizer in my apartment block for communal use. From hoarding we shifted to sharing.
Within this, every individual needs to decide,
“Will I be safe? Will I be ok? Is it to each his own or are we in this together?”
This question requires us to place our faith in one another. To reverse the downward spiral of “to each his own”, we need to inspire hope in our common humanity. Acts of care and kindness – delivering food to friends serving home-stay notice, warning others even if you’re only slightly unwell and offering masks and sanitisers to others.
I know it looks impossible now. But the time will come when this coronavirus situation is behind us.
When this crisis blows over, is your country stronger collectively? Do people trust one another more? Can you count on one another to keep you and your family safe?
Ultimately, this test may not be the number of people infected by the virus. The test is how well, we as a collective, overcome this crisis together.