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SG PM Lee addresses coronavirus fears: Combating fear and government distrust

Over the weekend, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed Singaporeans in a Facebook video after the country witnessed a shopping frenzy. In the video, PM Lee said the real test of the virus outbreak is on Singapore’s social cohesion and psychological resilience.

“Fear and anxiety are natural human reactions. We all want to protect ourselves and our families from what is still a new and unknown disease. But fear can do more harm than the virus itself. It can make us panic or do things which make matters worse, such as circulating rumours online, hoarding facemasks or food, or blaming particular groups for the outbreak,” he said.

The state of panic came after the Ministry of Health (MOH) stepped up its risk assessment of the coronavirus from Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) Yellow to DORSCON Orange. Under DORSCON Orange, the virus is severe and spreads easily from person to person. Although MOH said it would be introducing additional precautionary measures to minimise the risk of further transmission of the coronavirus in the community, including daily healthchecks at workplace and raising protection of vulnerable groups, panic ensued within the community. This led to several Singaporeans hoarding daily household items such as toilet paper, instant noodles and rice. While stocks flew off the shelves at supermarkets, long queues also began to form and this also resulted in baskets of groceries being abandoned along the aisles.

The prime minister also added in his video that a ministerial task force advised by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat has been leading the government’s response, dealing with new developments daily, as well as holding regular press briefings to keep Singaporeans informed every step of the way. He encouraged Singaporeans to take courage and see through this stressful time together. “Let’s stay united and resolute in this new coronavirus outbreak. Take sensible precautions, help one another, stay calm and carry on with our lives,” he said.

Likewise, Minister of Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing assured Singaporeans in a Facebook post that there is no need to rush for essential supplies and Singapore’s supply lines for those essentials are still intact. He added that there is no risk of the country running a shortage on essential food or household items. Chan also urged Singaporeans to exercise individual responsibility and not hoard items unnecessarily.

Meanwhile, current Speaker of the Parliament of Singapore Tan Chuan Jin also urged Singaporeans not to panic and hoard, and if for some reason they had to, to be reasonable. He also called out Singaporeans who abandoned their groceries and explained that supermarket employees are already overstretched, as well as putting up with rude and unreasonable customers. “We can be better than this. Let’s look out for our service and frontline staff,” he added.

The announcements made by leaders to address and allay the fear of citizens in the country is not uncommon. Former US President Jimmy Carter, for example, delivered his renowned “Crisis of Confidence” speech in 1979, encouraging Americans to remain united and confident despite the series of events they have encountered such as the Vietnam War, Watergate Scandal and the 1970s energy crisis.

In Singapore’s case, the move by PM Lee was necessary to assure the nation that the government is in control and it’s the whole nation that needs to stand together, Lars Voedisch, managing director, PRecious Communications said. He explained that communications during crisis situations need swift, and Singapore has witnessed a fair amount of white noise when it comes to addressing concerns given the rumours, speculation and fake news circulating.

“[A country’s leader should address citizens] whenever there is a situation that creates worries and concerns among large parts of the population, clear words of reassurance are needed. Especially when there are signs of panicky behavior are showing like the bulk purchasing of necessities at supermarkets, an authority has to step in as the voice of reason,” he added. Nonetheless, Voedisch said the government is doing a good job overall with regular updates, transparently sharing what is happening and the steps they are taking.  Staying calm and showing concerted actions is the right approach to counter fear mongering of people, he added.

Read also: Containing the online spread of fake news on Wuhan coronavirus

However Voedisch was also quick to point out that what could have fallen through the cracks was anticipating the reaction DORSCON Orange can cause. It seems that the government had not anticipated the kind of reaction the increase of the alert level to DORSCON Orange caused. So, it should now think about what kind of situations might arise if the number of infections or fatalities increase and should the alert level increase to DORSCON Red. This should be pro-actively addressed and not left to surprise the public as that might lead to more panic reactions,” he explained.

Likewise, Edwin Yeo, GM at SPRG Singapore also said it is good that PM Lee attempted to calm Singaporeans down but in actual fact, there will always be a group of people prone to panic. “In a viral outbreak, it’s really difficult to say or do the right things in the eyes of the public. Very often, a crisis of this nature automatically splits people into camps, those that think more should be done and others who think the first camp is overreacting, he said.

According to Yeo, the government is doing what it can but has probably underestimated the impact of dark social and the spread of fear through social media. It also underestimated the distrust people have of the government during such crisis, as it is human nature to think that those sitting on top care more about long term economy than individual health. One such example he highlighted was mask hoarding related. When the government advises Singaporeans not to wear masks unless they are unwell, this does not quite have the same impact as a medical professional saying it, for example, Yeo explained.

“What the government said about masks is echoed by medical professionals around the world, and in truth, surgical masks are proven to be ineffective in preventing one from being infected. But because it came from the government, it is now being pinpointed as a ‘fault’ in the way they handled the situation because the number of cases has increased at speed over two weeks,” he added.

This is something the government can learn to do better, to let experts be the ones educating people the right things.

Singapore government tackles fake news

Likewise, Lena Soh-Ng, CEO, Huntington Communications said PM Lee made a positive move by giving a message of assurance and factually explaining that while the Wuhan coronavirus is more contagious that SARS, it has a low mortality rate of 2%. “I think the issue is how to balance transparency so that panic situations don’t arise,” she added.

According to her, preparing community leaders and business associations with the steps to take before a big announcement is made may have allowed for more assurance. But generally the government is seen as being transparent, which is a good thing for confidence in the Singapore leadership in the long run, she said. She added that the Singapore government has made the right moves to counter fake news with the Gov.sg WhatsApp chat.

Blue Totem Communications director Andrew Wong also weighed in on the conversation, explaining that PM Lee has been the forefront of leading the country through the crisis and having him address the issues brings a certain peace of mind.

“From the Gov.sg Whatsapp subscription that provides timely and updated information that is easily sharable over family WhatsApp groups, to regular media updates and the comforting assurance of our prime minister over the weekend, these have all helped to keep people calm,” Wong added. That said, he said that the onus remains on tech companies to police their content and help prevent the spread of fake news, as misinformation still travels via social media.

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