by Dr. William Wan on

Take two pills and call me in the morning

The philosopher Santayana once said: “Those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I would like to suggest a corollary: Those who do not have all the facts are doomed to indulge their fears.

Researchers in the medical journal Lancet have posited that since Covid-19 is no longer contained in Wuhan, other major Chinese cities are probably sustaining localised outbreaks and cities overseas with close transport links to China could also become outbreak epicentres unless substantial public health interventions are implemented immediately.

“Independent self-sustaining outbreaks in major cities globally could become inevitable because of substantial exportation of pre-symptomatic cases and in the absence of large-scale public health interventions,” said the researchers.

In other words, there is a real possibility of Covid-19 becoming endemic in society. To which, the fearful among us fling their hands in the air and run around in panic. But if this happens, and let’s be clear, it’s too soon now to make an assessment, did you know that it will be the fifth coronavirus to do so?

Image Source: Shutterstock / Olk Bon

Yes, you heard me. Covid-19 isn’t the first coronavirus that is so widespread that it continues to circulate in society. And no, Sars isn’t one of it. Neither is Mers. Both of these coronaviruses were eradicated soon after they appeared. The main reason we remember Sars and Mers is due to the relatively high fatality rate. Sars hit 10% and Mers almost 35%. nCov currently stands at about 2 to 3%, and outside of Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak, the fatality rate is about 0.2%, which brings it closer to influenza (0.1%). In other words, even if Covid-19 does remain, its effects would likely be, in the words of an expert “more than a flu, but less than Sars”.

Why am I telling you this? It isn’t to diminish the fact that people are still getting sick and, in the worst cases, dying, of the disease. It isn’t to try to mitigate the loss of a loved one. Death is still death, and it is tragic, whether it is the result of a heart attack, an unknown disease or something as plebeian as the common cold.

I’m telling you this because there is something more infectious than any virus and more fatal. Fear.

Fear makes fools of us all. It kills common sense and infects the undiscerning. It is spread by rumour-mongering, with whispers and raised eyebrows, with a breathless “did you know?” and a brainless “I heard that…”.

Image Source: Shutterstock / Antimon

Don’t. Just don’t. One meme that has been circulating is that Dorscon should stand for “Don’t over-react, Singaporeans, can or not?”. I approve of this message.

Three weeks ago, when the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition was at Yellow, Singaporeans rushed to hoard masks and sanitisers. Shelves cleared and queues grew at retail outlets islandwide.

Then came Dorscon Orange two Fridays ago, as the Ministry of Health explained that there are now a few local cases without any links to previous cases or travel history to China. With that, the queues shifted to supermarkets and provision stores. Suddenly, Singaporeans didn’t care about masks and sanitisers so much as they did rice and toilet paper. Empty shelves appeared where once instant noodles were displayed.

And as photos of empty shelves and long queues appeared on social media, accelerated by word-of-mouth and Whats-of-App, more people rushed to stock up on “essentials”, thus completing that self-fulfilling prophecy: We are rushing to stock up because stocks are running out; stocks are running out because we are rushing to stock up.

Image Source: Shutterstock / huntergol hp

Fear begets fear.

These hoarders and herders may think that they are getting a step ahead of others, they may think they are being sensible. And most of the time, these Singaporeans are well-meaning logical people. But when that logic is based on fear, they underestimate Singapore’s resilience and resources and overestimate how bad the situation can be.

Of course, it’s not all selfishness and silliness that is powering our panic. In the gloom, there is bloom. Stories abound on social media about how some people are buying up masks to donate to the more needy. A ground-up movement, Contribute.sg, have set up drop-off points for people to donate masks and sanitisers.

Fighting fear isn’t easy, but we have the cure: There are two pills we need to take.

The first pill: Remember

Compare what the Government is doing now as opposed to 2003, when Sars hit. Then, Singapore was unprepared to deal with a pandemic and as a result, by the end of the outbreak, it had infected 238 people and killed 33. Now, we have thermal scanners and personal protective equipment, quarantine processes and Dorscon levels. Could the Government be doing more to deal with the situation? Perhaps. But that doesn’t negate all the positive affirmative actions it has done since the outbreak.

It’s not just handing out free masks or implementing decisive macro-level initiatives. The Government has been quick to share important information through a variety of channels. For example, parents of school-going children are getting regular updates on what schools and MOE is doing via the Parents Gateway app. Companies are also encouraging their employees to join the Gov.SG WhatsApp group that has been set up to share correct information and fight fake news. To date, there have been over 500,000 subscribers to this WhatsApp service.

Image Source: Shutterstock / Tom Wang

In a recent interview, Professor Paul Tambyah from the Division of Infectious Diseases at the National University Hospital’s University Medicine Cluster told the Straits Times that he expected that, just like Sars, nCov would likely die down “sometime in June,” once the hot season hits China. We may not be certain when this will end, but it would not be overnight.

The second pill: Reassure

The Saturday after Singapore upgraded DORSCON to Orange, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong broadcast a personal appeal to Singaporeans. In the eight-minute message, PM Lee said that this coronavirus outbreak is a test of Singapore’s social cohesion and psychological resilience.

He said: “Fear and anxiety are natural human reactions. We all want to protect ourselves and our families… But fear can do more harm than the virus itself. It can make us panic, or do things which make matters worse, like circulating rumours online, hoarding face masks or food, or blaming particular groups for the outbreak.”

Image Source: Shutterstock / Jerome Quek

I went to buy a bottle of milk the same night Singaporeans panicked after Dorscon went to Orange . Bad call. I had to wait 20 minutes in line to pay at my local grocery store. “Wuhan good for business, yeah?” I remarked casually to the owner as I paid. “No,” he grumbled, “this is really bad for my inventory flow.”

Before that, I spoke with an elderly woman in line. We both watched in bemusement as a young woman gingerly balanced 6 trays of eggs in her hands while hanging on to cartons of tissue paper. Unlike many others, the elderly auntie wasn’t clutching bags of rice or bundles of toilet paper. “Why aren’t you buying instant noodles, auntie?” I asked her mischievously. “I remember back in Sars days,” she said. “I bought 5 bags of rice. In the end, I couldn’t finish them and the rice spoiled. I’m not going to repeat my mistake.”

If only we can remember the lessons we’ve learned before.