Panic amid Wuhan virus crisis

PM Lee at the recording of his remarks on the novel coronavirus situation. (Photo: MCI)

PM Lee at the recording of his remarks on the novel coronavirus situation. (Photo: MCI)

By Ivan Lim
Former AJA President
Contributor to AsiaN

Singapore: Early today I received a call from a former newspaper colleague in his 60s, rattling off on the phone without the usual ‘good morning’.

“Ivan, something strange is happening in Singapore, the likes of which I have not seen for a long time. Long queues are forming in the supermarket and people are rushing to snap foodstuff groceries as if there was going to be a riot or war!”

Thus alerted, I snapped up from my bed, did a quick brushing and headed straight to the neighbourhood NTUC Fair Price supermarket to check things out. Long lines of shoppers with full baskets and trolleys had formed at the cashier counters.

These early, if not angry, birds have emptied shelves of rice–the favourite Thai fragrant variety – ready-to cook noodles, sauces, eggs, and tissue paper.

Panic buying has hit the city-state, triggered by the government raising the health alert level from yellow to orange under the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon), signalling the Novel Corona-virus contagion has become a moderate to high risk.

This followed the disclosure of three new cases of infection that are linked neither to previous ones nor to travel in China. (The pneumonia bug had sprung from Wuhan city in the central Chinese province of Hubei.)

One of them is a 42-year-old Singaporean teacher from Victoria Junior College, who was hospitalised on January 31.

The buying frenzy sparked by fear has prompted the Prime Minister to go on air with a ‘don’t panic, stand together and fight’ message.

Appearing on 6 pm television on Saturday to update Singaporeans on the on-going battle against the stressful pathogen, Mr Lee Hsien Loong said the government imposed the orange Dorscon alert –the next is red –because the four cases had caused worries that the virus was probably already circulating among the population. While preparing for any eventuality, he was confident of the “medical outcome of the outbreak”.

Addressing Singaporeans’ fear of the deadly bug, he said: ”Fear can do more harm than the virus itself. It can make use panic or do things which matters worse like circulating rumours online, hoarding facemasks or food or blaming particular groups for the outbreak.

“(Instead) we should take courage and see through this stressful time together.”

On Friday, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said: “There is no risk of us running a shortage of essential food or household items.”

Under the orange code, the Ministry of Health (MOH) is putting in place stringent measures to stem the further spread of the disease locally.

They covered, among others, event organisers who are advised to postpone or mass-participation activities; schools which will stop all inter-school and external activities until the end of March school holidays; employers who are urged to make staff conduct regular temperature checks. Those with temperature reading above 38 degrees Celsius should not report for work; and hospitals that have to screen patients and ensure those with pneumonia are separated from the rest.

The current measures recalled those Singapore had activated to tackle the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002. How long the orange alert stays depends, said Minister for Health Gan Kim Yong.

“If we are able to contain the cases, determine the source of the cases and those who we could not determine have recovered and (are0 discharged and we will consider stepping back to yellow.”

Separately, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has taken steps to address concerns about the return of 30,000 China nationals holding work passes who had left for the Lunar New Year holidays.

MOM has imposed new rules that include requiring employers to get approval for the return of work pass holders. The employers must ensure they have secured suitable premises for them during the mandatory 14-days leave of absence from work. Incubation time of the Novel Corona-virus is said to range from seven to14 days).

The entry rule also applies to current work pass holders, regardless of nationality, who have travelled to China within the last 14 days.

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