SINGAPORE – As governments in Asia struggle to reassure their populations over the coronavirus, public health experts say Singapore’s approach in communicating to the public is providing a model for others to reduce panic, rumors and conspiracy theories.
In a nine-minute recorded message on Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said “fear can do more harm than the virus itself” amid reports of long lines and hoarding at local supermarkets. He then laid out steps residents can take to help prevent the spread of the virus, like exercising good hygiene, while assuring them that the city had enough supplies of enough goods.
Moreover, he reassured Singaporeans that the virus didn’t appear as deadly as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003, meaning that most people would likely experience a minor illness. He also said the government would change its approach if the virus became widespread to avoid overwhelming hospitals, adding he would keep them “informed every step of the way.”
The speech, posted on social media in three languages, appeared to have an immediate impact: The long queues at supermarkets throughout the city-state on Friday night returned to normal levels as of Sunday. That alone proved notable in a region where governments have struggled to get the message right, spurring panic buying and confusion over how to protect themselves from the outbreak.
The strength of Singapore’s risk communication was reflected in the strength of their response more broadly, World Health Organization spokeswoman Olivia Lawe-Davies said in an email. “Before the detection of the first case in Singapore, preparedness activities were already under way for the rapid detection and response to 2019-nCoV, including enhanced surveillance and communication with the public and healthcare workers.”
In Hong Kong, leader Carrie Lam’s mixed messages on wearing masks and shutting the border with mainland China has stirred mistrust. Nurses have gone on strike and residents have violently opposed quarantine sites, while residents have struggled to buy toilet paper, hand sanitizer, rice and other staples for more than a week.
At a briefing last week, Lam said Hong Kong had no plans to enact new laws to regulate the supply of face masks and urged residents to reduce their social interactions. With only 52 mainland Chinese residents entering the city on Feb. 9, she added, proposals to fully shut the border were no longer meaningful. “We are making an appeal to people of Hong Kong to stay at home as much as possible,” Lam said.
In Thailand, meanwhile, Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul issued an apology after saying foreigners should be “kicked out of Thailand” for refusing to wear face masks.
Singapore, which has 5.7 million people, has 45 confirmed cases of the virus. That’s the second-highest outside China, excluding cases from a quarantined cruise ship off the coast of Japan.
Lee’s speech “was a pretty outstanding example of very good risk communication,” said Claire Hooker, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney’s Center for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine, who has studied the public responses to epidemics and infectious disease for about 20 years. “It gave people very concrete actions” that “handed back a measure of control to people whose sense of control will feel threatened,” she said.
Thomas Abraham, author of “Twenty First Century Plague, the Story of SARS,” and a risk communication consultant for the World Health Organization, said the speech worked because of the high level of trust Singaporeans have in the competence of the government — as well as the transparency.
“Prime Minister Lee does not hide any facts,” Abraham said. “Nor does he hesitate to talk about how the situation might worsen.”
Singapore’s next general election must be held by April 2021, though the ruling party has called for early polls in recent cycles. It’s unclear how the coronavirus outbreak will affect the timing of the vote.