Trying Times


By M.K.

These are trying times for the country. It has been late coming for us after wreaking havoc and distress in most of the countries after it started and been contained in one country but went on to spread all over the world. That the Covid-19 was bound to reach Mauritian shores was a certainty to scientists and medical men given our highly interconnected and globalised world, where people, products and services move across borders with ease, but we were mistaken to believe that our insularity would protect us from the pandemic.

It is said that a common response in trying times is to look to people in authority for help in creating meaning and providing direction in favour of the common good. For that to happen, the element of trust in those in authority and of public institutions has to prevail. In a world where infodemics seem to be having an upper hand over pandemics themselves, the best antidote to the harm wrought by rumours or disinformation that weaken effective public governance are transparency and honesty in the conduct of public affairs. This is one of the factors that have contributed to single out Singapore as an example for its effective policy response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Singapore was one of the first countries to suffer from Covid-19, at one point reporting the second-highest number of infected cases after China. Even as many neighbouring countries reported outbreaks, Singapore’s rate of transmission stabilized. In addition, Singapore’s public health system has provided necessary care, and despite having 243 cases as of March 16, the death toll is zero. Schools remain open, as do restaurants and other establishments.

Albright Stonebridge Group informs us that ‘the legacy of effective governance of the ruling People’s Action Party through several decades has solidified public trust in the government’s actions on public health, which was tested in 2003 with the outbreak of SARS, another coronavirus which caused severe respiratory illness. Singapore has also been praised for its transparency in carrying out its COVID-19 response. ‘The Ministry of Health issues a daily statement that includes the list of cases, and considerable detail on each case, including the possible location of infection so that others who may have been exposed can self-report.

Ministers in charge of the Covid-19 response, namely Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, provide thorough updates during regular press conferences, and communicate also through notifications via WhatsApp. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also sets the tone through regular televised addresses that summarize the government’s efforts and repeatedly urges citizens to remain calm and provide their support and cooperation. Official statements are complemented by a series of public service announcements (PSAs) on good hygiene, medical testing, and related matters.’

Communication and transparency are the key to effective governance. But there is more. Singapore’s success has been attributed to a multi-pronged strategy:

– early border controls and monitoring of travellers, including barring entry of travellers from China one week after the first reported case in Singapore and consistent checking of temperatures of all travellers coming in by air, land, and sea;

– establishment of strict standards for quarantine and self-isolation, and enforcement of the rules; and engagement with the private sector and a strong public health infrastructure.

This is what has allowed Singapore (as well as China) to arrest the growth of infections and is thus being hailed as an example to follow for the rest of the world especially the Western countries which have followed the trajectory of China despite knowing well in advance the importance of “flattening the curve” – a strategy which is resorted to prevent sudden spikes in the number of cases with interventions like strict controls at borders, contact tracing, social distancing, etc.

We clearly do not have the wherewithal of Singapore to deal with the crisis, but at least we must follow the WHO recommendations spelt out by the DG himself, Dr Tedros. This is what he said in a recent press briefing: ‘every suspected case should be tested and If they test positive, isolate them and find out who they have been in close contact with up to 2 days before they developed symptoms, and test those people too’. [NOTE: WHO recommends testing contacts of confirmed cases only if they show symptoms of COVID-19]. Further WHO advises that all confirmed cases, even mild cases, should be isolated in health facilities, to prevent transmission and provide adequate care.

However, there was an important caveat: But we recognize that many countries have already exceeded their capacity to care for mild cases in dedicated health facilities’. In that situation, he said, countries should prioritize older patients and those with underlying conditions. And according to Dr Tedros, another option is for patients with mild disease to be isolated and cared for at home. What is clear is that we must rapidly scale up our capacity for testing, and seek WHO’s help if required, as it has access to networks that we may not have.

On the other hand, everyone must cooperate and follow the recommendations made because the fight against this mortal enemy cannot be left to the government alone: primarily our health is our responsibility and we must start by doing everything that is being recommended so as to protect ourselves as well as the rest of society. However, the government must be absolutely transparent, communicate daily and frequently, and treat all categories of people at risk, whether they are citizens or tourists, using the same criteria. There is a perception that this is not the case, and that does more to lessen trust in the government than anything else.

If we want to come out of this crisis with the least damage to our health and to the economy, a national gesture of solidarity is the need of the moment. Doing panic buying, for example, does not go in this direction, we must display a greater spirit of charity. These are trying times for every single one of us, every institution – and the government: this is its first major test since being brought to power, a most severe one. It has the potential to make or break – and the choice in front of the government couldn’t be clearer.

* Published in print edition on 20 March 2020

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