Using conventional strategy (Multi-Ministry Task Force) to fight a guerrilla warfare (Coronavirus)

by Kok Ming Cheang

To set up a Task Force, co-chaired by two ministers and advise by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat is a conventional approach to deal with a health epidemic that is uncommon and illusive with the Coronavirus behaving like guerrillas who can’t be found.

Clearly, the guerrillas (nCoV) are already operating and even entrenched in our local territories but the Task Force is still talking about their preparedness in coping with various scenarios.

With the announcement of raising the DORSCON ( Disease Outbreak Response System) to ORANGE, we are greeted by the Straits Times new message “LET’S ALL DO OUR PART” instead of the original “DO NOT WEAR A MASK IF YOU ARE WELL.”

Left: Image prior to orange alert. Right: Image after orange alert

Is the Task Force quietly changing its Health Advisory to washing your hands, monitoring your temperature and not touching own face.

It seems not as “the health authorities say there is still no need for those who are well to wear a mask.”

The extent a mask can protect us from the infection is still being debated.

But the Task Force’s decision to shift gear from Yellow to Orange is an important indication of how well the conventional strategy adopted so far has failed in fighting these invisible guerrillas in our midst.

Raising the disease outbreak alert level to Orange means that “the outbreak is deemed to have moderate to high public health impact.”

“It is an acknowledgement that there is local spread, with a possibility that the disease may spread even more widely across the country… the situation is still considered to be under control.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: “In the last few days, we have seen some cases which cannot be traced to the source of infection. These worried us, because it showed that the virus is probably already circulating in our population.”

He added that this is why the outbreak alert level has been raised to Orange.”

The question to ask is under what condition will the outbreak alert level be raised to RED if the number of infections is not the criterion?

We are already four days into the ORANGE level of disease outbreak alert and it has not stopped the continuous spread of the disease:

8 Feb (Sat): 7 new cases announced. Total 40 people infected.
9 Feb (Sun): 3 new cases announced. Total 43 people infected.
10 Feb (Mon): 2 new cases announced. Total 45 people infected.
11 Feb (Tues): 2 new cases announced. Total 47 people infected.

Of the 47 cases so far, the locally transmitted cases have exceeded imported cases.

Singapore is treated as a source of Coronavirus infection besides Wuhan and China at large with Singapore having the second-highest number of infections outside China, and more than Hong Kong and Macau.

While PM Lee is urging Singaporeans to stay united and resolute and said “Fear and panic can cause more harm than Coronavirus,” and a piece of good news, “outside Hubei, the epicentre of the Coronavirus outbreak, the death rate is only 0.2% so far.”, we should ask: Who wants to be in the 0.2% deaths?

Unfortunately, the world outside Singapore is looking at this small country with increased caution: UK is treating Singapore with care as the disease had entered the country via Singapore connection, Sarawak is enforcing 14-day home quarantine rule for travelers from Singapore, Indonesia raises travel advice to “Yellow” for Singapore and Kuwait and Qatar urge their citizens not to travel to Singapore.

These are serious signals that the Task Force ministers must not take lightly.

Yet, the Task Force ministers are continuously talking about being ready for this and that scenario; scenario planning is no longer the in-game to fight a guerrilla warfare here.
“The emphasis will now be on aggressively trying to stop or limit further spread, according to the MOH’s pandemic readiness and preparedness plan.”

Till now, I have not seen any aggressiveness in actions that can effectively defeat the guerrillas. Under Orange disease outbreak level, standard conventional actions are advocated: suspend inter-school and external activities like camps till end March, employers should conduct temperature-taking at least twice a day, for large scale events, event organizers should cancel or defer events or take precautions like temperature screenings.

There are a few cancellations or postponements of small events but the biggest event — the Singapore Airshow 2020 will go as scheduled even though 70 airshow exhibitors including US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin have pulled out of the event.

With 40,000 trade attendees from 140 countries coming into Singapore, the outcome cannot be scenario-planned. The Ministry of Transport, Department of Civil Aviation as well as MTI should explain why the air show could not be postponed or cancelled.

The conventional strategy of preparing for the worst-case scenario is not what that can protect the people from widespread community transmission.

Only aggressive actions can, not multi-administrative steps to show that the Task is organized and capable of implementing a plan. There is no need to do contact tracing if there are no infections in the community.

So unconventional strategy is required like Peoples Voice Party Leader’s proposal to close all schools (including preschools and kindergartens) for two weeks, suspend day-care centres for the elderly, stop the return of 30,000 PRC workers till it is safe to do so, direct major employers to instruct their non-essential service staff to work from home for next two weeks. This would immediately reduce the mass movement of people and cut down the risk of local infections.

PM Lee advised us: “Take sensible precautions, help one another, stay calm, and carry on with our lives.

To the healthcare workers, doctors and nurses who are in the frontline of battle, decisive actions by the Task Force ministers are what that matter, not nice-sounding advice.

The people of Singapore deeply appreciate their hard work in this crisis and wish we can do something to reduce their risk exposure or lighten their workload. Do take extra care to protect yourself and love ones.

For the ministers in the Multi-Ministry Task Force, the health and lives of the people of Singapore are in your hands. I trust you will make sensible decisions and take decisive actions to protect the health and lives of the people and not allow politics to take precedence over their health and safety. Never make them into sacrificial lambs in this health crisis for the sake of politics and party gains.

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