National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said that there’s still “misunderstanding” and “a lack of clarity” among the public on what it means to raise the Disease Outbreak Response System Outbreak (DORSCON) from Yellow to Orange, even though the Government had tried to communicate the development of coronavirus outbreak in Singapore via mass and social media.
Minister Wong said this at a media briefing organised by the multi-ministry task force, which is handling the public health crisis.
“We briefed (news) editors beforehand, but you know, in times like these, it just goes to show how challenging it is to get accurate information out,” he said.
He added, “In today’s world of social media, fear, uncertainty and panic spreads a lot faster on social media than the truth, which is boring and nobody wants to share.”
The Minister explained that the lack of clarity is probably what caused panic buying among the people in supermarkets last Friday, after the DORSCON level was raised.
The system is a tool to look at the crisis management plan, and focuses on a scenario when a virus is spreading but not widely, and is able to be contained.
The novel coronavirus, or now newly named COVID-19, has claimed the lives of nearly 1,500 people, mainly in China, and infected more than 65,000 individuals globally across 28 different countries.
On Thursday, the Ministry of Health (MOH) has confirmed and verified eight more additional cases in the Republic, bringing the total number 58.
“We can understand why people are concerned and anxious, and wanted to go out to do something to take extra precautions. When we went around asking, there was some misunderstanding, or even a lack of clarity around what was going on, what Dorscon Orange meant, despite our best efforts at explaining to all of you,” Mr Wong explained.
He went on to assert that the Government will increase its efforts to send out information in a timely manner.
However, Mr Wong acknowledged that the Government does not know everything revolving around the virus as the situation is progressing rapidly.
“We are doing daily briefings now to the media. We hope all of you will help us, too, to get the information across. Whatever information we have that is relevant and useful, we will put it out. If it is something that we do not know about or unable to make an accurate assessment, I think we will have to be honest and we will tell you that we do not know,” he noted.
“For example, many people have asked how this situation would unfold in the coming days and weeks. And the honest answer is – it is still too early to tell,” he added.
“We really cannot say whether it will get better; whether it will get worse; what sort of situation is going to unfold.
“We have several scenarios. We have shared with you what some of these scenarios are in order to mentally prepare Singaporeans for what may come, but which scenario will eventually materialise, I think that is really too early to tell at this stage.”
Orange is not Red
Following the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, the DORSCON framework was created, and each of the colour coding in the framework is there for the public understand how a crisis is being handled.
However, Mr Wong noted that people can unfortunately concentrate too much on the changing of the colour code.
“When you look at the framework today, if you were to apply that framework in the SARS situation, it would have been an Orange during SARS. For it to be Red, it would have to be worse than SARS,” he said.
Mr Wong also warned the public to not speculate when the alert level will be raised from Orange to Red.
He added that the speculation on when the colour coding will change from Yellow to Orange was partly the cause of panic among a certain number of Singaporeans.
“That’s not our focus now at all. We are in Orange and within Orange, we can put in place a whole range of measures that is more than what we have today,” he said.
He continued, “And we continue to assess the risk, we continue to look at the situation as it evolves. Each day, we get more information and we may very well put in more measures if and when the need arises.”
Health Minister Gan Kim Yong also pointed that most infected individuals will fully recover even though some might become seriously ill.
“Some may get seriously ill, and a small number may succumb to the infection ultimately. We have to be prepared for the worst,” he said.
Unknown origin of some clusters
During the media briefing, Mr Wong also revealed that that one area that the Government cannot provide all information is the origin of infection for certain clusters in Singapore. He said this in response to questions raised by the media.
“There are still, even within these clusters, cases where we are not able to trace back to the sources of infection. Not all of them come from China sources,” he said.
On Wednesday, MOH confirmed three new cases of the deadly coronavirus and revealed that none of them visited China in recent times, and the two of them were staff of the Grace Assembly of God church in Bukit Batok and Tanglin. This is identified as a new cluster by MOH.
Additionally, Seletar Aerospace Heights construction site where two infected Bangladeshi nationals worked is also identified as another new cluster.
The two clusters are in addition to previously identified clusters such as The Life Church and Missions Singapore (146B Paya Lebar Road), Yong Thai Hang and a Private business meeting held at Grand Hyatt Singapore from 20 to 22 January.
“For now, what we do know is that the virus is circulating within our population. That is the reason why we raised the alert level to orange. We know that we are seeing more cases that are not linked, that do not have any links to China,” Mr Wong said.
He noted that the panic buying due to the raising of the alert levels has now stabilised, but noticed that some supermarkets may not be full restocked yet.
This is mainly due to the lack of manpower and logistical issues.
“We expect all outlets of the major retailers to have normal stock levels in a day or two. So we just want to continue to assure Singaporeans that our supply chains, when it comes to food and grocery items, remain robust,” he added.
Upon reading Mr Wong’s explanation on raising the DORSCON level from Yellow to Orange, many netizens have voiced their dissatisfaction over the explanation. They said that the Government shouldn’t blame the people for panic buying, and instead should have communicated better on raising the alert level before actually doing it. Some said that its “plainly poor communication and explanation” on the Government’s side to try and explain the situation and reassure the public.
Others pointed out that the Government should always be honest and upfront with the people. As an example, they said that the authorities should have came clean and said that there’s insufficient amount of masks in the country, which is why most people can’t get hold of it at stores.
Another point raised by Simon Teo is that the Government is not being honest to the people when it said that its not necessary for the public to wear masks, given that the country is going through a flu epidemic.
JC Goh pointed out that when DORSCON level was raised to Orange, it’s crucial for “policy makers to make clear what it means and also mention what other triggers and information will lead to a nudge down to green or a nudge up to read”. He said this will allow citizens to make a better well-informed decision based on the situation.
“The panic buying is not due to the orange trigger which does not entail a curfew etc, but the fear or the prospect that it will be raised to red that spurs the irrational behaviour that we are observing,” he wrote.
A few suggested that to prevent panic buying in the future, the Government should explain clearly the whole situation to the public and what they can expect from it. Darren Pachai noted that the panic buying occurred due to “lack of confidence” after failing to buy masks during the initial days, despite assurance from the Govt that the supply is enough.