When the COVID-19 outbreak hit Singapore early this year, the government was adamant that people should not wear masks if they are well. They should only wear one if they are sick.
At a closed-door discussion with members of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) in Feb, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing even ridiculed Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s decision to wear surgical masks in public (‘Singapore hospitals would suffer if leaders wore masks like Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam: minister‘, 18 Feb).
Chan said that if Singapore had followed in Hong Kong’s footsteps “without thinking”, with its leaders wearing masks to give updates on the virus outbreak and causing panic, “I can guarantee you, today our hospital system would have broken down”, he said. “There will be no more surgical masks for our hospital people because [these would have been] all used up like tissue paper.”
PM Lee: We will no longer discourage people from wearing masks
However, in an apparent “U-turn” from the Government’s previous stance on masks, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on 3 Apr that the authorities will “no longer discourage people from wearing masks”.
He said the Government is concerned about “some cases out there community going undetected” even if there are few of them. “We also now have evidence that an infected person can show no symptoms, and yet still pass on the virus to others,” he said. “This is why the WHO is reviewing the issue of face masks, and so is the US CDC.”
“Therefore we will no longer discourage people from wearing masks,” he added.
Indeed, the Ministry of Health (MOH) also advised on the same day, “For those who need to go out, and are unable to avoid close contact with others, then wearing a mask could provide some protection. Reusable masks can be considered for this purpose, to provide some basic protection.”
That is to say, wearing mask is considered optional for one to go out. But after PM Lee’s announcement, a bunch of government agencies then immediately get into their act by instituting compulsory mask wearing in areas under their purview.
LTA: Mask-wearing compulsory for public transport
On Thu (9 Apr), the Land Transport Authority (LTA) issued a statement asking people to put on mask if they are taking public transport.
Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan wrote on his Facebook page yesterday (11 Apr) saying, “We will make mask-wearing compulsory for public transport. This will minimise transmission in public transport during the post-circuit breaker period when safe distancing is compromised.”
To prepare for the new measure, the authorities will now get commuters to start wearing masks when they are using public transport. Transport ambassadors will remind them to do so.
“From 12 April 2020, the National Environment Agency (NEA) will not allow patrons who are not donning masks to enter the 40 markets managed by NEA or NEA-appointed operators,” it said.
Note that no mask-wearing restriction is imposed on other NEA markets outside of the selected 40. Currently, the 40 designated markets by NEA for patrons to wear masks are:
SFA: Workers who sell or prepare food must wear masks
The Singapore Food Agency, another agency under the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources also issued a statement yesterday saying that workers who engage in the sale and preparation of food and drinks at all SFA-licensed food establishments must wear masks or other forms of physical barriers (e.g. face shields) starting tomorrow (13 Apr).
This includes personnel at hawker centre stalls, coffee shops, restaurants, supermarkets, caterers, etc.
“Operators who do not comply with the requirement are liable for a penalty of up to $5,000 and/or suspension or cancellation of their licenses,” it said.
ESG and STB: Must wear mask at supermarkets, convenience stores, pharmacies and shopping malls
Then, Enterprise Singapore (ESG) and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) under the Ministry of Trade and Industry run by Chan Chun Sing also got into the act.
ESG and STB jointly announced yesterday that starting from today (12 Apr), people visiting supermarkets, convenience stores, pharmacies and shopping malls will be required to wear masks. Those not wearing masks will be refused entry.
“Patrons must wear masks when visiting a shopping mall. The shopping malls, property owners and supermarkets will turn away patrons who do not wear masks in order to protect the health and well-being of other patrons,” it said.
Taiwan the gold standard in combating COVID-19
In any case, Singapore appears to be behind the curve when compared with Taiwan in its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. In the matter of wearing of masks, for example, the Taiwanese government urged its residents to put on masks from day one regardless if one is sick or not.
The Atlantic Council, an American Atlanticist think tank in the field of international affairs, has to say about Taiwan (‘Lessons from Taiwan’s experience with COVID-19‘, 7 Apr):
During the epidemic, the Taiwanese government actively cooperated with private media companies to regularly broadcast basic preventive knowledge such as “washing hands and wearing masks” on television and radio stations.
They don’t have different government agencies announcing their own separate messages to inform the public about individual agency’s control of mask wearing.
And one netizen who was in Taiwan noted that Taiwan’s move to ration face masks early and allow its citizens to purchase two masks per week had stopped people from hoarding masks (‘Gold standard in dealing with COVID-19 has actually been Taiwan, not Singapore, says local netizen‘).
“Two months later, its citizens can buy more masks per week, with an excess of 10 million for international donations. The Taiwanese people have also been very resourceful, using cloths to extend the life of their limited surgical masks (they put the latter inside a washable cloth mask), and double-masked people are quite common on the streets,” Ms Feng wrote.
“Our earlier no-need-mask stance was also stretched a tad too far and too harshly. Rather than commend extra vigilance or understand why people were masking up, some of us – employers, people in varying positions of power – instructed those below to remove their masks because masks were ‘unnecessary’.”
Perhaps the most striking figures are the low incidence of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Taiwan vs Singapore. As of 12 Apr 2020 (GMT), the number of confirmed cases:
- Taiwan 385 (population 23.78 million)
- Singapore 2,299 (population 5.639 million)
Confirmed number of cases per million population:
- Taiwan 16.2
- Singapore 407.7