At the World Economic Forum (WEF) and World Health Organisation (WHO) joint briefing on the COVID-19 response in the Asia-Pacific yesterday (14 May), SPH Editor-in-Chief Warren Fernandez defended the Singapore government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
He said that Singapore had started out responding to the coronavirus with Sars in mind, but later felt it was more similar to H1N1 influenza. Indeed, while addressing the nation on 8 Feb, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong even said the new virus is much closer to influenza than Sars in terms of mortality.
But Fernandez noted that when more information emerged and more became known about asymptomatic cases, Singapore’s position on masks also changed.
“I was glad that the politicians had the courage to make a change on the position as the evidence changed, rather than digging their heels in,” he said, praising the government.
“I think that’s the way the media ought to encourage the discussion going forward, so that it is evidence-based and scientifically sound and not just based on political rhetoric.”
No need to wear masks if one is well
Earlier this year when COVID-19 started surfacing in Singapore, the government’s initial response was asking people not to wear masks when one is well. In places like Hong Kong, China and Taiwan, the authorities were already encouraging people to wear masks even if one is well.
In fact, 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.
Then on 3 Apr, PM Lee made a U-turn and announced 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. “We will no longer discourage people from wearing masks.”
Fernandez: ST can weather the storm
At the WEF and WHO joint briefing which was held online, the SPH Editor-in-Chief also talked about the need to have “good, credible, reliable information”.
“We feel that without good, credible, reliable information, the kind of debates and discussion we’re having today – reasoned and rational debate on what to do with the pandemic and how to take ourselves forward – won’t be possible,” he said. “It’s not an issue just for journalists or editors, it’s a societal issue.”
Another role the media plays is encouraging discussion that is evidence-based, he added.
On the financial health of Straits Times (ST), he said that the paper is still “relatively robust” and will be “able to weather the storm”.
ST reader reveals newspaper edited his letter out of context
In any case, speaking of media providing “good, credible, reliable information”, a member of the public, Dr Kho Kwang Po, recently (10 May) posted a note on his Facebook page revealing that ST had edited out a crucial sentence from a forum letter he submitted in Jan, which altered the main point of his letter entirely (‘Reader says ST edited his letter out of context to support Govt’s call not to wear masks if one is well‘).
“Straits Times forum has the bad habit of editing letters to reflect or confirm their own or govt’s stance on various issues… like mask usage,” Dr Kho lamented.
“They edited my letter to make it look like I supported the ‘no mask if not sick’ advice of the govt. This is completely deplorable and irresponsible.”
Dr Kho then went on to say that ST actually deleted the following important sentence from his letter:
“Those who do not wish to be infected should don N95 masks especially in crowded confined areas”
“(This) was deleted to make it appear I agreed with the govt’s disastrous no mask advice supported by Dr Leong Hoe Nam, Prof Dale Fisher and MOH,” Dr Kho added.
Another Facebook user replied to Dr Kho, “Why bother to write. I have given up long ago. No longer interested in anything here. Waiting to live out my life elsewhere.”
Reading the edited ST Forum letter from Dr Kho would have given the impression to readers that he actually supported the government’s call not to wear masks if one is well, which was the government’s prevailing stance early this year.