Feb 8, 2020

Watching an epidemic

With the new coronovirus all over China, and partly over Singapore, I feel like I have front row seats to watching an epidemic become a pandemic.

It's been interesting and scary at the same time to watch it unfold.

2 weeks ago on Jan 23, when the first case of coronovirus surfaced in Singapore, people were scared, but not as scared as they are now, since the person who had it was someone from China, therefore implying that it hadn't really spread too much in the local population. Masks and hand santisers were sold out within hours all the same, because a few people bought many boxes. The government had to put limits on the number of masks and sanitisers one person could purchase.

At the time, Singapore felt like a country trying to fight the virus together by taking precautions that prevented spread in it's local population. There was quite some anger and irritation towards Chinese tourists who were visiting Singapore.

Personally, I was scared because I had never experienced an epidemic. It's strange to try and avoid a virus - it's something you can't really see or know if it's around you. So it leads to a perpetual fear at the back of my mind whenever I am out in public. I also felt quite annoyed that there were Chinese tourists flying in knowing that they could be infecting their co-passengers and a population that hadn't yet been touched by the Wuhan virus. But I tried to be reasonable and remind myself that those Chinese tourists aren't to blame for a virus outbreak.

A few days ago on 4 Feb, we saw some Singaporeans with no travel history to China or known contact with someone from China contract the virus. That's when people started to really panic. That meant that the person next to us in the train could have it. That's when people went from being protective about the local population, to being protective towards smaller groups, like their own family and friends.

This Sunday morning (9 Feb), after 7 new locals were announced to have the virus, I saw people bringing bags and trolleys of groceries home, in case the time comes that everyone outside is infected and we have to stay home, similar to what the Chinese are experiencing now. I hear that people were at grocery stores hoarding canned food and toilet paper as early as 7 AM. I usually order Amazon Prime, and delivery slots have been fewer lately since many folks seem to be using online delivery.

Image result for wuhan virus singapore hoarding
Grocery hoarding
Source: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/5-million-masks-snapped-up-in-hours-public-urged-against-hoarding-amid-global

Having said that, the Singapore government knows how to handle these things - they went through SARS in 2003 and have clearly prepared for another epidemic since then. The airport had thermal screenings for passengers in flights from China a few hours after the first case. All the people coming from China were asked to self quarantine for two weeks, which is the incubation period of the virus. Anyone who didn't comply risked legal implications. A few days later, they stopped all flights from Wuhan, and a few days after that, they stopped all flights from China. Now, everyone coming in from any part of the world through any mode of transport is going through thermal screenings at the ports. Many office buildings have thermal screenings as well to make sure no one with a fever walks in.

What's most interesting to me is the contact tracing - apparently, that is one of the best ways to prevent an epidemic from getting worse. Once Ministry of Health identifies someone who is infected, they contact everyone that person has been in touch with so that they can prevent those people from potentially infecting others. One of the challenges of the coronavirus is that it spreads even before symptoms show. So anyone could have it and be passing it on, but it's possible they aren't showing any symptoms yet.

One of the side effects that comes with contact tracing though is fake calls - yesterday, the Ministry of Health issued a notice saying that they don't ever ask for financial details over the phone when doing contact tracing. It seems like there may be some people out there taking advantage of the fear and trying to get financial details out of people under the pretence of being the Ministry of Health doing contact tracing.

Coughing in the office is a no no. People who are mildly sick, even if it's a clear case of a common cold, aren't coming to office. When someone coughs or sneezes in the train, people step away from them without any shame.

On any other day, I would say the step away when someone sneezes type of behaviour is very unkind. But I think this type of fear in Singapore actually helps people stay a little bit safer. It's culturally inappropriate to sneeze or cough in public in times like this, so the ones who are even mildly unwell don't dare show up to work.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister's office released a video in which PM Lee assured everyone that we had enough food and toilet paper - so no need to hoard. He also said that if this gets worse, hospitals would prioritise those with health complications, since we may not have enough beds in hospitals for everyone infected. I hope it doesn't get to that stage, but I do expect it to get worse for the next few days atleast. He also encouraged the population to not blame or discriminate against the Chinese.

While I continue to go to work and go out for groceries or to gym classes, I am avoiding making social plans at coffee shops or restaurants to whatever extent I can.

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