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Saturday, Feb 22, 2020 - 23:14 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert


Well, the outlook doesn't seem the greatest, but one supposes it's best to maintain realistic expectations, instead of getting overwhelmed when probable-if-distasteful scenarios happen. While the CCP's stance has consistently been that they have it all under control and that "some other countries have overreacted", many observers have savvily suggested to watch what they do, not what they say; if it were all a-ok as according to the official numbers, why are thousands of medical personnel and dozens of cremators being deployed? Or highly-prominent citizens perishing from apparent lack of care?

Let's face it, China if nothing else is huge - even fifty or a hundred thousand dead due to an epidemic, while certainly a terrible catastrophe by any measure, doesn't strike one as something the CCP would lockdown half the country for; rather more of a shrug of the shoulders and "oh well, sucks that our annual death toll jumped by like 1%, c'est la vie". Small wonder that a number of observers are remarking that the figures don't make sense, what with significant levels of censorship seemingly imposed by the Internet giants.

Transparency remains at a premium as it was confirmed that the international WHO team would not be allowed into Wuhan or Hubei, which is exactly where they should be to get an actual feel of the ground situation. Well, with a DARPA-funded study upgrading the R0 estimate to 4.7-6.6, the Wuhan officials' response has been to hold local district leaders responsible for reporting a single additional new case (guess what's not gonna be reported?). This imbecility was somehow topped by the American FAKE NEWS industry, which instead slammed the administration's coronavirus task force for... lack of diversity.

Mr. President, according to CNN, our number one priority right now when faced with devastating pestilence, is to include a non-white, non-male member to this urgent meeting
(Source: edition.cnn.com)

As it stands, The Lancet has published a statement from a collection of international bigwigs supporting China's efforts against the virus, and issuing a blanket dismissal of bioweapon conspiracies, so one supposes that's it on that front for now; wouldn't be polite to stir the muck when the ravenous locust swarms are descending from Africa, after all.

The Home Front

It was some sort of a relief that Singapore's no longer number one outside China, as South Korea took over that dubious distinction with a sudden explosion of fifty-one cases in a single day to zoom over the three hundred-case mark, with Japan joining in on the breakaway and prompting an update of the local delicacy hospital observation ward meme. On one hand, we're still supposedly more badly affected than most Chinese provinces normalized for population size, more cases are emerging with no known source, and the supposed saviour combo of heat and humidity doesn't appear to be inhibiting the virus anywhere near as much as hoped. On the other hand, the baseline probability of catching it remains objectively miniscule. In the language of the crypto markets, the next few weeks are critical as to whether we go exponential, or the trend peaks.

Not to toot our own trumpets too loudly, but Singapore's overall response appears to have drawn general plaudits, from just about any relevant forum I've frequented. The praise was mostly centered around the comprehensive and open tracking of COVID-19 infections (see new MOH ArcGIS and custom dashboards), coupled with a perceived willingness to test any and all possible cases/contacts, sensible paid quarantine, free treatment and mass evacuation policies, plus the fortuitous opening of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID). This has garnered high praise from evaluators from Harvard's T. H. Chan School of Public Health, who hailed Singapore as having achieved the gold standard of near-perfect detection, compared to an estimated over 60% of cases going undetected outside of China, with doubts getting raised over Japan and South Korea's strategies. In fairness, however, our small land area and particular attributes probably don't apply easily elsewhere.

That said, we're hardly in the clear yet, given local community transmission having occurred since the beginning of the month, with some of the affected having attended public gatherings such as Chingay, and dengue season upon us too (with one particularly unfortunate patient catching both COVID-19 and dengue). Interestingly, two large clusters have emerged around religious congregations (as also the case in South Korea), because they're social like that. While we're on this, remarks from certain quarters on how the virus was retribution for the mistreatment of Uyghurs has been rapidly smacked down, though a megachurch pastor's recent promise that "no virus can come near you" might seem... slightly irresponsible. As a counterpoint, the incomparably more-experienced Roman Catholic Church has suspended all Masses here indefinitely, because they have to be the authorities when it goes all Biblical.

Pets no spread COVID-19, no throw out of window pls
(Source: mothership.sg)

4G Leadership Test

It should go without saying that we're facing up to some tumultuous economic times; PM Lee has publicly announced COVID-19's impact to have exceeded SARS since last week, as easily evinced by anecdote and direct observation of mall traffic. Tourism will likely be particularly hard-hit, after international reports of travellers getting infected here, leading to an increasing number of countries outright prohibiting entry to visitors from Singapore. The Tourism Board chief has said what he had to, but talk has always been cheap when it comes to deadly epidemics. We've done the same to China three weeks back, of course, and the People's Republic is continuing to find out just how close their friends are, with North Korea and Russia too closing their borders because they may be pals, but they're not that stupid. Then again, not like China didn't do the same to Mexico over H1N1, and it's only reasonable to doubt how contained the virus is, within China's own territory.

Given the upcoming elections and concurrent long-planned leadership transition, it was inevitable that the fourth generation's response to this crisis would be regarded as their baptism of fire (and fever). In response to the many petitions for assistance by various business associations, extensive Budget measures would be declared, with close to S$6 billion earmarked for relief efforts and the GST hike delayed (but not cancelled, which got it panned by the SDP, whose chairman's being... optimistic on the COVID-19 situation). Sadly, the rental rebates (as also done in Hong Kong) and other initiatives seem unlikely to rescue the economy, with a recession imminent.

Now, given that it seems to be also the season for straight talk (as we'll see), it might be suggested that the 4G batch has a lot to prove, given the (hardly inaccurate) sense that the country may have been running on autopilot for a long while. One particular bugbear would have to be the government's official policy on face masks, which was that healthy individuals did not need to wear them (drummed in daily by The State's Times). Sounds reasonable and reassuring, right?

The coronavirus has at least brought out some of our ministers' funny Tweetlord side, and while they won't be challenging GEOTUS anytime soon, it sure hasn't done their popularity much harm

Well, it turns out that the government has both a public and a private elite position on this, straight from the white horse's mouth. A closed-door meeting held between our Singlish-slinging Trade and Industry Minister and the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) bigwigs would be leaked (read transcript), in which it was revealed that the distribution of four masks per family (and accompanying propaganda) was a gamble, because we really didn't have that many masks to spare.

The SCCCI were suitably mortified at the leak (which, however, was hardly the first), and though probably a wash for the relevant minister's reputation domestically (not that discretion's one of his better virtues), with some liking his earthiness and others not impressed by the lack of humility on show, his throwing shade on Hong Kong for their handling of the mask situation hasn't gone unnoticed over there. The latter part of his speech seems to confirm a general movement towards decoupling (or more delicately, "diversification") from China, which concurs with previous geopolitical analysis.

Mask Logic

Not time to care about appearances
(Source: r/Wuhan_Flu)

All considered, it's tough to understand how wearing a mask would harm an individual, despite all the insistence that it's not necessary and that it could be defeated by dirty hands; of course, from society's point of view, not everybody needs a mask as much as others, and rushing to secure personal supplies could cause unwelcome panic, fair enough. Still, it has not escaped certain observers that the government may not have been entirely honest about the availability and efficacy of masks, despite assumed best intentions. This tends to have people wonder what else they're not being upfront about, as expressed in an uncharacteristic outpouring of emo poetry.

Interestingly, the concern doesn't appear to be evenly distributed amongst the populace, with barely a majority even bothering to pick up their four masks per household (which, come to think about it, doesn't go far). Meanwhile, a few more-entrepreneurial citizens, sensing the opportunity, moved to fill the supply gap. Now, from a purely economic viewpoint, this should be a net societal benefit as long as they're importing the masks from outside (as a Chinese singer did, in scooping up 160,000 masks from Singapore). Consider a situation where a mask costs S$0.20 normally, with a supply of say 100,000 masks per week. In a period of great demand (such as now), it shouldn't hurt anyone if a merchant imports an extra say 50,000 masks and offers them at S$1.00 apiece, because this provides an additional option to customers (i.e. to get a mask, but at a higher price, instead of being forced to go without), assuming prices for the original supply stays constant, i.e. must provide non-negative utility.

Unfortunately, this kind of reasoned logic has seldom gone very far in an emergency, with the automatic knee-jerk response being to slam the importers for profiteering, with CASE receiving nearly four hundred complaints about overcharging for masks and related items already this year. Blatant scams aside, I'm uncertain if plucky small-time vendors (such as this guy near my old place) deserve all the denigration they've been getting. Anyway, it looks like the only way to stay above reproach when it concerns face masks has been to give or raffle them away for free... and even that doesn't always work.

And it was that damn bat that started it!
[N.B. Recycle, reuse, upcycle]
(Sources: villains.fandom.com, imgflip.com)

The latest update has the government finally looking into manufacturing masks locally, which frankly shouldn't be that complicated, and pretty dang lucrative to boot. Taiwan's gotten the drop on this by securing sixty mask-making machines already, and are poised to become the world's second largest manufacturer of masks, behind only China. Hopefully this will negate the need for Taiwan to print their flag on their masks, to protect their supplies from export.

The Not So Pretty Side

Sadly, baser instincts came to the fore once the authorities raised the DORSCON threat level, with highfalutin pretensions towards Total Defence deflated by the undeniable sight of supermarkets across the island getting raided to emptiness by hoarders, some of who further simply abandoned their loot after getting tired of queuing. Our increasingly high-profile Trade and Industry Minister could not help but comment that such behaviour would undermine international confidence in Singapore. But then, given how the very same government has dissed locals for being insufficiently hungry and not stealing others' lunch, there's a case to be made that this "selfishness" is simply the rational outcome.

This episode definitely sparked much soul-searching over in the Singapore subreddit, with numerous virtue-signalling posts mocking the plebs' unworthy ugly behaviour, mass hysteria and paranoid attitude, to the extent of self-flagellation for being a "first class country with a third class mentality". Notably, EDMW appears generally more understanding of said behaviour, tilting towards less judgment and more self-irony, because those of not-as-high SES know well that it's ultimately every man for himself in this sad culture; as a more-aware Redditor expresses, "...the government has never walked the talk. They and their families do not take public transport and do not live in HDB and are therefore not exposed to crowds like the common population. Hence, they are comfortable to state that masks are not required for healthy people. Do your own due diligence".

Anyway, the hoarding has backfired for some, most pointedly those who swarmed Mustafa Centre alongside Case 42. To return some perspective, however, all this is hardly unique to us - the infamous annual Black Friday sale tramplings in America aside, hoarding and theft has been happening in monoethnic societies like Japan too, and Hong Kong has witnessed armed gangs staging large-scale robberies for... toilet paper ("It's a better gift than wine now", according to Fortune; eh, I know what I'd rather be stuck in a washroom stall with). Our Malaysian neighbours haven't missed out on the opportunity for some good-natured ribbing, but they probably shouldn't press their luck.

Though the panic buying's stemmed for now thanks to purchase limits, there's more bad behaviour to go around, with multiple reports of nurses and other healthcare workers getting ostracized by the public, despite their ongoing sacrifice (as also being recognized in China, over clumsy propaganda). Recall Kipling's observation on how it's "Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' Tommy, go away/But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play"? Well, the music's at full blast now, but there ain't much thanks going around, looks like.

[To be continued...]

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