The photos began circulating in Singapore on WhatsApp groups and social media from Friday evening, of growing queues at supermarket checkout counters, grocery carts pushed by people in surgical masks piled high with instant noodles and shelves emptied of fresh chicken, pork, rice and toilet paper.

By Saturday morning, online grocery store Redmart had sold out most of its toilet paper and posted a notice saying it had limited delivery slots due to a sudden increase in orders. The website of NTUC Fairprice, Singapore’s largest supermarket chain, went offline temporarily.

Meanwhile, scalpers were reselling items at marked-up prices on mobile marketplace Carousell.

The public panic fuelled by the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 40,000 people and killed 910, has prompted “zombie apocalypse” jokes on social media. It has also called into question Singapore’s resilience and social cohesion at a time of heightened stress.
What triggered the anxiety was Singapore raising its pandemic preparedness alert level
from yellow to orange on Friday evening. The orange alert indicates the spread of the virus is being contained, and was the same alert used in 2009 for the H1N1 flu pandemic. Authorities said it would also have been used in 2003 for the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) had the current alert system been in place.

BRACING FOR THE WORST

In response to the surge of panic buying, NTUC FairPrice’s chief executive Seah Kian Peng urged calm and stressed there was no need to stockpile food.

However, 48-year-old Tao Ming, who was at a FairPrice store along Upper East Coast Road on Saturday, was determined to prepare for the worst. He was with his young son and mother and said he had already bought two extra fridges from a secondhand store to freeze food. Carrying two trolley bags, the family was looking to buy eggs, vegetables, meat, and cleaning essentials.

“I saw that a few people came to Singapore and got infected,” he said. “This means it’s very serious and you don’t know who has got it. I’m worried it will spread further so it’s better to prepare first,” he said, adding that he did not rush out to buy masks when the outbreak happened and now only had 20 for his family of five.

Health authorities on Saturday said they were investigating three “clusters” of infections based on connections between patients and places. Of the 43 cases diagnosed in Singapore, five are linked to a church and nine to a medical hall. Three are linked to a business meeting at the Grand Hyatt Singapore last month that had participants from Singapore and overseas, including China’s Hubei province, the epicentre of the virus.

Of the 109 people who attended the meeting, at least three Singaporeans, one Briton, two South Koreans and one Malaysian tested positive for the virus. The Briton has spread it to two British families who stayed at the same ski chalet as him in eastern France.

Mal Hao, a 26-year-old student shopping with his parents, said reports of new infections each day added to the atmosphere of uncertainty. Hao’s mother worried the food supply chain in import-reliant Singapore could be further disrupted.

“The ministers have made bold statements and said reassuring words, but this is a totally different situation compared to the past,” said Hao, whose family had bought enough food to last them until March. “Where are the actions, and what are the measures?”

He said the government should commit to a road map to address the outbreak and clarify what incidents might trigger different responses. For example, he pointed to how 30,000 work-pass holders from mainland China had yet to return to the country, and questioned whether people on home quarantine orders – more than 300 of them as of February 2 – were in fact staying at home as required.

On Saturday evening, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong offered further assurances in a message broadcast on television and online. Lee emphasised that the country had ample food and essential supplies and described the outbreak as a test of social cohesion and psychological resilience.

“Fear can do more harm than the virus itself,” he said.

NTUC Fairprice also took journalists to one of its three distribution centres on Saturday to showcase its stocks. Fairprice’s existing inventory includes 9 million rolls of toilet paper, 1.2 million packs of instant noodles and 4 million kg of rice, with more arriving each day. On Sunday, the supermarket chain announced it would impose limits on shoppers for certain purchases, including a S$50 (US$36) cap on vegetables per customer.

TOTAL DEFENCE OR TOTAL PANIC?

For some netizens, one talking point was how the panic buying and earlier incidents cast doubt on just how resilient the population would be in the face of disaster.

After the first coronavirus case in Singapore was announced on January 23 and cases started to spike in China, there was a run on masks and hand sanitiser despite doctors advising there was no need for healthy people to wear masks. There was also xenophobic online commentary about the disease being “Made in China”, as well as reports of passengers on trains telling nurses in uniforms not to take the train because they might contaminate it.

Sociopolitical website Mothership on Saturday headlined a post “Singaporeans mildly at risk of throwing 36 years of Total Defence out the window”, referring to a national defence initiative launched in 1984 to rally citizens to pull together in the face of military and non-military threats and build social resilience. Total Defence Day is celebrated every year on February 15 to commemorate the day Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942.

Said Eugene Tan, a law professor at the Singapore Management University and political commentator: “So long as there is a lack of resilience, fear and panic will overwhelm trust and confidence and good sense.”

A combination of factors fuelled fear, he said, including uncertainty over how the virus spread, the lockdown of cities in China and the “sudden elevation” of the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) framework.

“People are essentially scaring themselves,” he said, adding that Lee’s address on Saturday was the right move, as leaders need to get in front of significant issues otherwise “it sets off another round of unnecessary fear” among the public.

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser offered a vote of confidence in the government’s handling of the outbreak.

“I think it has performed reasonably well thus far and is managing the trade-offs,” he said, adding that panic buying was limited to a minority of the population. “Some are more inclined to overreact or are less tolerant of uncertainties.”

While some sense of calm returned to supermarkets on Sunday, one question remained unanswered – why people were hoarding toilet paper. Eugene Tan said perhaps Hong Kong, where shoppers had descended on shops to swipe all toilet roll supplies, had captured Singaporeans’ imagination.

“This is a good example of how fear spreads faster than the virus,” he said.

“Having DORSCON at orange doesn’t mean the country is on lockdown. Even if people stayed home as a precaution, that shouldn’t cause loose stools or the copious need for toilet paper. The mystery of toilet paper hoarding can be attributed to the viral spread of public panic resulting in the hoarding of items deemed essential.”

On Sunday, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing pointed out that panic buying would undermine Singapore’s reputation in the international community and even lead to suppliers jacking up prices.

Echoing his earlier call for people to not hoard and deprive others of what they need, he added: “We have about 10 million toilet rolls but we only have five million Singaporeans and residents here, right? So we have more than enough… We must make sure that we prioritise the supplies to those who need it the most and not just take it all for ourselves.”

By Kok Xinghui
SCMP

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