Haze episode a reminder of importance of crisis management

I admit I was secretly thankful when the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) surged into the harzardous range recently. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t profiteering from the sale of face masks or air purifiers.I’m just thankful I’m not one of those government officials who must have been toiling in the past weeks running through the processes and procedures in Singapore’s response plans to ensure that we are protected should the haze situation worsen.Having spent five years in a security and crisis management position in the civil service, I can say with certainty that it’s not an enviable job.It is tough work dealing with a domestic problem and managing an angry or worried population. It gets even tougher when handling a transboundary problem because too many factors come into play – such as governments’ desire to protect national pride, domestic political wrangling, public dissent, and lack of critical resources in affected countries. Such obstacles can slow down the response to a problem and frustrate the affected governments and populations.  If resolving a recurring and predictable problem like haze is difficult, one could imagine the challenges and frustration in getting countries in the region to plan for a potential crisis that may, or may not, happen.During my stint at the Ministry of Home Affairs, I represented Singapore at Asean senior officials’ meetings on disaster management and what an eye opener they were.At that time, preparedness against influenza pandemic was the focus and the objective was to get each Asean nation to develop comprehensive national response plans so that during a pandemic, the virus can be quickly contained within affected countries and not spread like wild fire across boundaries.  But these meetings turned out to be quite a culture shock for me and often left me bewildered and sometimes worried.Unlike Singapore that has response plans for almost every foreseeable potential crisis, many of our neighbouring countries lack adequate contingency planning. Even though some are high-risk breeding grounds for bird flu viruses, they do not have comprehensive plans to deal with a massive bird flu outbreak, or a human influenza pandemic if a lethal bird flu strain becomes highly transmissible among humans. While the delegates would showcase their country plans during the plenary meetings  - presumably to secure funding from donor agencies present - they sang a different tune during coffee breaks.One delegate told me unabashedly on the sidelines of a meeting: “Why waste time planning? We deal with problems when they happen. Planning is something which rich countries like Singapore do.’’Another said: “Poverty is our biggest problem, especially in rural areas. No one cares about a flu pandemic, which may not happen at all. If my government has money, it will feed the poor first, not stock up on expensive Tamiflu.”There’s widespread apathy among the delegates, even those from countries that had experienced disasters of devastating proportions.I recall an Asean study trip to Jakarta in 2009 when we met some contingency planners from the Indonesian army. When I asked one of them how would they ensure continuity of critical functions if a significant number of troops fell sick during a flu pandemic, he replied nonchalantly: “We don’t have plans. I’m sure we will survive any crisis. When the tsunami hit us in 2004, Indonesia lost more than 100,000 lives. But we recovered after a few months.”Observers from United Nations agencies like World Health Organisation and Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance blamed this apathy on a lack of political will in many countries to tackle what they see as a non-urgent problem, even though experts were warning at the time that an influenza pandemic was long overdue.There were always more pressing domestic issues, such as economic woes, outbreaks of other diseases, insurgency, and political instability. Without strong directions from the central government, any so-called national committee set up to oversee contingency planning for a pandemic will not be sustainable or will end up a lame duck. Even if the government means business, there is still much to be done beyond forming a national committee.  There is a need to draw up a comprehensive response hierarchy and identify the key players at various levels, including provincial, city, district and village governments, as well as the private sectors.  The most time-consuming and challenging task is to develop the actual response measures, such as border restrictions and social distancing. But many Asean nations do not have the resources or expertise to work out the complex operational details of such measures.Although many countries have a basic response plan against influenza pandemic, the UN observers often lamented to me that the plans were too simplistic for countries with a population size of tens of millions of people or more.Unfortunately for the UN observers, the H1N1 influenza pandemic that eventually broke out in 2009 was a relatively mild one, which reinforced the mentality that there was really no need for detailed planning.It has been almost two years since I left civil service to return to journalism. Asean – with the help of donor agencies - is still pushing on with its pandemic preparedness efforts despite the obstacles. Some progress has been made in the work to compile a regional pandemic preparedness plan, but there is still a long way to go.I am keeping my fingers crossed that resolving the haze issue will be much easier.

limeng@sph.com.sg