Kindness in a time of coronavirus (or why hoarding is irrational)

Don't use masks to cope with fear. Instead, arm yourself with facts and knowledge to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. Leave masks to be used by those who are sick.

Thanks to fears over the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), people have been buying up surgical face masks, thermometers and hand sanitisers, emptying shelves at pharmacies and retail outlets islandwide.

The argument goes like this: I cannot control my environment. People might be sick and not care that they are infecting others. Or they might not know that they are sick and a random cough and sneeze may send their germs into the surroundings. If I cannot control them, I must protect myself.

Put this way, it may seem like a rational argument. But it isn't.

The virus originated from Wuhan in China. It has since spread to at least 23 other countries, including Singapore. Here, there are 28 confirmed cases, mostly travellers from Wuhan and Singaporeans who had visited the Chinese city. Two local sales staff contracted the disease here from serving tourists from China.

Ever since 2019-nCoV broke, social media has been abuzz. My favourite comment argues that we have a much greater chance of dying due to other more common causes like traffic accidents and heart disease than 2019-nCoV, yet we are panicking and hoarding masks and sanitisers like there's no tomorrow.

Let's look at the 2019-nCoV statistics from China. In China, there have been nearly 500 deaths out of more than 24,000 infections. Hubei, the province where Wuhan is, has 58.5 million residents and 13,522 cases, which works out to 23.1 infected per 100,000 residents. With the World Health Organisation estimating a mortality rate of about 2 per cent, this comes out to about 0.46 death per 100,000 residents in Hubei, the epicentre of the virus outbreak.

As a quick comparison, the road traffic fatality rate per 100,000 in Singapore was 2.2 in 2018.

Last Saturday, I noticed a family of three - a couple and their boy, who looked to be eight or nine - in Chinatown with three-ply surgical masks on. It is now more common to see people out and about with these. What was more uncommon was that the mother was talking freely and easily through her mask.

A closer observation made me realise that the sides of her mask were loose, and the bottom was not tucked under her chin. Oh, and she was also wearing it upside down.

Another sight that bothers me is seeing people hooking their face masks under their chins, worse if they are doing that to eat in a crowded coffee shop or hawker centre.

If your argument for using a face mask is that you don't want to trust your health to the silliness or selfishness of others, then please commit to using it properly. Otherwise, you are simply giving in to an irrational fear.

Let's be clear. 2019-nCoV is still a potentially deadly disease with no cure yet in sight.

But if we are to be concerned about our health, we should be consistent in our attitude and logic.

First, be cognisant of the odds of getting the virus, and second, be mindful of when and how you should protect yourself.

Logic is what the Government is using to reassure Singaporeans.

Last Thursday, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing reassured residents that Singapore's supply of masks would be enough so long as it is managed "appropriately". He said that failure to do so can put the entire healthcare system in jeopardy, which would hamper the Government's efforts in taking care of those who need it the most.

"Give priority to those who need it," he said. "The public health agencies and the workers in the front line, as well as the vulnerable in our society.

"Never succumb to the short-term fears and panic-buying and hoarding behaviour, as it would destroy the system that we have."

The generosity some Singaporeans have shown is not limited to government-issued masks, says the writer. There are stories of kindness popping up on social media of people giving away masks to others who may need them more.
The generosity some Singaporeans have shown is not limited to government-issued masks, says the writer. There are stories of kindness popping up on social media of people giving away masks to others who may need them more. ST PHOTO: KELLY HUI

Minister Chan is perfectly logical in his argument. But in troubled times like these, logic needs to be paired with warm reassurance.

More warmth came in a Facebook post by Dr Chan Tat Hon (@whatscookingdoc.sg). He recounted an anecdote at a hospital where he worked, where he saw a woman with acute respiratory symptoms. She was coughing without a mask on. But when he approached her to suggest that she wear one, she replied "Doctor, I know I should be wearing… but everywhere also sold out! (sic)"

In his post, Dr Chan said that he has observed many seemingly healthy people wearing masks and bemoaned the fact that those who seemed in the most need of masks were unable to do so as most shops have run out of stock.

While he stressed that he isn't against using masks - it is a personal choice based on a person's risk appetite, he said - he added that education is key in helping people decide when to use one.

We need to go beyond head knowledge in dealing with the social impact of 2019-nCoV. We need to address the heart.

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Most of the healthy people using face masks now aren't using them because they truly believe they are at risk of catching 2019-nCoV. They are using face masks because they are afraid; and wearing one helps them deal with that fear. In short, it makes them feel better.

I would like to suggest a different way of feeling better. Facts give information. But kindness breeds generosity. Generosity raises charity. Charity trumps fear.

Last Thursday, the Government announced that all 1.3 million households in Singapore would get four free masks each.

Last Saturday, the first batch of these masks was distributed in an orderly fashion, prompting Communications and Information Minister S. Iswaran to comment that he had met many who said they won't collect any as they had enough, preferring to leave the masks to those who need it more.

He said: "I think this speaks volumes about the kind of society that we are. This is something we should cherish and continue to reinforce in Singapore."

This generosity is not limited to government-issued masks. There are also stories of kindness popping up on social media.

On Reddit, user Lazerite shared about how a resident in his HDB block gave out masks to neighbours. There are also reports of people giving away masks on Carousell.

Last week, Singapore Kindness Movement's Pride reported that a discount store owner, Ms Jevon Yeo, gave away 1,000 cloth masks to families with children below the age of seven.

She told the Pride: "I am a mother of three, so I fully understand how other parents are feeling right now... These masks aren't expensive, but they may help to some extent."

Right now, fear still builds as 2019-nCoV spreads across the world. But I hope that after this scare passes, the stories that remain are those that remind us of how we came together as a community.

In crisis, we show character. Let's start by keeping only the masks we need and not hoarding them. Share masks with those who need them more. It is this spirit that unites us and inspires us to be greater.

William Wan is general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2020, with the headline Kindness in a time of coronavirus (or why hoarding is irrational). Subscribe