Wuhan virus: Smooth start to free mask distribution islandwide

Residents collecting their masks at Block 601 Hougang Avenue 4 on Feb 1, 2020. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
Residents collecting their masks at Paya Lebar Zone 4 residents’ committee centre on Feb 1, 2020. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
Residents collecting their masks at Toa Payoh Central Zone 4 residents’ committee centre on Feb 1, 2020. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
The masks are for one-time use and are meant for people who are ill to avoid infecting others. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
A poster informing residents of mask collection points and timings at Toa Payoh Central Zone 4 residents' committee centre. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - The first day of mask distribution at about 200 residents' committee (RC) centres around Singapore went off smoothly, despite initial concerns of a rush at collection points.

At several RCs that The Straits Times visited on Saturday (Feb 1), there were next to no queues and volunteers handing out masks often outnumbered the residents collecting them.

The Government on Thursday announced that all 1.3 million households in Singapore would be given a pack of four masks each amid reports of shops running out of stocks.

The masks are being made available progressively amid the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus. Distribution began on Saturday and will end on Feb 9.

Collection times will be staggered over the next week at the designated 89 community centres and 654 RC centres across the island.

Mr Darryl David, adviser for Ang Mo Kio GRC Grassroots Organisations, who was at the Ang Mo Kio-Hougang Zone 1 RC, said that an open, clear area had been chosen for the distribution in anticipation of long queues.

"It's gone very efficiently and very smoothly," he said. "This shows that residents are very sensible and very reasonable. They understand that you don't need a mask if you are well. These masks are a precaution for those who are not well."

Ms Denise Phua, Mayor of Central Singapore District, said that the relative calm was due to grassroots efforts to communicate with residents, whether by posting the mask distribution schedules on community noticeboards and in lifts or informing participants at events and functions over the last few days.

"I sought the understanding of my residents should things be less than perfect and also reminded them to use the masks wisely, as there is a global supply shortage," she said. "Residents are also asked to practise hand hygiene aggressively, as it's quite effective."

People's Association staff at Woodlands Zone 1 RC said that by 5.30pm only about 10 per cent of the households in the area had turned up to collect their masks, perhaps because people were still making Chinese New Year visits. More people were expected to show up at the various collection points on Sunday.

Most residents interviewed said they recognised that one need not wear a mask unless one is ill.

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"I think life should go on as normal," said retired accountant Katherine Soh, 68. "Everyone is so worked up. The Government is doing well but everybody should take on a bit of responsibility too."

She collected her masks at Toa Payoh Central Zone 4 RC, but said she would probably save them for her 90-year-old mother-in-law.

Marketing executive Jonas Bai, 33, who collected his masks from Ang Mo Kio-Hougang Zone 1 RC, said: "They are really well-organised. But it's a bit unfair that those staying in other blocks can't get their masks today."

For others, the masks did not quite allay their fears. "We're very scared and we try not to go out because it spreads so fast," said Beach Road resident and caregiver Nur Haslinda, 58. "But we are very confident in the Government's response."

Ms Faith Pang, 33, who works in finance and was at Beach Road RC, expressed concern about having people gathering in one place to collect masks. "I thought we wanted to avoid a situation where too many people gather together. Wouldn't it be better if you put the masks in mailboxes?"

"It's psychologically important as an exercise, though," pointed out her husband, consultant Guntmar Kerbl, 44. "It shows that the government is responding and people need not panic, so, in that sense, this is great."

Retired factory supervisor Andrew Yap, 71, said he would start wearing the masks he picked up at Beach Road RC straightaway, as he had a slight cough.

He said he queued at seven outlets this week to buy masks but did not manage to get any. "Why is the Government giving out masks so late?" he wanted to know. "And why don't they give more? Lucky, I have a few leftover masks. From my experience, after wearing them for two days, they get a bit stinky, so I wash them in water."

Experts recommend that masks should not be worn for more than 24 hours and discarded if they are wet or soiled.

Among the volunteers spending their weekend distributing masks was Beijing native Cong Wei, 42, who works in the healthcare industry and has lived in Singapore for three years. She was helping out at Paya Lebar Zone 4 RC on Saturday.

"I think it's very important to help people understand how to use these masks, and how to protect themselves," she said. "China is my home country, but since I'm staying in Singapore, I think it's more important to help protect Singaporeans here."

Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing wrote in a Facebook post on Saturday: "Good start to the surgical masks collection exercise this afternoon across the island. The queues were generally short and residents were calm, with no rush to collect the masks.

"It was an opportunity for residents to raise questions or clarify doubts with our volunteers, giving us a rich store of feedback. Residents I spoke to were also keenly aware that the masks are not meant for immediate use, and only if and when they are unwell."

You can check details of the mask collection at this site, which will be regularly updated, or call 1800-333-9999.

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