S'pore's approach a model for other countries, say experts

As governments in Asia struggle to reassure their populations over the coronavirus outbreak, public health experts say Singapore's approach in communicating to the public is providing a model for others to reduce panic, rumours and conspiracy theories.

In a nine-minute recorded message on Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said "fear can do more harm than the virus itself" amid reports of long lines and hoarding at local supermarkets.

Moreover, he reassured Singaporeans that the virus didn't appear as deadly as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003, meaning that most people would likely experience a minor illness.

He also said the government would change its approach if the virus became widespread to avoid overwhelming hospitals, adding he would keep them "informed every step of the way".

The speech, posted on social media in three languages, appeared to have an immediate impact: The long queues at supermarkets throughout the city-state last Friday night returned to normal levels as of Sunday.

That alone proved notable in a region where governments have struggled to get the message right, spurring panic buying and confusion over how to protect themselves from the outbreak.

Mr Lee's speech "was a pretty outstanding example of very good risk communication", said Dr Claire Hooker, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney's Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine. "It gave people very concrete actions" that "handed back a measure of control to people whose sense of control will feel threatened," she said.

Mr Thomas Abraham, author of Twenty First Century Plague, The Story Of Sars, and a risk communication consultant for the World Health Organisation, said the speech worked because of the high level of trust Singaporeans have in the competence of the government.

Prime Minister Lee does not hide any facts, Mr Abraham said. "Nor does he hesitate to talk about how the situation might worsen."


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks in a nine-minute recorded message on Feb 9, 2020. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2020, with the headline 'S'pore's approach a model for other countries, say experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe