Code Orange is the new normal in Singapore

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The view of Marina Bay on a typical day in Singapore: hot, humid and occasionally stormy.
The view of Marina Bay on a typical day in Singapore: hot, humid and occasionally stormy. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Yeoh Siew Hoon
Yeoh Siew Hoon
Yeoh Siew Hoon

On Feb. 15, a siren rang out for one minute in Singapore. I observed my fellow walkers out for their evening perambulations, and no one seemed perturbed.

Unlike me, they must have expected it: the annual siren to mark the moment when the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 as well as Total Defence Day, which reminds Singaporeans that they are responsible for the defense of their country.

It is rather fitting that this year's siren falls at a time when Singapore is at Dorscon Orange alert level because of the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak. Dorscon stands for Disease Outbreak Response System Condition, and a color-coded chart of the disease's nature, its impact on daily life and advice to the public ranges from green to red. It's the first time I have experienced life in Orange.

So what is it like, many of my friends and colleagues in America have asked me. Has life come to a standstill? Are you all panicking?

Well, on that awful day right after the alert level was raised, supermarket shelves were stripped of toilet paper, rice and instant noodles. I was out of town and did not see this firsthand, but there was enough on social media to give everyone an idea of the panic buying. But life seems pretty normal now. Every morning, I wake up and have to pinch my arm to remind myself it's still an Orange day.

So what is an Orange day like?

Well, the sky is blue. It's super hot and humid; that hasn't changed, for sure. I read that the virus doesn't do well in hot and humid places, so I believe air conditioning bills will come down this month as residents open their windows for that occasional fresh breeze. Thank goodness it's not haze season. Imagine! I am always grateful for small blessings.

There are lots of advisories being issued from the Singapore Ministry of Manpower to domestic helpers, to employees, to employers, to schools. So we all know what to do now. Wash hands. Isn't that normal? Take temperature twice a day. OK, that isn't normal. Avoid crowded places. There are no crowded places these days. 

Although, having said that, I went to the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel the other evening, and it was packed and had a queue of tourists waiting to get in.

Actor Nicholas Hammond and the author at the Long Bar at the Raffles Singapore, which remains a tourist draw despite coronavirus fears.
Actor Nicholas Hammond and the author at the Long Bar at the Raffles Singapore, which remains a tourist draw despite coronavirus fears. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Yeoh Siew Hoon

Yes, there are tourists still in town. I was having a drink (not a Singapore Sling) with actor Nicholas Hammond, who will always be remembered for playing Friedrich von Trapp in "The Sound of Music," even though he's grown up a lot since that role at age 14 and has played various other roles like Peter Parker/Spider-Man in the TV series "The Amazing Spider-Man."

It's his most unforgettable role, he said. "How can I forget when everyone reminds me?" he said, having just returned from the Oscars and meeting all his friends. We, of course, discussed "Parasite" and how Hollywood felt about a Korean movie winning the Best Picture award.

Hammond splits his time between Sydney and Los Angeles. It was his first visit to Singapore, and he had loads of media interviews -- the best of times to get publicity, I reckon -- and he said, referring to the Orange alert, "I am not worried about things like this."

When you can survive Hollywood, I guess it fortifies you for life.

My relatives from France are also here for 10 days, and they and the kids are enjoying themselves because they have most attractions to themselves. No queues anywhere, and everyone's really happy to see them.

I still go for meetings. We try to meet outside in cafes, not in offices. In offices, you have to sign health declaration forms and have your temperature taken. I still go for meals with friends and family. Staying indoors all the time can't be good for one's mental health.

One thing has changed though: Singapore is among the list of countries where residents have been advised to stay away from certain trade shows.
I was due to attend a travel technology event in the U.K. at the end of February but received an advisory that according to "current advice from U.K. officials and the World Health Organization," those who have traveled to mainland China, Thailand, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia or Macao in the past 14 days are "recommended" not to travel to the event.

This effectively includes all of us who live in those countries. I am not questioning the organizer -- everyone wants to play it safe, and that means following official guidelines -- but such an advisory raises, in my mind, so many questions.

The chief one being why only those countries in Asia when Covid-19 is in other countries, as well? It just seems so arbitrary, and at least one organization, the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, has dared to question governments that have introduced various measures including travel advisories, border entry restrictions and quarantine requirements.

Andrew Herdman, the association's director general, said, "Regrettably, some of these measures, while well intentioned, seem to lack any proper public health justification, while causing significant and widespread disruption to travel and trade activities across the world. Arbitrary restrictions and blanket travel bans are inconsistent with the International Health Regulations and result in unnecessary inconvenience and added uncertainty among members of the public."

Singaporeans cross a bridge on their daily commute.
Singaporeans cross a bridge on their daily commute. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Yeoh Siew Hoon

I know there's no rationalizing in the face of fear, which is why it's timely that I am reading "Factfulness" by Hans Rosling, and the chapter titled "The Fear Instinct" is particularly relevant for the times in which we find ourselves.

Here are some paragraphs from the book to think about:

• Critical thinking is always difficult, but it's almost impossible when we are scared. There's no room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear.

• Because of our dramatic instincts and the way the media must tap into them to grab our attention, we continue to have an overdramatic worldview. Of all our dramatic instincts, it seems to be the fear instinct that most strongly influences what information gets selected by news producers and presented to us consumers.

• Fears that once helped keep our ancestors alive today help keep journalists employed. It isn't the journalists' fault, and we shouldn't expect them to change. It isn't driven by "media logic" among the producers so much as by "attention logic" in the heads of the consumers.

• The big facts and the big picture must wait until the danger is over. But then we must dare to establish a fact-based worldview again. We must cool our brains and compare the numbers to make sure our resources are used effectively to stop future suffering. We can't let fear guide these priorities. Because the risks we fear the most are now often, thanks to our successful international collaboration, the risks that actually cause us the least harm.

So what should you do? Rosling's advice: Recognize when frightening things get our attention, and remember these are not necessarily the most risky. Our natural fears of violence, captivity and contamination make us systematically overestimate these risks.

To control the fear instinct, calculate the risks.

• The scary world: fear vs. reality. The world seems scarier than it is because what you hear about it has been selected, by your own attention filter or by the media, precisely because it is scary.

• Risk equals danger multiplied by exposure. The risk something poses to you depends not on how scared it makes you feel but on a combination of two things: How dangerous is it? And how much are you exposed to it?

• Get calm before you carry on. When you are afraid, you see the world differently. Make as few decisions as possible until the panic has subsided.

I hope you breathe better after reading this.

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