Wrestling xenophobic sentiments and infodemic amidst COVID-19 is vital, TC interview finds
By Zhou Xizhuang Michael and Lim Yun Hui
What do students think about the COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore? The Convergence team interviewed 12 undergraduate students from the National University of Singapore (NUS) to hear their opinions and thoughts regarding the coronavirus situation.
To ensure the views were as representative and diverse as possible, the students interviewed came from various faculties of NUS and were in different years of study.
Respondents candidly shared their views on 4 main areas surrounding COVID-19: feedback on policies implemented, the effectiveness of POFMA, xenophobic reactions and importance of a nation’s character.
Lessons from SARS and China
It has been 17 years since the SARS outbreak in 2003. Many Singaporeans, therefore, wonder if we have become more prepared for the COVID-19 outbreak.
For most respondents, the answer seemed to be a “yes”.
‘The Singapore Government has done a good job in [the] containment of the virus due to past experiences like SARS,’ answered Mr Koh, 25, a final year Life Science undergraduate, who declined to be named.
In a similar tone, a second-year Political Science undergraduate, 22, who wished to remain anonymous, felt that the measures implemented by the Government were testimony to the nation’s increased preparedness.
‘[The Government] have been quite effective and shown to Singaporeans that they are in control of the situation. For example, they were able to set up a task force almost immediately, releasing timely information through up-to-date press releases everyday.’
Overall, respondents agreed that the government deserved praise for its swift response through the formation of an inter-ministerial taskforce and immediate temperature screening checks implemented at airports before the first imported case of COVID-19 was confirmed.
Day by day, new measures were announced, implemented and enforced with immediate effect.
However, it is not always easy to get the ‘timing’ of measures correct.
Ms Jin, 22, undergraduate from China, highlighted that on the day the DORSCON colour changed to orange (7 Feb), large-scale events such as the Lantern Festival celebrations at Loyang Temple, Thaipusam and mass church gatherings still continued despite reports of the first local transmission case on 4 Feb.
Similarly, Ms Yang, 20, undergraduate from China expressed her concerns over the continuation of such large-scale events in Singapore.
‘We know how the outbreak started and got so worse in Wuhan. We don’t want to see the same thing happen in Singapore,’ the Environmental Engineering undergraduate added.
Despite knowing about the disease outbreak, the Wuhan mayor had allowed a mass gathering of 40,000 attendees to go ahead.
Against the background of a deteriorating situation in China, particularly in Wuhan, many student respondents from China thought that stricter and more timely measures could be implemented by Singapore to control large-scale events.
Nonetheless, a first-year Real Estate undergraduate, who wished to remain anonymous, recognised the challenges of implementing more stringent measures as ‘tightening measures will always cause people to be more anxious, so there has to be some balance.’
When asked to comment on the leave of absence (LOA) policy, many respondents expressed their concerns over its effectiveness.
As a student staying in Prince George’s Park Residences (PGP), Ms Yang noted how it was practically impossible to conduct surveillance checks on LOA students for 24 hours a day and 14 days straight.
‘I don’t think the school can possibly be any stricter to force these people to stay in their rooms, the ultimate responsibility lies on the individual to follow instructions,’ she added.
Some also questioned the decision to designate quarantine sites on university campuses.
One of them was Ms Shi, 20, a Food Science and Technology undergraduate who said, ‘Universities are perhaps the easiest place for a virus to spread due to the high population density.’
‘Think of the shuttle bus, shared canteens and libraries, the quarantine facility should have been somewhere else,’ she later added.
Battling viruses and xenophobia
When asked if respondents had come across any xenophobic or racist comments surrounding COVID-19, a second year Political Science undergraduate, who declined to be named, shared with The Convergence about how ‘people talk about the virus as if it was an issue of nationality instead of an issue of public health.’
The emergence of racist sentiments surrounding COVID-19 is not only seen in Singapore, but is a problem confronted by Chinese people all over the world.
‘They might face increasing prejudice and unfairness in the way they are treated,’ remarked Mr Koh, a final year Life Science undergraduate.
Mr Koh also pointed to the double standards present in reactions to the virus that originated in Wuhan.
‘There is a lot of stigma surrounding the food that people from China have consumed. However, these food items are also consumed in other parts of the world.’
People were blaming the Chinese nationals for consuming certain wildlife when this practice was long common in other parts of Asia.
Some respondents, such as first-year Real Estate student from China who requested to be anonymous, believed that negative reactions were also rooted in a broader immigrant sentiment and were “not really surprised” by the negative comments.
Another who shared this observation was Ms Megan Heah, 22, a third-year Social Work undergraduate. For Ms Heah, ‘there has already been a pre-existing discriminating sentiment amongst Singaporeans against the [mainland] Chinese.’
‘The virus, having originated from China, further exacerbated such sentiments or even served to “justify” it,’ she added.
Where then, do we draw the line between what is offensive and what is not?
‘When people make jokes about the Wuhan virus, it reflects the fact that most Singaporeans do not have (or have a lesser) stake in the coronavirus situation than Chinese nationals do,’ replied Ms Yang.
And according to Ms Shi, although these jokes may be harmless and used to lighten the tense atmosphere surrounding the outbreak, they can also come off as particularly offensive and insensitive.
‘I know of my extended family and friends’ parents who are working tirelessly right now in hospitals to improve the situation so to see other people mocking Wuhan is especially upsetting. These are real people risking their lives everyday willingly to help Wuhan,’ she said.
POFMA against “infodemic”
Apart from the COVID-19, we are also busy grappling with another pandemic – “infodemic”.
In early February, the influx of information online – both accurate and not – had prompted the World Health Organisation (WHO) to declare the situation as an “infodemic”.
Here, in Singapore, we are not spared from this infodemic, too.
In late January, the widespread propagation of misinformation online regarding the virus outbreak had moved the Government to lift POFMA (Prevention from Online Falsehoods and Prevention Act) exemptions for main Internet intermediaries, such as Facebook and Google, among others.
Responding to The Convergence’s question on whether POFMA has been effective in clamping down the spread of misinformation and online falsehoods about the outbreak, most respondents replied in the affirmative.
Among them was Mr Cyrus Lee, 23, who was ‘in favour’ of the Government’s efforts to clamp down fake news as the proliferation of misinformation on the COVID-19 situation had caused worrying alarms.
‘For instance, there was an outrageous claim that Singapore had run out of supplies for masses and even an article reporting the closing of Woodlands MRT in response to the coronavirus, which in both instances were dealt by POFMA,’ said the third-year Global Studies student.
And notwithstanding allegations over the Government’s authoritative demeanour in this matter, Mr Lee stressed that ‘the impetus and intentions behind this act are still valid.’
‘To put [simply], one must realise and accept that there are consequences to any information channeled publicly for consumption, regardless of your stance,’ he retorted.
For Mr Jason Prasad, 23, however, relying on the correction directions of POFMA alone is far from sufficient.
While the Act has proven effective on moderated platforms, he noted, ‘misinformation from unmoderated [ones] remain easily accessible and spread quickly.’
As such, ‘POFMA has to [be] utilised alongside a concerted government-led information campaign in order to be fully effective,’ added the third-year History undergraduate.
But POFMA does have its shortcomings, too.
For a second-year Computing undergraduate, who declined to be named, the problem lies in speed.
‘It takes time for misinformation to be identified and traced back to its original point, and even more for it to be called into effect,’ he added.
‘Social media and the Internet spread information too large in scale, and in speed, for the legislation to curb misinformation to an appreciable effect.’
A test of the nation’s character
In trying circumstances like the COVID-19 outbreak, it is often the nation’s character – say, unity and resilience – that is most tested.
Undergraduate Ms Lim Jia Ying, 20, told The Convergence that the panic buying incident has shown Singapore’s ‘lack of cohesion and unity as a country’ and ‘displayed a sense of innate selfishness and an every-man-for-himself attitude.’
Others, like Ms Megan Heah, added that the coronavirus situation had exposed Singaporeans’ ‘Kiasu, Kiasi’ mentality.
‘This demonstrates that in such [difficult] situations, the fear amongst our society has caused us to become more selfish and less concerned for others,’ she elaborated.
But not all hope is lost. Notwithstanding these unmentionable acts, respondents believed that the majority of Singaporeans have shown unity in adversity.
Drawing upon her first-hand experience during an attachment to the hospital wards recently, Ms Amanda Lim, 21, shared how she was touched by the ‘burning passion’ of many of Singaporean healthcare professionals in containing the situation.
“All their previously approved annual leave has been voided, and they now need to work longer shifts as more manpower is required during this difficult period,’ recounted the third-year Nursing undergraduate. And ‘they do so with no complaints.’
Besides the gallantry and sacrificing spirit that have almost come to be synonymous with the frontline medical staff, Ms Lim Jia Ying also wished to give due recognition to the efforts of the SAF personnel, as well as ‘our own (NUS) students [for] delivering meals to students on LOA in campus.’
Perhaps, in the words of a graduating Engineering student, who wished to remain anonymous, ‘while it is unfortunate that some Singaporeans have shown a lack of graciousness and even selfishness, we should take comfort in the fact that most Singaporeans have done a pretty good job in helping one another and those in need.’
Through the responses from this interview, it does seem to reflect that in times of difficult situations like the COVID-19, performance from the citizens is as important as that of the Government’s.
Zhou Xizhuang Michael
Michael is a Year 3 undergraduate majoring in Global Studies. He currently serves as the Editor-in-Chief of The Convergence and the Vice-President (Policy) of the NUS Students’ Political Association. In his free time, Michael enjoys reading history, with a particular interest in military history and traditional firearms.
Lim Yun Hui
Yun Hui is a Year 4 Political Science major who is currently an Associate Commentary Editor for The Convergence. Constantly reading up on domestic sociopolitical issues and regional affairs, she finds particular interest in the diverse and nuanced point of views presented by each writer. In another life, she hopes to be a photojournalist that gets to capture history in the making.