One for my Western friends

Being ill-equipped to write an article as intellectual as the ones written by Tomas Pueyo, “Coronavirus: Why you must act now” and “Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance”, I write to simply express my views. This article is written for my Western friends.

I am a one of the rising number of imported coronavirus cases in Singapore. As a Singaporean living in Germany, I am glad to be receiving excellent healthcare back in my home country. My experience from getting tested to the care I have received at our National Centre for Communicable and Infectious Disease, highlights just how much the West has compromised on the welfare of their people and is still struggling to do the right thing.

When China first reported cases of this novel coronavirus, few countries thought they would be affected. When parts of Asia started raising national health emergency statuses due to the virus, the West watched from a distance. Even when cases started popping up in Europe and the governments started realising that their countries could have imported the virus, there was little done to help my European friends relate to the reality of it. The only person who could relate to the severity of the pandemic then was my Israeli colleague, who entertained my sharing of empty supermarket shelves in Singapore with contact tracing implemented by the Israeli government. 

If physical contact, sanitization and hygiene was key in preventing the spread of the coronavirus, it definitely did not appear that Europe knew what it meant. As I travelled between Germany the UK in February, there were no controls, notices or any sign that Europe is watching out for this highly communicable virus. Whilst my family and friends back in Singapore donned face masks on public transport and temperature scans were implemented at our airports, open coughing and sneezing remained a common sight on trains in Germany and the crowded tubes in London. At airports, surfaces remained unsanitised as passengers board flights following planeloads of passengers disembarking.

One of the first headlines addressing the coronavirus situation in Germany read had Merkel declaring that 70% of Germans will be infected with the coronavirus. I was confused reading it as I could not tell if it was meant to invoke panic a simple reassurance that most people will be infected anyway. It sure didn’t sound like I should be too worried about getting infected with a virus that most people are supposed to have anyway. It sounded almost like a rite of passage one would have to go through with chicken pox.

In the UK, a fancy “Herd Immunity” strategy was floated by Boris himself. Sure sounds like a planned strategy, except their next-door Italian neighbour is already witnessing dire consequences from an unplanned immunization of their herd. “Kamikaze” is a military tactic term used in World War II when the Japanese pilots made deliberate suicidal crashes into enemy targets. I believe there are more parallels between both strategies apart from sounding snazzy.

As a result of what government were putting forth, people were genuinely convinced that it is simple a process of getting infected and overcoming the infection! Co-workers followed up their coughs with jokes about spreading the coronavirus and songs about catching the virus were sung by drunken lads on crowded trains. The severity and reality of the disaster remained so farfetched that there was almost a celebratory tone to the UK having caught up to the pandemic.

It is true that the average healthy and young person would likely recover from it with no more serious consequences than that of an ordinary flu. But the threat from this virus is its contagion and damage to an innocent elderly or someone with underlying health condition. It almost seemed as if the message was to “spray the virus round and we will come out stronger” without considerations to groups that are vulnerable. It also really appears to be conveniently distracting people away from scrutinising the NHS’ capacity and resource availability to do the hard work of contact tracing and testing.

When the strategy of developing herd immunity was later implied to have been a mistake (I believe no one formally acknowledged the folly of it other than The Economist identifying three out of five stages of grief with the responses of governments thus far), people were told to stay at home and self-isolate if they experience coronavirus symptoms. “Do not go to a doctor or hospital” is the official message to British people. I only need to imagine the public outrage if this was what my government told Singaporeans.

One problem with this is the inability to ascertain whether one actually has the virus and how much that person endangers his or her community. I had spent the week before returning to Singapore with my boyfriend in the UK and had even attended a large scale event together. As a standard protocol, I was made to serve a stay home notice upon returning to Singapore, whereas my boyfriend was still free to roam. Having no symptoms himself, he had visited a pub in his hometown the night before UK’s official lockdown. When I was subsequently tested positive and word got around that he was with me a few days before, people in the community panicked. The absence of a proper contact tracing protocol in place meant that communication regarding this was poorly managed and started an ugly blame game. Unfortunately, he has to accept his fate of being labelled patient zero despite having developed no symptoms.

I believe a large part of the western world had to be put under lockdown is the result of time lost due to a late realisation of the situation and the slow and unwillingness to act upon discovering the state of affairs. The former could be an oversight but I found the latter hard to excuse. Contact-tracing, a method advocated by international sources and proven to work, was hardly even considered by governments in Europe or America. Testing is loose because of the lack of test kits and resources. The virus has become untraceable as a result and lockdown becomes the only viable option for containing its spread.

Yet, these governments are still seen prioritizing economic impacts over lives of their citizens. That lockdowns did not happen sooner because countries calculated the irreparable to the economy. That they waited for lost lives to past a certain threshold before a lockdown is warranted.

I question if it is simply a libertarian approach that these countries continued to uphold and where that has taken them. The West has often assumed a moral high ground against governments on the other side of the world, criticising authoritarian rulers and pitying their people for a lack of freedom. Yet, in such extreme times of need, we see clearly the countries that are willing to exhaust resources to protect the lives of their people. While America debates free testing for its people and prioritises corporate bailouts, China builds a hospital in ten days for its people. I think it is time that governments look holistically at best practices across the world and not simply dismiss strategies because the same thing would not be applicable in “democratic” societies. Time and resources put into debating the feasibility of actionable measures would be much better spent on execution and flattening out a steepening curve.

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