Coronavirus: When authorities failed to act swiftly and decisively

By | February 8, 2020

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who is best known as the author of The Black Swan, wrote an ominous academic note on the Coronavirus event and urged policy- and decision-makers to act swiftly and avoid the fallacy that to have an appropriate respect for uncertainty in the face of possible irreversible catastrophe amounts to “paranoia”.

Systemic Risk of Pandemic via Novel Pathogens - Coronavirus

Unfortunately, that was what the Singapore government failed to do. It did not restrict Chinese visitors and returning transient workers from entering the country and implemented a loose Leave of Absence policy on those who are allowed in. As a result, contact tracing of suspected/confirmed cases of Wuhan virus infection became an almost mission impossible exercise.

Some people have argued that garden variety flu will very probably kill far more people than Coronavirus. True in probability, but ignores the fat tailed consequences of the improbable result. And it certainly doesn’t excuse the cavalier attitude some people had adopted under the circumstances.

While news of the virus was raging on, the Singapore government mishandled another situation. Like several other countries that were hard hit by the virus, the supply of surgical masks was in short supply. In response, the government decided to distribute (a measly total of) 4 masks to each household, which has to be collected at about 200 residents’ committee (RC) centres. In order to fulfill this mass distribution, the government mobilised NS men to pack the 4 masks into a single ziplock bag (see photo below).

NS men packing masks

As you can imagine, this is a rather stupid logistical exercise.

Alternative distribution could have been considered
Instead, the government should have controlled the supply and sale of masks at designated retail outlets/pharmacies (perhaps each household is allowed to purchase a box of masks within a given period of time, and will be allowed to replenish their supply after that). This, in turn, will prevent profiteering by heartless opportunists who hoard the supply of masks. Furthermore, all those masks that the NS men were wearing could have been put to better use.

All these mishandling of a crisis situation led to “a trust deficit and a serious crisis comms problem”, as Donald Low puts it in his Facebook post.

So when the country raised its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level from yellow to orange, panic buying of basic necessities ensued.

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