Opinion: What We Can Learn From Singapore’s Reassuring Response To Coronavirus

After watching two contrasting speeches addressing the Coronavirus pandemic, one can’t help but compare how one is the fit figure of governance we desperately need right now, while the other is as clueless as he made us be.

Related:PSA: The Coronavirus Outbreak Isn’t An Excuse To Be Xenophobic Against Asians

If time was any indication, we should’ve known better to lower an expectation that is already of veritable non–existence. Whispers of uncertainty and panic quickly took over many social setting, graduating into full-blown overlapping conversations, unfounded hearsays, and social media scream fests. By 6:30 PM, it was reported that the President of Philippine Republic, Rodrigo Duterte, would finally address the nation after the World Health Organization escalated the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak into a proven pandemic and meeting with the state-assembled Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) in Malacañang.

“Will a national lockdown be imposed,” everyone wondered, the thought settling into a contained fit of hysteria. But as the clock struck as scheduled, there was no leader to be seen, and instead, we were greeted with a video feed of the caucus sans the audio. “Where is the President?” the public wondered, as it has been grotesquely standard to point out.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was prompt to assure his sovereignty at 8:00 PM, appearing calm but stricken with palpable urgency. Clocking at 11 minutes and 28 seconds, the Singaporean leader was able to curb any mounting worry, assuring the country with a clear and concise speech that outlined the state of the nation, as well as of the plans laid out in the grander scheme of things. Grounded in reality, the Prime Minister had an agenda: To assure Singapore that while the Coronavirus continues to ravage the world, without a clear end in sight, everything was being done locally to curtail its further crippling of the country. Recapping the global outbreak, stating objectives medically, economically, and psychologically, offering a big idea with tangible strategies and execution plans, as well as rousing the nation to do their part in the rebuilding process, he was able to pacify the public that perhaps everything will be alright.

Photo from CNA on Youtube

“What makes Singapore different from other countries is that we have confidence in each other, we feel that we are all in this together, and we do not leave anyone behind. This is SG United, we are SG United,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ascertains, dispelling any further fear on the medical (hospitals, ICUs, and similar facilities are being freed up to meet the surge in Coronavirus numbers), economic (a stabilization package in the budget was enacted, as well as of second package measures to defray costs and cash flows in the interim), and social and psychological fronts (keeping government transparency, even stressing the gratitude for working front-liners: healthcare workers, immigration officers, civil servants, public transport workers, taxi drivers, cleaning staff). “In such a crisis, everyone has a part to play. I hope you will work with me and colleagues to keep our families safe, keep Singapore secure, and move forward together.”

At the end, there were no questions, no clarifications, no violent reactions—just a firm and concise plan of action to see this outbreak through.

While the Singaporean leader was able to deliver his speech in record time and in two other languages at that, the Philippine President had yet to assume his duly elected and sworn duty to serve as head of state, commander-in-chief, and chief executive, not a belligerent who seems to be just as a loss at what to do as we are. You see, in an unforeseen circumstance as the Coronavirus outbreak, one that is of national and global concern, a leader is in effect a functioning crisis manager, effectively rallying his nation to a state of decided calm through actions. However, as evidenced by a nearly hour-long rambling on national television, what we have is someone who is obscenely not capable to steer the republic through this pandemic.

Flanked by military men in his frame, as well as of the cabinet, civilian and police sectors, and well, Senator Bong Go, President Rodrigo Duterte began his address in his signature almost indecipherable and incoherent mumble, alluding to the ominous tone of what was to be of the next hour.

Photo from Presidential Communications (Government of the Philippines)’s Facebook

Sa mga kababayan ko, kayo, ako: Do not panic. Huwag kayong masyadong ma-stress na parang hindi mo na magawa ang gusto mong gawin. Pwede pa rin pero may restrictions tayo, may mga kondisyon dahil nga sa crisis,” he begins, stuttering and stumbling over his words as if tipped over by a stacking up of uncertainties. “The crisis is very, very clear, COVID-19 is spreading all throughout the country including the Philippines. Ang ano ho natin dito is there is no cure. Wala naman tayong mabili sa mga botika, pharmacy, to buy the medicines to cure COVID-19.”

Right off the bat, it becomes clear that while it is of utmost important to physically and routinely wash our hands clean, the government has figuratively done so, washing their hands clean of the full thrust of responsibility heaved on their shoulders. “So, nandiyan na ‘yan. It’s a serious one. It is true. Huwag ninyong maliitin. Do not minimize it, I said, but do not kill yourself with worry because government is doing everything possible to make it at least controllable, but kung kayo po ay mag-cooperate,” he warns. “‘Pag hindi kayo nag-cooperate, ah the problem would start and it would start with you and end with you pagka ganun.” Replete of accountability, trust, and function, the President seesawed, swerved, and skewed from the salient points, practically reading off pages of the Executive Order.

Already strained and painful to watch, what was intended to be a clear exercise of duty became a floundering bout of uncertainty, giving birth to more questions than answers.

Eventually, all the rumors were made true: The government raised Code Red Sub-Level 2 over the rampant and rising threat of Coronavirus, essentially restricting the National Capital Region to a state-ordered community quarantine. “It’s just a matter of protecting public interest and public health,” Duterte said. “Ayaw naming gamitin yan kasi takot sa lockdown, but it’s a lockdown. There is no struggle of power here, it is a matter of protecting and defending you from COVID-19.”

While detailing the government’s agreed course of action as agreed upon by the Department of Health and the Cabinet, there were constant mention of military and police deference if the rules weren’t followed and if unrest ensues. “I do not want anybody interfering in your enjoyment as a citizen of this Republic. Ayaw ko na masita kayo ng pulis pati military. It could be messy. Kasi mga, ‘yung iba sa inyo suplado. And itong mga pulis pati military, they have their orders,” he continued, careening from the matter of health and science at hand. “So that if you are in this category of a—grupo kayo tapos ‘pag malapit, ‘yung social distancing is no longer obeyed and—‘yan, you are violating the rules. And if you insist, it is one of a—just mere confrontation to something like disobedience, which is punishable under the Revised Penal Code.” The message was clear: Obey or feel the brutish brunt of the law.

This isn’t to say that the memorandum of agreement at hand was baseless, useless, and senseless. In fact, if delivered precisely with the inputs of key figures that followed in the news today, then perhaps we wouldn’t have been as dumbfounded as we have been, at least not entirely. Yes, stricter measures have to be observed and respected, which is why a community quarantine is actually necessary, but the facets and fragments stressed upon begged to differ. Where our Asian brother stressed on pertinent factors such as medicine, economics, and psychology, we instead got hurled with cajoling laughter, broken thoughts, and of course, an expletive hurled. In fact, while Singapore lauded the efforts of its healthcare sector among the others, our head of state managed to thank his former aide turned senator Bong Go and Chinese President Xi Jinping. “To the Chinese government, to the people especially to President Xi Jinping, thank you for the consoling words. And maybe—I hope it would not reach to that point—but maybe we will need your help. Salamat po,” he kowtowed, as if belittling the efforts and strides made by our local front-liners who are doing everything they can on their own to keep the Coronavirus at bay. Oh, and lest we forget, this is the same government that cut the health budget by a staggering 10 billion pesos and promised support to the Chinese envoy, amidst our own concerns mind you.

So, while the internet trolls have begun to flood our timelines with emotional plights of worry and bible verses, can you entirely blame a sizable disgruntled constituents with barely an ounce of confidence on the government and most importantly, what is to come moving forward? Where the rest of the more progressive countries have hunkered down and are successfully buffing out the exponential effects of Coronavirus, the President has instead suggested we tinker with our phones and just dance?

“So sumunod lang tayo at hinihingi ko sa inyo kaunting pasensiya lang. It’s for your own good. Para sa akin. Kung ayaw mo naman baka ako ang mamatay, hindi ka maawa sa akin. Dahil sa kalokohan mo, ayaw mong sumunod,” he said, finally winding down his exhaustive, running-in-circles speech. “So let’s help each other at this time of our life because everything is placed in jeopardy. Delikado talaga. Totoo ito, crisis talaga ito kasi walang gamot. Okay? Salamat po. Thank you for listening.”

While some would argue that pointing fingers seems futile and unnecessary at this point, remember that this is a unique situation that isn’t particularly unheard of, at least by our complacent generation. But as the rest of the country and the world races to find solutions and even better, a cure, the government seems to be more concerned with a head-scratching, diluted form of lockdown that reveals more cracks than an a bruised egg. Deplorably ill-prepared for the circumstance of epic proportion, one cannot help but compare and contrast the way the same singular situation is being handled by different leaders—composed and critical on one end, versus volatile and hysterical on the other.

In any crisis, whether it is personal or grand in scale, the way someone reacts to it is very telling. Defiantly out of touch for the most part, how does one expect force to go head-to-head with a viral outbreak that has crippled seemingly impenetrable first world states to submission? What we need is a leader who we can turn to for strength, assurance, and wisdom in a time of uncertainty and what do we get? A rather delusional elected head of state with equally lost cohorts who would rather resort to cheap shots and mockery to quell an alarming state of the nation.

It really is a delicate situation, he is right by it. But what is more unsettling is the mongering of fear and unverified truths masquerading as political will. It was stated that the purpose is to protect and defend the citizens, but while lives are at stake, international relations and half-baked solutions are seemingly being peddled to high importance.

Make no mistake about it, we want and will follow the law, as prescribed and tirelessly defended by statesmen of the past. The very least that can be done right now is to provide a clearer, more concise, and well-developed plan of action to keep the Philippines a functioning state despite the prominence of Coronavirus. If it is being required at a home and corporate level, what more from the government? We do not mean to pit leaders against each other, but the simple argument remains: If others can do it, why can’t we?

In a situation as high-risk and seemingly indomitable as this is, we can’t just let things be and raise a clenched fist at it and hope it gets scared. What we need is a figure who can lead us past this, even when the fighting spirit understandably wanes. “Dark times lie ahead of us,” Albus Dumbledore warns in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. “And there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”

With no carte blanche on any living soul in the bid to end Coronavirus, what we must all exercise, in the apparent lack of clarity from the powers that may be, is to exercise propriety and precaution, critical discernment, and human compassion. Where one fails, someone has to fill the void—and who better to rely on than each other. As we wait with no answers to what comes next, merely relenting to where the next days take us, allow us to leave you with a thought to hopefully serve as a compass in these times: Constant vigilance.

Perhaps we wouldn’t need anyone else but ourselves, nor will we even feel the need to ask: Where is the President? And who knows by then, even amidst the prescribed social distancing and precautionary measures, we will really, truly see this through.

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