In Singapore

Josephine Seah

On Sunday afternoon I walked past an insurance booth set up near the way out of a railway station, a typical sight in Singapore. ‘Worried about suffering from a critical illness?’ the banner asked. As of today, we have 47 confirmed cases of novel coronavirus infection.

Four days ago, a doctored tweet, purportedly from Channel News Asia (CNA) announcing the closure of all schools, made the rounds on social media. It was quickly debunked by the agency (an outdated watermark was apparently a ‘tell-tale sign’ the tweet was fake). Soon afterwards, what appeared to be a press release from the Ministry of Health started spreading online. The document stated that the country’s DORSCON (Disease Outbreak Response System Condition) level was to be raised from yellow to orange because of new cases of local infection: that is, people who have fallen ill without having travelled to China or having been in contact with anyone who had. I received the document through a public Telegram group that was nearing 9000 members (it now has just over 10,000). It was quickly pointed out that the document was misdated: 6 February, instead of the 7th. Over the next fifteen minutes, I was unable to look away from the chat even as it was ratcheting up my anxiety.

‘This is a virus,’ someone said, referring not to COVID-19 but the document being shared.

‘Is my phone going to get hacked?’ another asked.

‘Some grammar errors. Doubt is official. 4.30 has come and went. Fake news!’

‘Wait and see,’ someone else said.

An hour later, the Straits Times and CNA announced that the DORSCON level was indeed being raised from yellow to orange. Not fake news, then, but a leaked draft.

That evening, people flooded the supermarkets, packing their carts high with instant food, rice, toilet paper and condoms. A picture of a masked woman with a cartload of Maggi Mee instant noodles was soon turned into a meme. Another image showed a condom-clad finger pressing a lift button; there had been an earlier suggestion to use uncapped pens (with their ink cartridges removed) as button pushers in public lifts to limit the chances of infection. On a government-run WhatsApp channel, a message asked the public to ‘stay calm; don’t panic buy’, reassuring us that the country was not about to run out of food or household items. Ministers posted on their Facebook pages urging against hoarding.

Elsewhere on social media:

Latest News: The CoV has mutated to affect human brain. Symptoms: The reported symptoms include immediate alarming drop of IQ to zero, lack of judgment, rush to stock of supplies like toilet paper and instant noodles. There is no incubation period. The new CoV is spread by WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram from person to person contacts. There is no known cure.

The next morning, my parents returned from their usual grocery run with a two-litre bottle of milk. I had asked for a half-litre bottle. ‘The rest of the shelf was emptied out,’ they said.