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Singapore aims for clearer messaging on virus actions

Bloomberg10/3/2021 07:03 PM GMT+08  • 4 min read
Singapore aims for clearer messaging on virus actions
"There's still room for improvement, and every step of the way we are learning," says Josephine Teo.
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The Singapore government can do a better job communicating the country’s virus strategy, a minister said, addressing residents’ frustrations over confusing signals on the financial hub’s reopening plan.

The country of about 5.5 million people has shifted its approach from Covid elimination to trying to live with the virus, yet authorities have tightened restrictions on gatherings, restaurants and businesses even after pledging more freedoms. Officials need to improve the messaging on how their actions relate to the country’s goals to avoid confusion, said Josephine Teo, the minister for communications and information.

Even with one of the world’s highest vaccination rates at 82%, Singapore’s residents are under curbs that the U.S. and Europe have largely dealt away with. In the latest U-turn, Singapore on Sept. 27 capped social gatherings and dining-in to two people, moved many school classes online and made working from home the default arrangement, citing concerns that rising cases could overwhelm the health-care system.

“I am very sympathetic to the sense of confusion around how come your specific actions today doesn’t quite gel with what we said a few weeks ago,” Teo said in an interview on Friday, Oct 1. “We obviously have to address that.”

Among disjointed signals, a co-chair of the government’s virus task force told media last month that Singapore shouldn’t rule out sweeping lockdown measures entirely amid rising infections. Just days earlier, a fellow co-chair said he believed such measures were “behind” Singapore.

“The communications must be consistent with the strategy we are taking,” according to Teo, who said she also participates in discussions with the virus task force. “You can’t communicate one thing and actually you’re doing another thing -- that would not help credibility and there will be dissonance.”

On the ground, frustrations have been mounting over the mixed signals, seemingly complicated health protocols and rising cases. As a result: a nation now divided on whether there should be further restrictions to cut transmissions, or loosen curbs and charge through.

Acknowledging the discontent, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said in a press briefing on Saturday that the government will simplify procedures to make it easier for people to comply. Finance Minister Lawrence Wong implored patience for those wanting the country to reopen sooner.

As an example of the commitment to reopen, Teo pointed to the shift in focus to hospitalization and intensive-care numbers in the government’s communication, away from daily new infections.

However, there are people urging the government to continue to report daily cases to help them determine personal actions. In a nod to such concerns, the health ministry published a map Friday detailing areas frequently visited by infected patients in the past three days to guide people’s social activities.

The government isn’t hiding facts and will continue to explain the adjustments, Teo said. “There’s still room for improvement, and every step of the way we are learning.”

While the communications around virus messaging is still a work in progress, Singapore has seen success persuading its people to get vaccinated, employing a wide outreach that used different channels and languages.

Daily infections have crossed 2,000 in the past five days, bringing the city-state’s virus tally to over the 100,000 mark. Most cases are mild or asymptomatic. There are 31 people in intensive care, and 107 deaths have been recorded so far.

Singapore’s priority is to stabilize the surging cases and prevent as many avoidable deaths as possible, which means slowing down the pace of reopening, Teo said. Authorities are acting based on evidence and following what the science is showing, she said.

“Over time I think the way in which we communicate, the emphasis will have to shift in line with how the Covid situation is evolving and how we think as a society we need to respond to it,” the minister said.

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