Could We Or Covids Have Done Better

The Covid-19 White Paper was released on 8 March 23. This hobbit thinks this was a very commendable effort to look back at what happened that was led by a former Head of Civil Service that is known for his frankness and clarity of thought.

It correctly identified the two major shortcomings made by the government – the U-turn in mask policy and the blow-up in cases that happened in foreign worker dormitories. And this in itself, is a win for transparency and humility. Two very rare commodities in the world nowadays. It is also noteworthy that the two errors arose from essentially the heuristic error of anchoring. Just because the coronavirus in SARS was infectious only when the patient had fever doesn’t mean that another coronavirus will behave likewise. We were anchoring on our past experience with the SARS virus and hoping the Covid-19 virus will behave likewise.

But enough big talk. Now for the small talk that regular readers of this column seem to enjoy much. There are some episodes during the pandemic that are worth remembering but not mentioned in the White paper, just for laughs, if nothing more. These include:

The Virus Vanguard. These are official superheroes no less, since they first appeared in government Facebook webpages, albeit for about only a day in April 2020. We remember our disappeared champions – Circuit Breaker, Care Leh-Dee, Dr Disinfector, Fake News Buster and the (drumroll please) MAWA Man (Must always walk alone, the very antithesis of Liverpool fans). This hobbit hopes that they have NS liabilities, so that in the next pandemic or epidemic we can serve the SAF100 on them to return.

Pivot to F&B Sector. The KTV cluster in 2021 was a result of several KTVs that have “pivoted” to the F&B sector (with assistance and sometimes even grants from the relevant  authorities). A good and well-meaning idea in itself except that these newly pivoted F&B outlets did not have any commercial kitchens. So obviously they had to cook up something else on these premises which resulted in the cluster.

Strangers Sharing Same Hotel Room during Quarantine. At the start of the Omicron wave around December 2021, some folks were made to quarantine in the same hotel room with complete strangers. Naturally, this nutty idea was quickly panned by many. Between a full-height walled cubicle in Singapore Expo and sleeping with a stranger in the same hotel room for about 7 to 10 days, most folks will prefer the former. C’mon, even in an SAF exercise, I have my personal basha tent. This hobbit thinks the guy who came up with this probably liked Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night” a little too much.

CB and Tightened CB. Kudos to the wordsmiths who were always on top of the word game during the pandemic. These include calling a lockdown a circuit breaker or CB in short. This evolved to a Tightened CB later on. And at about the same time, the government was putting out Chinese-dialect short videos to get the message out to the elderly in the Chinese community. Whoever came up with the tightened CB bit should also be sent for some dialect classes.

Die Another Day. This incident arose also in late 2021 when a MOH Director said mortuary directors could handle dead bodies when the cause of death was Covid-19. This was refuted by the Secretary of the Association of Funeral Directors’ Singapore the next day in The Straits Times Forum which stated clearly that MOH guidelines prohibited them from handling such bodies outside of hospitals. This is clearly NOT a case of Everything Everywhere All At Once as the left hand didn’t know what was happening with the right hand. It is also nice to know the Association was given a President’s Certificate of Commendation for exceptional effort and significant contribution to fighting Covid-19. Incidentally, organisations such as SMA, CFPS, AMS, SNA, SDA and PSS weren’t. Obviously someone either forgot about or doesn’t like these guys?

Let us now get down to the White Paper proper and move back into the serious stuff. What really hit home for this hobbit. The White Paper really had their finger on the pulse when it stated on Page 67:

“However, some of the (i.e. SMM) measures were overly elaborate, difficult to operationalise and explain, and therefore confused the public. Re-opening the economy in phases while limiting the spread of community infections turned out to be a more complicated, and emotionally affecting, journey than expected. All this highlights the need for us to exercise greater flexibility in a crisis, go for broader brush but more implementable measures, and to guard against the instinct to aim for unrealistic standards of perfection”.

On Page 74, the White Paper essentially put out the same message again:

“With future pandemics, we will also need to exercise more flexibility. During COVID-19, at times we allowed the perfect to be the enemy of the good, for example the over-calibration of some SMMs and treatment protocols. In striking the right balance between achieving precision and ease of implementation in our public health protocols, we should guard against leaning too much in the direction of the former”.

Very important points that were most eloquently articulated. Beyond these wise words, this hobbit would like to draw attention to this graphic that was put out in late 2021 by Lianhe Zaobao which told vividly how wrong can matters get:

Like what this hobbit has said before, you don’t have to know Chinese to appreciate the ludicrous complexity the “system” had become before thankfully someone decided to implement Protocols 1, 2 and 3.

It is perhaps importantly to go one-step further to discuss why the “system” went off the cliff in terms of complexity and impossibility (rather than ease) of implementation, especially in the area of public health and healthcare.

First, let us remember, whether we like it or not, that protocols, circulars, instructions, directives etc, are written and put in place by people (i.e. real humans, not halflings, elves and orcs). And what drove these people to do what they did? This hobbit can proffer several possibilities:

  • The people who wrote these protocols really have no real on-the-ground experience running healthcare facilities such as hospitals, nursing homes or clinics. They probably grew up in a nice white building; from sitting behind a desk to sitting in a cubicle, before finally being holed up in an office and adorned with a personal assistant to show they have arrived. Hence, just armed with a little theoretical knowledge and no frontline experience, they write protocols the way novelists write fantasy stories.
  • These people are more afraid of losing their jobs more than solving real-life problems, and think that the best way to keep their jobs is to cover their backsides and to write protocols and directives that cover every possibility and exception without thinking how the people on the ground will cope. Never mind you cannot possibly comply with what they wrote. That’s your problem, not these people’s.
  • They are just plain stupid (which is unlikely, since they can write such complicated protocols. Maybe they have spectrum disorder, but they are probably high-functioning ones rather than stupid).
  • Various combinations and permutations arising from the above three possibilities.

There are of course other possibilities, but it would be impossible to explore all of them in the interests of time and readers’ attention. Of course, this hobbit is NOT about to excoriate old wounds, start a new round of fault-finding or try to settle old accounts. But it is important to state that these people have written and issued protocols and directives that have caused untold grief and profound degradation of morale among front-line healthcare workers during the pandemic. This hobbit thinks the morale hasn’t quite recovered fully even now. Quite a few people are still scarred and angry.

So, in the name of all that is good and true, this hobbit beseeches those that are in the high places of power that they do not assign very important tasks such as writing of protocols and directives to these same dangerous people again. Put them somewhere else where they can still earn a living off taxpayers’ money but do less harm, like dress them up as MAWA Man, Care-leh-dee and Dr Disinfector etc and send them to Cosplay conventions. Better still, we can put them onto a Chingay Parade float that has a big overhead banner which has the words “CBs”.

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