SINGAPORE – Philippine Ambassador Joseph Yap urged Filipinos to stay calm but vigilant after Singapore raised its disease alert level a notch higher to “code orange” due to the novel coronavirus threat.
“My personal appeal to all our kababayans (countrymen) is to stay calm, do not panic, but be vigilant. It is likely that the spread of the virus will get worse before it gets better,” Yap told Rappler on Saturday, February 8.
Yap said around 200,000 Filipinos work in Singapore – 40% as household service workers and 60% as service workers and professionals.
“I would like to emphasize that code orange encourages us to cancel or defer large-scale gatherings, avoid crowded places, and adopt heightened measures to prevent infection. Let us all do our share and contribute to the overall efforts of the Singapore government to address the problem,” the ambassador added.
Code orange refers to the 3rd highest level in Singapore’s 4-tier color-coded system for disease outbreaks, which Singapore developed after it battled the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003.
Under the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) of Singapore, code orange means that “the disease is severe and spreads easily from person to person, but the disease has not spread widely in Singapore and is being contained.”
Excluding the 64 novel coronavirus cases aboard a Japanese cruise ship, Singapore has the highest number of novel coronavirus cases outside China, based on data from the World Health Organization (WHO) as of Friday, February 7. No deaths linked to this virus, however, have been reported in Singapore.
China has at least 31,211 of the 31,481 novel coronavirus cases around the world. At least 637 people have died in China due to the novel coronavirus, while one has died in the Philippines.
Panic buying in Singapore
Singapore’s declaration of code orange on Friday prompted locals to rush to groceries and hoard vitamins, sanitizers, tissue papers, and instant noodles just hours after the announcement.
Many Singaporeans compared the panic buying to the “zombie apocalypse,” which, according to them, is typical of their “kiasu” culture – a fear of losing out in this highly-competitive country.
The panic buying worried the Singaporean government enough to issue an advisory against it on Friday. “Be responsible and do not hoard items. Panic and over-buying supplies will deprive others who really need these things,” the Singaporean government said.
In a video message on Saturday, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned Singaporeans: “Fear can do more harm than the virus itself. It can make us panic, or do things which make matters worse, like circulating rumours online, hoarding face masks or food, or blaming particular groups for the outbreak.”
Singapore raised Dorscon code orange after a few of the 33 novel coronavirus positive cases in the country have been found to have neither links to previous coronavirus cases nor recent travels to China.
Does code orange mean the Philippines will also regulate travel by Filipinos to and from Singapore, as the Philippines did with mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau? The Philippines recently banned Filipinos from traveling to mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau, while requiring Filipinos coming from these areas to quarantine themselves for 14 days.
Yap said the embassy defers to the Philippine national government on any possible travel ban to and from Singapore.
“However, if our opinion is requested by Manila since we are more aware of the situation here in Singapore, we would suggest that there is no need for a travel advisory at this time. While there is some community spread of the virus, the spread of the virus is still very limited at 33 as of last count, and the well-organized efforts of the Singapore government to contain it, which to me are highly remarkable, should minimize the chances of widespread infection,” Yap said.
Read our full Q and A with the ambassador below:
RAPPLER: How prepared is the embassy to deal with possible coronavirus cases among the Filipinos here in Singapore?
AMBASSADOR YAP: The best preparation we are doing is basically information drive, that is to ensure that the reminders and advisories of both our government and the host country on preventive measures are properly cascaded to all Filipinos in Singapore.
Every day, the Ministry of Health (MOH) of Singapore gives updates on the status of the host government’s efforts to contain the spread of the virus. We are encouraging all our kababayans here in Singapore to do their share by keeping themselves updated and by doing their part to contribute to the overall efforts to stop the spread.
The Embassy issues regular advisories and updates to the Filipino community through its website and facebook page.
RAPPLER: What coordination is the Philippine embassy here making, if any, with the Singaporean government to protect our Filipino workers here, especially domestic helpers?
AMBASSADOR YAP: I share your particular interest in the safety of our domestic workers. But remember that the virus does not discriminate against anybody. so our reminders are directed to all our kababayans here in Singapore.
Before the Ministry of Health convened a meeting with the members of the diplomatic corps last Wednesday, we already made arrangements with them to inform us immediately if any Filipino national is confined for the 201-nCoV infection. I personally met with a Ministry official on 3 February to formally convey our request and get some updates on Singapore’s efforts to contain the spread of the virus and establish lines of communication.
The reminders and guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health of Singapore are applicable to all foreign workers, Filipinos included: observance of good personal hygiene, being socially responsible, monitoring of personal health condition, and now deferment or cancellation of large-scale events.
The Embassy has also coordinated with the MOH to ensure that our front line Filipino medical personnel are properly protected in the performance of their work. We have received the assurance of MOH that all necessary precautions and protocols are in place to protect all medical staff.
Another request we conveyed to the Ministry of Health is to inform us (Philippine Embassy) immediately if any Filipino national has been infected and confined so that our Assistance to Nationals SOP can be activated, which involves coordination with the family of the infected individual and monitoring of his or her health condition.
We will respond according to the needs of the affected individual and in coordination with the host country.
Internally, the Embassy has already organized ourselves. We have established a Task Force that is in charge of the action plans to deal with the problem.
RAPPLER: Is the Philippine government considering a travel ban to and from Singapore given the declaration of code orange? Why or why not?
AMBASSADOR YAP: Every country makes a decision on such a matter on the basis of its national interest. We leave it up to our national government officials to make a decision on this. However, if our opinion is requested by Manila since we are more aware of the situation here in Singapore, we would suggest that there is no need for a travel advisory at this time. While there is some community spread of the virus, the spread of the virus is still very limited at 33 as of last count, and the well-organized efforts of the Singapore government to contain it, which to me are highly remarkable, should minimize the chances of widespread infection. Therefore, the current situation does not require such an advisory at this time.
RAPPLER: What safety tips or perhaps words of assurance can you give our kababayans as Singapore is under code orange?
YAP: My personal appeal to all our kababayans is to stay calm, do not panic but be vigilant. It is likely that the spread of the virus will get worse before it gets better. The Singapore Government and the MOH are on top of the situation. They have a multi-ministry task force that is coordinating the response of Singapore to this virus. They are very well organized and they have the added advantage of having gone through the SARs outbreak.
Let us religiously observe the guidelines of the host government, particularly in relation to the monitoring of our personal health, good personal hygiene and tips on how to avoid getting the virus.
I would like to emphasize that code orange encourages us to cancel or defer large-scale gatherings, avoid crowded places, and adopt heightened measures to prevent infection. Let us all do our share and contribute to the overall efforts of the Singapore government to address the problem
To those who want to know more about the overall picture of the virus spread in Singapore, we encourage you to visit the MOH website: www.moh.og.sg or you can email us (firstname.lastname@example.org) or you call us through our hotline: 9072 2797
Please also read and follow the advisories regularly posted by the Embassy on our Website and Facebook page. – Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at email@example.com.