Managing Uncertainty in a Pandemic: the Singapore experience

by on Wednesday, 30 December 2009 Comments

Singapore’s communication strategy on the Pandemic A/H1N1 has been quite country and culture-specific. Singapore’s response system, the DORSCON (Disease Outbreak Response System), evaluated pandemic severity using a classification distinct from that of the WHO, integrating the parameters of transmissibility and virulence of a disease.

Singapore’s communication strategy was also remarkable for its directive style. In the words of Dr MENON, “soft warnings and reassurances do not work”, whilst “fear can be a constructive emotion.” Thus rather directive measures, in place of incentive ones, were communicated to the public – Home Quarantine Orders for travellers returning from Mexico and voluntary quarantine for those returning from other affected areas, travel restrictions through “strong” advise to postpone or avoid non-essential travel – travellers which had stayed at the Metropark Hotel Wanchai, in Honk-Kong, were requested to call the hotline of the Ministry of Health, deployment of thermal scanning in air, sea and land checkpoints.

Such measures, which were well accepted by the Singaporean population, could have been difficult to implement in a number of other countries. The position of the Singaporean government, which is endorsed by its population, is that “it is better to err on the side of over-reaction that under-reaction.”

Dr MENON’s presentation also illustrated the difficulties that may arise from the articulation of local and global governance levels. For instance, it would seem that Singapore, despite its independent system for evaluating the severity of the pandemic, dovetailed the progressive step-up of WHO phases, only to reverse this progression and retrograde shortly after, when it appeared that the disease was less serious than expected. This “evident confusion in the responses of Government Ministries and organisations having to amend processes mid-stream” was caused by the perceived “loophole in WHO’s pandemic alert system”, or more generally by the friction that can arise between global (WHO) and local standards.

The importance of local/national specificities in elaborating an adequate communication strategy does not preclude however the existence of a global framework actively shaping it. Dr MENON underlined that the specific content of Singapore’s management of the Pandemic A/H1N1 outbreak took place under the umbrella of the WHO. Information between both levels circulated, and was either adapted at the local/national level from the global one, or compatible with it. Specific communication styles did not send contradictory signals.

(Summarized by E. Broughton)
Download here Dr. Menon’s PPT

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K.U. Menon

Dr K. U. Menon is Senior Consultant at the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA). For over a decade, until October 2009, he headed the National Resilience Division responsible for Emergency Planning, coordinating information flow during civil and national emergencies and nation-building programmes. 
He began his career in the Singapore Civil Service with the Ministry of Defence in 1978. Prior to his deployment to the Ministry of Information, Communications & the Arts (MICA), he was a Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) for 5 years.

He has a degree in Social Anthropology from Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand and did his postgraduate work in Political Science at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. He has published widely in political science journals/monographs in the 1990s, and more recently in the Journal of Communications Management (London) and Annals of the Academy of Medicine (Singapore) on Public Health/Risk Communications, touching on the pandemic threat posed by SARS & Avian Flu (H5N1).

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