Fake news, Fear Mongering and Panic buying: How Asia is dealing with COVID-19

Action to contain the coronavirus in Asia and the resulting social issues have drawn both praise and criticism worldwide. Asia Thinkers interview journalists and bloggers covering the impact on China, Hong Kong and Singapore.

By mid-February 2020, China had reported 75,000 cases and 2000 deaths caused by the coronavirus. The number of deaths has exceeded that of the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak which killed 774 people and is continuing to rise. Many businesses Asia-wide will remain closed with employees asked to work from home and travel within Asia has come to a standstill. Public criticism has been levelled that China and Hong Kong failed to take action soon enough and other Asian countries did not implement sufficient travel controls and screening to prevent the spread of the virus. The Singaporean Government has been praised on the action taken especially in its approach to communicating with the public and reducing panic. Rumours and conspiracy theories fuelled by social media have been notable in the region, often spurring panic buying and creating confusion over how the public should protect themselves from the outbreak.

Other social issues arising from the virus have also received negative comments. Hygiene standards in Wuhan’s Wildlife Market have been criticized, as have the PRC public hygiene standards which has contributed to the spread of the disease. Panic buying in HK and Singapore of sanitary products and facemasks has raised the question ‘should Governments do more to control panic the purchase of essential items’ The spread of fake news regarding the virus which has led to general panic has raised questions on how effective has Asian government communication and enforcement against fake news been.

Asia Thinkers recently interviewed a Hong Kong-based journalist about the impact of coronavirus  in Hong Kong and PRC:

China has been praised by the World Health Organization for its action in containing the virus which, as of mid-February, is estimated to affect 74,000 people in 25 countries. Do you think the Chinese government reacted quick enough to the reports that the virus had been detected? 

In 2003, China was heavily criticized for withholding information about SARS, and many people are of the similar opinion that just like nearly two decades ago, China has not been completely transparent about the current Coronavirus outbreak. No doubt quarantining an entire city has helped to limit the reach of the virus, however, reports are emerging that suggest that Chinese authorities delayed reporting on the outbreak, downplaying the severity of the situation and even stopping medical efforts to inform the public in the early stages of discovery. Many people believe these actions may have postponed a global response and enabled the virus to thrive.

Bloggers based in Wuhan have openly criticised the local government for covering up and not providing a true picture of the extent of the virus and their ability to contain and provide adequate medical care. Would you say that the bloggers’ views reflect the opinion of PRC and HK netizens? 

Bloggers in Wuhan are essentially ‘on the ground’ and experiencing first-hand the consequences that local government actions have had. It has been suggested that the first known coronavirus infection in Wuhan presented symptoms at the start of December 2019 when government officials should have acted accordingly. Those who were attempting to call attention to the public health threat were essentially ‘gagged’ and I’m sure that there are people all over China and Hong Kong, not just active bloggers who felt anger towards the government and ultimately, are having to live with these government decisions and actions or lack thereof. WHO was informed of the virus on December 31st, but officials kept its citizens unaware of the outbreak. People are scared, angry and quite within their rights to express their criticism of the government’s failure to respond to the outbreak transparently.

Bloggers have commented that the hygiene at Wuhan Wet Market and the hygiene habits of PRC citizens have contributed to the spread of the virus, including spitting in the street and urinating in public places. Do you feel that this criticism is justified and may also apply to HK?

Mainlander hygiene standards will always be a point of contention amongst HK people. In the past, Hong Kong has offered mainland lessons in improving toilet sanitary standards and often spitting, public urination and such have been met with angry head shakes and harsh words. While Hong Kongers are by no means ‘gold standard’ in the hygiene department, in light of the recent outbreak, we are almost taking hygiene to the extreme to stop the spread of infection. While there are older generations who still see no issue in clearing their throats in the middle of the street, the selling out of cleaning products, hand sanitizer and personal hygiene items is a clear indication that HK people are extremely concerned about their hygiene habits and public standards.

Hong Kong has reported in February 57 cases and two deaths with HK government receiving public criticism that it did not react quickly enough and implement sufficient measures to contain the virus. Compulsory quarantine for those arriving from the Mainland and the closure of 11 of the 13 border crossings did not take place until February. Carrie Lam has been accused of putting the interests of China before those of the HK people. What is the public’s view of the HKG handling of the Virus?

Before COVID-19, tensions in Hong Kong were at an all-time high during the protests. Carrie Lam has been severely scrutinised in her actions (or lack thereof) in diffusing the political conflict, so it comes as no surprise that many Hong Kongers remain resentful and frustrated with her decisions. Lam argued that it would be mostly Hong Kongers who commute that would suffer from closing the border, however, experts have disputed this and put forward that Lam’s decision was political, not based on necessity or in the public interest. There is now only one land crossing to each of the major neighbouring cities, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge to Zhuhai and Macau, and the Shenzhen Bay Port to Shenzhen, however people feel that all land crossings should have been closed sooner. Many citizens also feel that the Government has not provided information and guidance on how to handle the virus or enough reassurance for their safety. Key issues such as outrageous panic buying and product shortages have not been addressed or managed in a way that has reassured the HK people that Government is in control of the situation.

Carrie Lam announced that HK only had enough face masks to last a month and asked for public support. Does this signal that HK was underprepared to handle the virus and had not learnt its lessons from SARS which caused 300 Hong Kong deaths?

Those who lived through SARS remember the fear and economic standstill all too well. Fears remain surrounding the government’s lack of action and consequently that Hong Kong could again suffer badly. There has already been an obvious impact and major disruptions to manufacturing, supply chains, retail sales, international travel and education. The threat of another pathogen and pandemic is always lurking, although we are unable to say when it may hit. Hong Kong had learnt lessons from SARS and I believe we were ready and equipped to handle COVID-19, but a lack of clear direction and action from HKG leaders and lack of support from many public sectors such as medical staff has meant delays in the government having a clear focused response once the virus reached HK. The result has been a continued lack of public confidence in the government’s handling of the outbreak.

A strike by hospital workers and criticism over Carrie Lam’s handling of the epidemic by industry and business leaders has done little to build the public’s confidence in the HK Government. Are their indications that protest action supporting democracy will restart once the virus is contained?

It is thought that the coronavirus outbreak has only heightened Hong Kong’s hostility towards Beijing and although the number of active protesters in the streets are lower, resentment is still growing. Hong Kong citizens feel that in facing yet another crisis, they are unable to rely on a supportive government. At this time, it is perceived that the local government cannot even guarantee the availability of basic supplies such as rice and toilet paper, only adding fuel to an ever-growing fire. In my view, the protest action will recommence once the public feels that the virus has been contained. The situation regarding the PRC /HK relationship remains unresolved.

As a result of an outbreak, panic buying and hoarding occurring in HK many items such a sanitary products, face masks, tissues, toilet rolls and cleaning items have been unavailable from supermarkets with long queues waiting for these items to be restocked. In a sudden escalation armed robbers who stole hundreds of toilet rolls were being hunted by Hong Kong police in a city facing shortages caused by coronavirus panic-buying.

Why did the HK public start panic buying essential products? Has the situation got any better and what has the HKG done to stabilise the situation and reassure the public?

Rumours of factories in China being converted into surgical mask production centres sent Hong Kong people into panic over toilet rolls and other necessities. Although deemed untrue, the government’s announcement of a 14-day quarantine on anyone entering from mainland China, sparked concerns that supplies would also be held up. Supermarket shelves are sparse of all cleaning products, specifically toilet rolls, to the extent where I’ve heard stories from friends carrying toilet rolls home being confronted by people demanding where they bought it from, and even attempting to take the rolls by force.

People are arguing in the streets over their place in the queue to buy bleach and household cleaning products, and friends living on outlying Islands are being asked to haul rice over on the ferry. There has been no obvious reassurance from the government that supplies are plentiful or attempts to stabilise the situation leaving people scared of shortages. It almost can be said that panic-buying is instilling more anxiety in people than the coronavirus as the public is in a constant state of wondering when they will be able to buy toilet roll or sanitary products, starting a vicious and seemingly never-ending cycle of mass buying. Some supermarkets have even limited trolley access to control how many products people are buying at once, but there is no obvious policing or government intervention over just how many of each product you can buy for yourself.

It has been reported that much of the fear generated by the virus amongst the public and subsequent anti-China feeling has been through the spreading of fake news on Facebook and WhatsApp raising questions on how effective has been Governments public communication regarding the virus and management of fake news. Has HKG been effective in getting information regarding the virus to the public and calming panic as well as preventing the spread of fake news?

Statements are sparse, and from what I have observed, there is no planned communication. The public receives an occasional text message from the Department of Health with updates quarantine policies, unlike during the protests when people were issued with text updates from the police as to what was happening and where to avoid. Concerning COVID-19, the HKG communication to reassure people and prevent the spreading of fake news has been spasmodic and largely ineffective, it feels like radio silence. The government’s attempts to limit the spreading of fake news has been limited to public announcements not to spread fake news on amongst other things, the number of deaths reported in HK and how the disease is spread. HK has yet to enact specific legislation against the spreading of fake news.

Asia Thinkers recently interviewed a Singapore-based blogger and journalist about the impact of coronavirus in Singapore:

With Singapore’s proximity and close ties to China, it is uniquely exposed to COVID-19. In February it recorded 98 cases with no deaths. The Singaporean Government has been receiving worldwide praise in its handling of the virus and reducing panic.

Photo Courtesy of Straits Times

What is the public’s view of the Singaporean Government’s handling of the Virus?

Before the detection of the first case in Singapore, the Singaporean Government declared they were preparing its response to COVID-19. Given the close ties with China, we all felt vulnerable but were reassured by the Government’s proactive response which was one of the first to monitor its borders. After the first case was confirmed, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave a speech which was appreciated by the public for its honesty and transparency. He laid out steps residents can take to prevent the spread of the virus, like exercising good hygiene, while assuring them that the city had enough supplies of essential goods. Many Singaporeans I have spoken with felt reassured by the Governments response and openness to discuss the issue.

As a result of an outbreak, panic buying and hoarding occurring in HK many items such as sanitary products face masks, tissues, toilet rolls and cleaning items have been unavailable from supermarkets with long queues waiting for these items to be restocked. In Singapore, a similar situation occurred with many items such as sanitary products and noodles. Why did the Singaporean public start panic buying essential products?

In my view, this is human nature. People were concerned how long the virus would last and this fear sparked panic buying and hoarding. What was interesting that as soon as the public received assurance from the government about handling of the situation and assuring them that the city had enough supplies of goods, the panic buying stopped.

It has been reported that that much of the fear generated by the virus amongst the public and subsequent anti-China feeling has been through the spreading of fake news on Facebook and WhatsApp, raising questions on how effective Governments public communication regarding the virus and management of fake news has been.

Has Singapore been effective in getting information regarding the virus to the public and calming panic as well as preventing the spread of fake news?

The Singapore Governments proactive approach to managing the pandemic and its transparency starting with the Prime Ministers speech and moreover reassuring Singaporeans that the virus didn’t appear as deadly as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003, meaning that most people would likely experience a minor illness. He also said the government would change its approach if the virus became widespread to avoid overwhelming hospitals, adding he would keep them “informed every step of the way.”

Photo courtesy of Bloomberg

The speech, posted on social media in three languages, appeared to have an immediate impact. But also it is clear that the Government has taken the view that when you have an outbreak like this, it is not just a public health challenge. Singaporean Government has declared communication with the public an important part of its effort in containing the virus spread. It has also been reported that the government has been working with the press, updating the Ministry of Health’s website and distributing updates about the coronavirus via WhatsApp. The government has also taken immediate action against those believed to be spreading inaccurate or fake news under the Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act (POFMA) for bogus claims about the coronavirus crisis. To date, the law has been used to deal with four cases of falsehoods related to the outbreak of the coronavirus disease. The feedback I have receiving from the Singapore public is that they support the strong action by the government and pleased that Singapore is showing the world that with a proactive well-managed response the virus impact may be contained.

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