Story by| Khym Fong, Guest Writer
Photo| Darren Ang, Head of Photography
What’s the Drill?
I have followed the online Yale-NUS College community discussions regarding the COVID-19 situation over the past few weeks, and I have been very comforted by the amount of social responsibility and concern displayed by the members of our community. I applaud the recent measures in providing universal S/U’s (Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory grading system), and I thank the staff, Student Government, and every single person who has cared, contributed, and supported the community in this difficult time. However, I believe that these discussions have still been largely insufficient. This is because our discussions have not contemplated the possibility of an emergency situation. This emergency situation would be one where a member of our community – who would have been walking around, attending classes, eating at the dining hall, passing by crowds that gather around the lifts, and shares a bathroom with up to five other students – is tested positive for COVID-19.
I reiterate: We have a community of around 800 students. We are living in close proximity to one another, and we have a significant population of international students who do not have off-campus support. However, we still do not have a clear plan on what we have to do should a COVID-19 campus case or outbreak occur.
This lack of preparedness is not ideal for two reasons.
First, students will not be sure of an appropriate immediate response. Should everyone stay in their suites until more information is made available, or should people zao straight away? Should we avoid the dining halls instantly? This will no doubt cause significant panic and confusion for many members of the community. Beyond that, people might start doing dangerous things without clear guidance. One needs to look no further than the panic buying that ensued after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared DORSCON Orange. This resulted in a shortage of necessities, along with fears that overcrowding at supermarkets would increase the possibility of virus transmission. To my mind, an analogous scenario is not unlikely, simply because everyone is susceptible to paranoia. For example, we could all be fleeing to University Town in a frenzy to buy Milo and instant noodles in speculation of a potential Yale-NUS lockdown, unknowingly spreading the disease to the greater National University of Singapore.
Furthermore, as foreign universities have been shutting down, any sudden announcement of a case on campus would add significant mental strain to any member contemplating on the future possibilities. In light of this, members of the community need a clear direction, so we can conduct ourselves accordingly if news of a campus case is confirmed.
Secondly, institutional transparency on emergency policies allows members of the community to prepare themselves. This is purely hypothetical, but let me use a worst-case scenario of a College closure. While the Administration has not stated that this is currently an option, it is certainly a possibility based on the closures of foreign universities, as well as the cancellation of all Singaporean University Exchange Programmes. If it is made clear that this is an option the College might pursue, members of the community will have more breathing space to make plans for it.
For example, let’s look at the logistical issues faced by Yale-NUS students who had their Overseas Exchange Programmes cancelled. On March 16, 2020, the Singaporean Government issued an order to cancel all official overseas programs with immediate effect. The resultant panic it caused was immense. There was a scramble to book tickets for increasingly expensive and scarce flights back to home countries. Some members posted calls for accommodation on the Yale-NUS College Community Facebook page, as they were in a hurry to find suitable places for quarantine. These logistical challenges will undoubtedly be there should the College have to pursue a total closure option.
As such, we need institutional transparency. One does not hope that a fire will happen, but drills are still necessary in signalling to us appropriate codes of behavior, and managing personal expectations. A firm plan from the Administration, no matter how upsetting, is better to be addressed in advance while we still have time, than suddenly implemented out of nowhere in response to an emergency.
Finally, I want to end off by acknowledging that outlining an emergency measure is difficult. Some decisive judgement calls have to be made. However, as things grow more serious by the hour, so does the need for institutional clarity. Yale-NUS has a unique demographic that makes our community very susceptible to a potentially traumatic and disruptive emergency scenario. Unlike other universities in Singapore with significant local student populations, we cannot simply tell students to “go home”. More fundamentally, other universities have not placed their students in an environment that, quite literally, is designed to foster “chance meetings” and social gatherings – which is great in most situations, but not ideal for a pandemic.
In conclusion, checking in is always necessary, but we currently need institutional clarity. Without this clarity, I believe that we are merely hoping for the best but not planning for the worst. And as we all know from personal experience, the worst can happen, and it can blow up in your face quickly.
(Note from the Writer: As of this morning (25 March 2020), the Administration has sent out an Advisory recommending International students to return home and complete the semester through eLearning. The Writer would like to applaud the Administration for publishing these recommendations, but insists that a clear emergency plan should still be outlined to the Community. Furthermore, the Writer would also like to criticize the delay in announcing the recommendation. As of this point, most countries are in lockdown and passenger flights are barred or scarce. This should have been made clearer at an earlier date. )
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