COMMENT: No need to be a rat in this pandemic

Dhany Osman
·Editor
·7-min read
We're already dealing with a pandemic, let's not have to worry about rats in our midst, too. (PHOTO: Getty Images)
We're already dealing with a pandemic, let's not have to worry about rats in our midst, too. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

It’s been nearly two weeks since Singapore’s “circuit breaker” period began and the snitches are out in force.

Well not literally out of the house, but all over the internet sharing pictures and videos of supposed “Covidiots” not abiding by the ever increasing number of safe distancing regulations. It’s truly the Year of the Rat, it seems.

Whoever said the COVID-19 pandemic would bring people together must have forgotten to take into account the army of netizens hungry to turn on their compatriots and foreigners over the smallest of infringements.

And I do mean small. On one particular Facebook group – SG Covidiots – no alleged rule-breaking is too minor to be posted about.

From pictures of people sitting alone or practising tai chi in small groups, to videos of customers queueing for food or exercising, posters in this group are quick to call out wrongdoers.

But they don’t just stop there.

As with any mob worth its salt, posts are often accompanied by petty, derisive comments accusing the offenders of being “Covidiots” or endangering others’ lives and calling for the authorities to take action – or worse, have them beaten with sticks like what the police in India supposedly have done to those who defy the country’s lockdown.

An excuse to bully

Two videos that I’ve seen circulating over social media are particularly troubling. In one, an angry netizen follows an Indian couple across the street while persistently haranguing the male partner to put on his face mask.

Judging from the verbal exchange in the video, it seems like the couple – who are dressed in exercise attire – had been out at a park and that the man had taken off his mask at some point. This incensed the netizen to repeatedly yell at the man who then turned around to demand a stop to the “torturing”.

Could it be that the man being filmed was out of breath after some exercise? We can imagine how uncomfortable it would be to do anything strenuous and wear a mask thereafter. Was the man going around coughing on people or walking in a large crowd? Not from what I saw in the video.

Even worse were the commenters who responded to this video, many of whom called the man “foreign talent” or “CECA” – which is virtually a racial slur today – and some even asked for him to be sent back to his home country. Is it surprising that this kind of xenophobia surfaces among people who treat all “Covidiots” with immediate scorn and hostility?

Another video that left me incensed was one of a netizen approaching a man – also Indian – who was walking alone without a mask and condescendingly scolding him into putting on his mask. In the most patronising of voices, the netizen can be heard asking the man “Are you educated?” and threatening to fine the man $300.

If these netizens were so offended by such actions, why not just approach the persons who had triggered their ire with civility? Surely the level of aggression was not needed for people who were not directly threatening anyone else.

If you witness allegedly unlawful behaviour, why not just report the incident to the authorities and leave it at that? What does one gain from shaming others over petty offences?

Instead of justice being done, all I see is online bullying; people ganging up to mock others with no empathy for their victims who, by and large, are just minding their own business.

Sometimes home isn’t a safe place

It is worth mentioning that not everyone in Singapore has a safe, comfortable home in which to ride out the pandemic.

Just think about large families living in small, or even shared, flats; the elderly living alone who rely on the company of their neighbours and friends; residents living in unstable homes, where close proximity could lead to violence – the list goes on.

While these challenging circumstances do not justify the actions of rule breakers, they could be the reasons why some people do not want to stay home despite the risks of running afoul of the law.

Take for instance this elderly man I spotted sneaking a meal while seated behind some push carts outside an NTUC FairPrice outlet. I don’t see any joy he could possibly have derived from having to eat such a manner; he seemed almost ashamed.

Going by the used food packets hung around him, I would guess he did not have much of a choice about his situation, or had enough push factors to drive him to eat outside his home – if he even has one.

The same goes for the people I saw hanging around in a public seating area near the supermarket. None of them appeared to be outdoors for the sake of having fun; it was more like they were looking to enjoy the cool night air.

I gave them a wide berth and moved on – it was none of my business.

Let’s not encourage vigilantism

I’m no psychologist but I can hazard a guess as to why people rat on each other in tough times.

The first explanation is that people will look for ways to exercise control over chaotic situations. This is an understandable response – probably some kind of hardwired survival instinct – but it does us no good to turn on each other amid turbulence.

As a friend of mine described the spate of online vigilantism, “If this country goes to war, we will all die before the enemy reaches our shores.”

Another reason is that, even in the midst of a global pandemic, people still vie for social standing by demonstrating how much one “cares” for an issue through attacking what they perceive to be a common enemy. This is outrage culture in a time of crisis.

Let me be clear about these online vigilantes: you are not heroes. Those are the healthcare workers, delivery riders and the other frontline and even backend workers helping us to live as normal a life as possible in these trying times.

You are rats sowing discord within our society at a time when we need unity more than anything else. You are the children of a nanny state system, running to the authorities at each instance a problem arises.

I am equally wary that people can now report instances of safe distancing infringements through a public app. According to Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu, the new feature of the OneService app had received about 700 reports per day within the first two days of its launch.

Well intentioned as this service may be, I can’t help but think it will only encourage more online vigilantism.

Acting like a snitch only promotes distrust within our society and hurts our sense of community – something that will become increasingly important as the pandemic stretches on.

How much worse will life be when we have to not only worry about catching the coronavirus but also have to live in fear of the prying eyes of people around us?

These are tense times and the best we can do is to act responsibly in caring for ourselves and others.

The solution to our problems and challenges in a world dislocated by a pandemic doesn’t lie in being rats and making sure all rule-breakers get punished. It lies in being more human, which means treating people with dignity, trying to understand why people act they way they do, and then taking civil steps to mitigate bad behaviour.

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