Friday 28 June 2013

Break the negative spiral over the haze

By David Chan, Published The Straits Times, 26 Jun 2013

THE haze from forest fires in Indonesia has caused significant problems to everyone in Singapore. Public health concerns in particular are of paramount importance.

If people have prolonged exposure to pollution in very unhealthy or hazardous circumstances without adequate protection, there will be serious health effects. This applies to everyone but especially to vulnerable groups including the elderly, young children, pregnant women, and those who have pre-existing respiratory and heart problems.

Even if you do not belong to any of these vulnerable groups, you are likely to have loved ones who do. So this is personal, and health, even lives, are at stake.

The responses so far from the Government and from the public raise two important questions. Why were there negative public reactions? Can we cope with this evolving crisis, especially if it gets worse?

Public reactions

IN TIMES of crisis, the Government is expected to provide relevant and reliable information in a timely manner, and present it in a way that the public can understand and act on. Public expectation is especially strong in this haze crisis for several reasons.

The situation involves basic well-being issues such as personal safety and health. There were many important unknowns, particularly in the first few hours or days after the pollution level entered into very unhealthy and hazardous ranges.

Many Singaporeans would have asked: What happens when I inhale the polluted air? Is it safe to leave my house to go to work? What is happening to my family who are experiencing physical discomfort caused by the haze?

People's anxiety and fear increased significantly when visibility declined and people experienced a strong smell of the haze and physical discomfort even when they were indoors.

These emotions were magnified as people saw the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reading on their television, computer or cellphone screen rising rapidly, by a huge magnitude, and into the hazardous range.

In these anxious conditions, the public expected the Government to provide information on what was going on, what the effects were, and what protective action to take. To be fair, the Government did respond. But some felt this was not fast enough, or that the responses were not clear, or comprehensive enough. When people's expectations of information and direction were disappointed, negative reactions to the Government resulted.

Human beings find it difficult to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity, and we react to them negatively when the issue is personal or the stakes are high. Studies have shown that negative reaction to an issue will influence reactions to other issues, even if they are logically unrelated to the offending issue.

Negative reactions lead us to doubt or ignore factual information. This may explain the prevalence of comments doubting even the veracity of the Government's PSI readings. We also seek out negative information or interpret information negatively to reinforce our negative perception of the target. Trust in the target's capability, intentions or integrity will get eroded. The distrust will lead to more negative reactions resulting in a negative spiral.

Reversing the spiral

IT IS important to break this spiral.

This requires action from both the Government and people.

On the part of the Government, there is a need for leaders and policymakers to realise that given the severity and uncertainty of the haze situation, the public anxiety and anger are natural, understandable and justified.

The public needs relevant and complete information, accompanied by explanation when it is incomplete. Prompt, accurate and clear public health advisories are paramount.

The information shared and decisions made by the Government affect the well-being of the people. So it is important to effectively address doubts and concerns that the people have. Not doing so will create confusion and distrust. These emotions and states of mind, which are affected by the haze but will also affect how we as a society tackle it, should not be trivialised or dismissed as cynicism and troublemaking.

Unlike the rare cases of intentional spread of falsehood, the public's call for information arises from a genuine need for guidance and is motivated by the need to make informed decisions.

If negative emotions are not adequately addressed, they will hinder crisis management efforts and result in adverse consequences for public health and well-being.

Given the way negativity spreads and its influence, there are also medium and long-term effects. It will adversely affect our confidence in the operational capability of the public service, trust in the Government, and social resilience in Singapore.

The erosion of these fundamentals in our social compact is much more difficult to restore than the economic growth numbers, after the haze clears.

The spiral of negativity can be turned into something more positive.

Many behavioural studies have shown that people feel respected when they are provided accurate and clear information and receive adequate explanations for decisions that affect them.

They reciprocate with respect and trust. They are also more likely to cooperate and engage in pro-social behaviours such as helping others, putting up with inconveniences, complying with regulations, and offering constructive suggestions.

We need these public responses in order to cope effectively with the evolving haze crisis.

People power

IF THE State can do better in terms of empathising with the need for information and direction, and improving its communication, citizens too have a critical role to play in helping each other cope.

The haze is expected to be prolonged due to the dry season and monsoon winds. Its severity will fluctuate and sometimes the prediction will be inaccurate. We need to be physically and psychologically prepared, so that we can continue with our daily activities while protecting our health. It is important to work together to tackle the haze crisis, and we can be cautiously optimistic that we will cope well.

The Government has the primary duty to protect the safety and health of its people. It is expected to anticipate problems and monitor situations. It has to communicate public advisories effectively, which means advisories that are evidence-based, clear and practical. It also needs to adapt to changing circumstances based on facts, evidence, public reactions, and well-informed judgments.

In the workplace, employers and supervisors are expected to ensure the safety and health of employees. They need to make judgment calls, be responsible in their decisions and accountable for their actions. Employees' health and their perception of support from the organisation will influence their job performance and organisational commitment. Thus, ensuring employee health and well-being is also in the business interest of the organisation.

Singaporeans are able and willing to adapt to change. As individuals, we can take care of ourselves and our family by taking appropriate precautions, look out for each other, especially those who are more vulnerable, volunteer our help, and contribute resources to those in need.

We can help communicate accurate and useful information to others in a calm manner.

We can also help by not propagating rumours, and by correcting misinformation. Rumours cause public confusion, hindering timely and effective crisis management. Misinformation leads people to make decisions that are too conservative or risky without them realising so, resulting in behaviours that are maladaptive.

The consequence could be an unnecessary inconvenience; but it could also be an unnecessary depletion of critical resources - public or personal.

The consumed public resources could have been directed to help those in real need. Individuals' consumed personal resources could have been used for their real need, particularly so for individuals and families who could ill afford unnecessary use.

We want the country to keep running - not just to maintain economic growth, but also to maintain essential services and approximate normality for citizen well-being. What is ultimately at stake here is not wealth, but health.

The writer is director of the Behavioural Sciences Institute, Lee Kuan Yew Fellow and Professor of Psychology at the Singapore Management University.

Clearing particles of doubt, seeding facts
The haze has yet to settle but some issues are now clearer: in a crisis, the public hunger for information will have to be addressed to prevent a fog of misinformation setting in.
By Feng Zengkun, The Straits Times, 27 Jun 2013

SINGAPORE'S worst haze seems to have brought out the dark side in some people.

Since the skies darkened last week, wild allegations have been spread about the situation and the Government's handling of it. One claim - spread through text messages and social media - said the authorities would be seeding clouds with chemicals to make rain, resulting in a harmful downpour.

Environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan had said, only two days before that malicious claim went around, that Singapore had eschewed cloud-seeding as it was ineffective, given local weather conditions. He repeated on Tuesday, after hailstones appeared, that Singapore had not done any cloud seeding.

Another falsehood painted an anonymous National Environment Agency (NEA) officer as leaking the "fact" that official air quality indices had been doctored. The Environment Ministry refuted this lie.

An unknown netizen even came up with a screenshot to suggest that the Government had changed a reported index to downplay the haze's seriousness.

The NEA said checks on its web-logs confirmed that the screenshot - which showed the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hitting 393 instead of the official 321 at 10pm last Wednesday - was faked.

These rumours, and others, were all unsubstantiated.

But while these misleading claims were quickly exposed, a larger, more troubling trend has to be addressed by the authorities.

This is the gulf in expectations between the public and the Government, specifically over how much information should be made available about the haze.

Among other things, Singaporeans want more real-time data about the pollution levels, as reflected in online and ground sentiment, and feedback that the Government received. But the authorities do not believe such information is significant or helpful. Both sides have their reasons.

In previous haze episodes, the PSI was averaged from readings taken over 24 hours. The government said this was because medical studies it consulted linked the haze's health effects to prolonged exposure. In 1997, in response to Singaporeans' desire for more current information, the Government introduced the three-hourly PSI, which is derived from readings in the past three hours.

Hourly updates sought

BUT this time round - with the seasonal haze worsening to unprecedented levels last Wednesday - many Singaporeans want even more current, hourly updates on the air quality.

Their reasoning is that with the real-time data, they can make better-informed decisions about, say, whether to go outdoors.

On Tuesday, the Government said it had noted feedback asking for shorter-term air-quality readings, and was looking into whether one-hour data would be "useful and practical" for the people, but pointed out that it was already giving rolling updates on its 24-hour PSI every hour. Dr Balakrishnan had said earlier that getting more real-time information would result in people "chasing their own tails".

"It is important to analyse and interpret the data appropriately. When we make a decision on advisories, we make it on the basis of 24-hour data," he said. "If you make it on the basis of minute to minute readings, and, frankly if you want to, I can give you the raw feed, you will be chasing your tail."

At a press conference last week, Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Grace Fu felt that the three-hour PSI was already distracting from the 24-hour index.

She said the 24-hour measurements "are a better reflection of the total exposure of an individual to the particulate matter. It is important for the public... not to be too overly concerned with the three-hour PSI which may show spikes and drops from time to time".

The Government may be right that real-time data is not medically significant. The Environment Ministry has pointed out, for example, that other places like the United States, Britain and Hong Kong also use 24-hour indices to determine the air pollution's health risks, as advised by their medical experts. Some, though, now release hourly data as well.

But while there may be solid grounds for keeping to just 24-hour and three-hour readings, the reality on the ground is that if the Government does not provide more timely updates and other desired information, the "information void" will be filled by others, including less informed and even mischievous voices.

Such silence would be interpreted as the State being deaf to people's concerns at best; or worse, would be misinterpreted as the State having something to hide. This erodes trust.

Some people have taken their own real-time air quality readings using commercial equipment, and posted them online. These showed much more pollution in the air compared to the official figures, and cast doubt on the Government's integrity.

The NEA clarified that the people who recorded such readings may not have conformed with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards adopted by Singapore.

For example, moisture in the air may affect their readings. The NEA's EPA-benchmarked methods account for it. The agency has also demonstrated its measurement process to the media.

Other Singaporeans have "reverse-engineered" the three-hourly PSI figures to obtain their own hourly updates. These have been widely shared online, although it is not clear if they are valid.

Given the widespread use of social media in Singapore, such amateur readings - whether right or wrong - can disseminate virally via scores of different websites and minds even before the authorities are aware of them. Any misinformation could be impossible to counter effectively.

Boosting confidence

TO PREVENT this, the Government should consider providing the data people want as well as the data it deems more relevant. Instead of withholding information it deems "confusing" or "irrelevant", it could err on the side of giving more, rather than less, information. It can then explain why it favours one set of numbers over others, and list the studies it had consulted to boost confidence in its opinion.

Greater transparency would also allay suspicions that Singapore may be relying on outdated or irrelevant models. For example, some doctors have suggested that the 24-hour data may be more relevant for cities like Hong Kong where the pollution level is more constant. Associate Professor Philip Eng, a senior consultant in respiratory medicine, said the fluctuations here make health risks difficult to assess.

Additional data would also allow other independent experts to help the Government.

Two scientists from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology have already offered to help the authorities analyse data to better understand the behaviour and impact of the haze. Making the data publicly available could encourage others to do the same.

Such crowd-sourced assistance could be invaluable if the haze returns and worsens.

Responding on the fly

TO BE fair, the Government has been quick to respond to public calls for more information. In an unprecedented move last Friday, it began providing rolling hourly updates of the 24-hour PSI based on PM10, that is, particles 10 microns or smaller. It also gave such updates for 24-hour levels of smaller, more toxic particles called PM2.5. In addition, it now provides pollution forecasts, as well as advisories for various groups of people.

This is welcome. But citizens form the other part of the information equation. People should understand that in a crisis, real-time information or advice may be incomplete and has to be updated or it may end up inaccurate.

For example, earlier health advisories said pregnant women should wear face masks outdoors, but these were swiftly expanded to include the caveat that those in the second and third trimesters should not wear them for more than 20 minutes at a time.

If the Environment Ministry does give more current updates, citizens need to take the information in their stride and be prepared for constant updates.

In a fluid weather situation like the haze, which results from forest fires burning hundreds of kilometres away, and where a slight shift in wind around Singapore makes the difference between blue skies and chalky grey, information and advisories will be constantly changed, corrected, refined and updated.

Fair-minded citizens need to understand this, and not fault the authorities.

Besides responding to the call for shorter-term updates, the Environment Ministry this week started to engage directly with some of the misinformation circulating online, via rebuttals on its website.

The Government has added a section on its one-stop information portal to dispel some myths on the haze.

These myth-busters were put up on Monday and swiftly reposted by Singaporeans. Such efforts will have to be kept up, with officials taking the trouble to explain in simple terms what the information being communicated means, and how people should interpret it and respond.

To keep the people's trust and understanding in crisis situations, the best ammunition against misinformation is more information.


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