Undoubtedly, the original hero of the Covid-19 pandemic was Dr Li Wenliang, the late whistleblower ophthalmologist who first warned health authorities in Wuhan of the virus last December. While Beijing has got the situation in the Hubei province and other parts of China under control since then, other countries grappling with the virus have produced their own heroes. One in particular is playing a pivotal role in a country facing an election on Nov 3 the results of which will have repercussions around the world.
Three country public health experts are now in the international limelight besides the WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. I have to discount our Dr Kenneth Mak, the Director of Medical Services, Singapore’s Health Ministry, as he seems to be just providing technical information in the briefings led by the two coordinating chairpersons Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and Education Minister Lawrence Wong.
Dr Mak is nothing like Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, Malaysia’s Health Director-General. For most evenings the past few months, anxious Malaysians have been tuning in from all over the nation to watch the live telecast of the Covid-19 briefing, delivered by Dr Noor Hisham. He would calmly detail the latest developments, switching effortlessly between English and Bahasa. He is the country’s public face in Malaysia’s fight to contain the virus.
And he does not stop there. He tweets earnestly: “We need unity to fight this and not against each other. Our frontliners have been enduring the ground for the past 10 months 24/7. Mental and physical fatique setting in. Some are prepared to throw in the towel. Please learn from Sabah.” Malaysia is experiencing a spike now because of, among other things, the Sabah state elections.
Dr Noor Hisham’s equivalent in New Zealand would be Dr Ashley Bloomfield, its much-lauded health director who would be at every briefing with Prime MInister Jacinda Ardern. He won the hearts and minds of Kiwis for his cool, calm leadership during the lockdown.
Quietly spoken and impeccably prepared, the Guardian reported, Bloomfield impressed with his depth of knowledge and quick recall of statistics and unflappable demeanour: “He has become a fixture in popular culture, and his face has been printed on teaspoons, towels and even the occasional person.”
But beneath his calm exterior Bloomfield has revealed there was a more vulnerable side during the height of the crisis. Bloomfield’s admission came as part of a TVNZ interview recorded during mental health awareness week in New Zealand.
“I had many mornings where, especially early in the pandemic, I would get up and think ‘gosh can I really do this?’” Bloomfield told TVNZ.
During the first week of lockdown when Bloomfield was given a Saturday away from work, one news website ran a prominent story: “Ashley Bloomfield is finally having a day off”. Corin Dann, host of RNZ’s Morning Report, added: “I think the whole country would say this is well-earned.”
New Zealand’s swift response to the pandemic has been lauded around the world, with the country experiencing fewer than 2,000 infections, and 25 deaths as on Oct 23.
And there is the US’ unflappable Dr Stephen Fauci. TIME magazine asked Jimmy Kimmel to write his endorsement of Dr Fauci, cited as one of the top 100 most influential persons of 2020. The talk show host wrote:
“As director of the (US) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr Fauci has advised six presidents over 36 years. When COVID-19 reared its ugly head, he was among the first to step forward with facts and only facts.
“Dr Fauci doesn’t sugarcoat his words and refuses to be pressured by politicians. He delivers the truth, as difficult as it may be to hear, earnestly and with one goal: to save lives. His courage and candour have earned our trust. We are all fortunate to have a man of his wisdom, experience and integrity to help us navigate these difficult waters.”
Difficult waters does not quite describe the situation.
The US is sleepwalking into what could become the largest coronavirus outbreak of the pandemic so far. In the past week alone, as voters prepare to go to the ballot box on Nov 3 for the Presidential Election, about one in every 1,000 Americans has tested positive for the virus, and about two in every 100,000 Americans have died of it. In total, there have been 8,747,000 cases, with 224,000 deaths, with a third wave of infections looming on the horizon.
With the incumbent president Donald Trump not inclined to do anything substantial, believing the virus will just “go away”, Dr Fauci’s job is really cut out for him. How will he get more of his countrymen to realise how serious the virus is during a time when, as he himself said, a “building distrust” in public health agencies is “the elephant in the room”.
He said he will continue to tell the truth.
“The issue that people say you don’t want to alarm people is totally nonsense,” Fauci said.
“In anything we’ve ever done in our history, you know from world wars to depressions to anthrax attacks, now to an outbreak like this, the thing that gets people spooked is when they don’t know what’s going on, not when you tell them what’s going on,” he said, even if it could cost you your job.
The truth may hurt but lies or lack of transparency can cause more harm.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.