DOS Update #6 - What’s in a name?

2 February 2020

Updates on GQF

Latest at 11 a.m.:

Three students at NUS have just been served quarantine orders and will be placed in the Government Quarantine Facility (GQF).

All three are well and have no symptoms.

Two students had earlier returned from Hubei. They have been on LOA since their return to Singapore on 23 January and 26 January 2020. Their quarantine will end on 7 February and 10 February 2020.

The third student has just returned to Singapore today and will serve his quarantine until 15 February 2020.

A quick peek inside the GQF apartment that they will be staying in.

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GQF rooms set up ready with:
1. Cleaning equipment for personal hygiene

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2. Welfare Pack

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3. Wifi ready

Dear Students: 

I’ve thought about what I was to call the virus for a while. In my first UPDATE, I had called it 2019-nCoV coronavirus. In the second, this was changed to the “Wuhan virus”. The next day, I reverted to my original to which I have stuck ever since.

Names have power. 

Why is the American Financial Crisis the “subprime mortgage crisis” but the Asian Financial Crisis remains Asian?

One reply is that common usage creates a convention but at the start, there is no settled name so it is fluid. There is also the argument that it “doesn’t matter”, like driving on the right or left side of the road – just decide, and everyone does it.

For now, I prefer to use the term 2019-nCoV for the following reasons:

First, viruses ought to carry no geographical baggage, especially since the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared it a global health emergency.

Second, this name - at the moment - presents no impediment against communication. Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize physicist, mastered Calculus as a teenager and had used his own mathematical symbols while working on problems. Eventually, he bent to convention and used the usual symbols in order to talk to the larger community of mathematicians and scientists. 

2019-nCoV is what the WHO calls it, and being a public health crisis, this might be the convention to follow for now.

There is one last reason which is difficult to capture in a short answer. So, here’s a long one, in the form of an email exchange with a student.

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Dear Prof Leong

I am a student in NUS having some lessons in UTown. My friends and I still see many China students who are around the campus. This afternoon we sat beside a group of students who were chatting very loudly and two of them in the group were coughing away loudly openly with no masks on and not even using their hand to cover their mouths.

I understand that the university has emphasised that a breach in the rules of self-quarantine can result in penalty. But how can the university ensure that the students who are around on campus did not just arrive back from China recently, given it is the CNY period? There are too many on campus to believe that all of them did not just come back from China. 

What other measures is the university doing to ensure students comply with the quarantine? Is there a way for the university to track down the recent travel history for these students? 

All the coronavirus cases in Singapore currently recorded are all from China and there is already incidence of human-to-human spread in other countries. 

It is not likely for students to follow the quarantine orders, and them still being allowed to freely roam among the campus is the perfect environment to cause a mass outbreak, given the observed infectivity of the virus.

I sincerely worry for the safety and health of my friends, lecturers and workers in NUS and I hope more can be done to ensure the students that truly have to be in quarantine are not allowed to roam free on campus, as part of a truly robust containment measure against the virus. Just relying on self-quarantine is not enough.

Yours sincerely

M
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Dear M:

Thank you for writing to us:

1. Nationality 

I’ve just returned from delivering dinner to students on LOA. Some of them are Chinese but there are also others from countries such as Australia and Canada. As you know, the virus is no respecter of nationality and can be spread by people from all over the world.

2. Incentives 

NUS has indeed put in place a very strict regime against students breaking LOA- you may have read this in my DOS Update #2

From these measures, you will see that we rely not just on students doing the right thing, but also to behave in a way that maximises one’s self-interest. One who flouts the LOA must weigh the risks of immediate suspension against the relatively minor inconvenience of social isolation for 14 days. 

3. E-learning 

As Dean of Students, I owe you a duty of care. Having said all of the above, I understand your distress; if you have grave reservations going to class, you can speak with your lecturers about online learning. You will see from my update 4 that there are many such avenues. I trust my colleagues will not be unsympathetic. 

If you need more information, Assistant Dean Associate Prof Eldin Lim will be able to send you more details about the University’s regime in combating the current public health challenge as well as address your concerns in greater detail. 

Wishing you the very best in the semester ahead.

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Dear Prof Leong

Thank you for your reply. 

I appreciate my fellow students who have the integrity and responsibility to self-quarantine when they've recently been to the affected area. The fact is the penalty of immediate suspension can only be dished out if the student is found out not to have self-quarantined when they are supposed to. How then are we to know the students roaming around did not just return from the epicenter of infection in China?

I understand that us students are required to declare our travel history on Luminus. The fact is, the self-declaration and quarantine measure relies on integrity, and we cannot trust the affected students to self-quarantine.

Is there any other robust measure that the university can take to verify their travel history? I can only think that a check of the students' passports or a check with the ICA will be the only objective foolproof method. The disease is no respecter of nationality, but we should stop it at its origin. 

Thank you.  

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Dear M:

You raise important points. I agree with your “origin” argument and I want to address the issue of checking passports squarely - thinking probabilistically, we do take extra care with returnees from China and Hubei. We classify according to travel history, not nationality. If we do not rely on self-declarations, we therefore ought to check everyone’s passport. 

NUS is a community but we are not a closed community - students travel outside to all parts of Singapore, mixing with people of nationalities. 

This is both the purpose and risk of community living.

We take reasonable care to control infection, set high disincentives and punish wrongdoers, but NUS cannot, nor would we want to, provide a zero-risk architecture.

I know that’s not what you are asking for - our difference in opinion is I think, one of degree. We both agree that there should be limits on private action and that the University should take care to protect students. 

You think, at the current risk levels, more should be done, including the hard checking of passports. I certainly think more can be done if the situation escalates severely, including moving completely to online learning. Even at current levels, we do check passports if there is a whistle-blowing case. 

I do not think that any risk level will see us checking the passports of everyone at NUS. 

Again, I understand your concerns about public health. If you feel you do not want to come to class, please identify yourself to Assistant Dean A/P Eldin Lim and he will assist you. 

I hope I have addressed your concerns. Additionally, I myself have learned a lot in thinking about and writing out this response. 

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Dear Prof Leong

Thank you for your response.

For a robust containment measure we need those who are supposed to be quarantined to stay in quarantine, and we need an objective indicator of travel history instead of a self-declaration. There is no time for political correctness when there are lives at stake. 

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Dear M:

Thank you for permission to release a redacted version of our exchange.

I have no time for political correctness even under usual circumstances. But when lives are at stake, we need all forms of correctness – medical, technical as well as moral. This includes being clear-eyed about probabilistic logic and bias.

It is therefore not political, but moral correctness which directs me to reply that NUS must respond in a way that allows us to treat every student with the same gaze – we make no determinations by the colour of passports, but by the injunction to treat everyone equally.

In my first reply to you, I said that as Dean of Students, I owe you a duty of care. I owe the same duty to all students – and hence, as Immanuel Kant would say, the duty never to treat any student merely as a means to an end, but always and at the same time, as an end in himself.

Yours sincerely,

Leong Ching
NUS Dean of Students

DOS Update #6 in Chinese translation available here and in .pdf.

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#QOTD – Questions of the Day

 

Question: “As far as I know, there are many cases of Chinese students who have celebrated CNY with their parents visiting from mainland China. Although the students did not go overseas, they had contact with Chinese travelers. Can these students who did not travel to mainland China still apply for LOA?” 

Answer: No, you do not need to apply for LOA, the risk of infection from transient contact is assessed to be low. You are to exercise additional caution and pay attention to personal hygiene.

Question: “I cannot submit the online Travel Declaration Form without inbound information. I went to China last December but haven't decided when to return to Singapore. Would the system be fixed or it is ok to register my information only when inbound flight is arranged? Would this be considered an offence?

Answer: The Travel Declaration System Version 3 was launched on 1 February 2020. New functions are ‘Travel History’ and support of ‘Single Trip’ declaration. It is mandatory to submit the form. A ‘Nil’ submission is required for students who do not have any travel plans between January and March 2020. Access the form here.

Question: “I am a student in NUS, because of the 2019-nCoV situation, I am required to be on LOA when I return from China. I rent a house outside the school with several roommates, even if I don’t have any symptoms, considering their safety, I also need a single room. I noticed that there are Government Quarantine Facilities, can I apply for these?”

Answer: You can make a request to the Office of Housing Services (OHS) by writing to ceu@nus.edu.sg to request for housing during your LOA period. However, rental rates apply and due to limited units, this is subject to availability.  

Note that this will not be under Government Quarantine Facilities (GQF). GQF is for people under Quarantine Orders.

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Read More: 


DOS Update #7 -- "Everyone is scared, but it’s part of our job.” (3 February 2020)
DOS Update #8 -- Noisy Fans and Fishy Water: Life on the Inside (4 February 2020)
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Archive:

DOS Update #1 (28 January 2020)
DOS Update #2 -- The Proximity of Noses (29 January 2020)
DOS Update #3 -- Black cats, white cats and the placebo effect (30 January 2020)
DOS Update #4 -- A Thousands Words (31 January 2020)
DOS Update #5 -- Food, Buses and the Virtual Company of Friends (1 February 2020)
DOS Update #6 -- What's in a name? (2 February 2020)