Break the negative spiral over the haze

Break the negative spiral over the haze

SINGAPORE - 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.

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