Bugbears over masks, profits and PSI

SINGAPORE - Heartlanders were, almost inevitably, up in arms last week about the haze. Inevitably because it was visible, noxious and affecting everyone.

Feelings on the ground ranged from helplessness to resignation, anger and mockery, as I trudged through coffee shops and void decks - with a mask obscuring half my face.

Despatch rider Zainuddin Mohd says that he is resigned to working in the half gloom and acrid air. He says it is tough having to work in these hazy conditions, and was taking a break at a coffee shop in Tampines on Thursday afternoon when the Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) had soared to a record 401.

Nonchalantly, he removes his mask, lights up a cigarette and takes a puff.

Irony aside, most of the 45 heartlanders approached bombarded this Heartland Auntie with question after question. Many are clueless about how the PSI is collated.

"Eh, you are a reporter? How come the PSI index does not reflect the actual condition we see?" asks one woman in a group of five seated at a void deck.

It was a common enough question floating around the heartlands and on Saturday morning, the National Environment Agency held a briefing, addressing concerns about the PSI readings.

The other major bugbear last week? The perceived shortage of masks and the alleged profiteering in some quarters.

Madam Sng Siew Li, 58, a housewife, admits she "went around the neighbourhood" in Bedok in search of air purifiers and face masks.

She shares how she finally bought one, only to return home to a chiding from her son. Madam Sng says: "He says I got conned and that I could have got one at half the price. "These people are so bad, how can they try to profit from us?"

Vegetable seller Goh Ping Tee, 55, is more upset that he hasn't been able to get his hands on N95 masks.

The good news is that the Government is giving out a million N95 masks free to lower income households and started the distribution on Saturday.

Mrs Yolanda Zheng, 33, a clerk, applauds the move. She thinks people have been panic buying. "I admit that I am kiasu, but if we all react this way, we are helping to push up the demand and of course, the prices."

It is happening even across the Causeway.

Sales assistants at the pharmacies, supermarkets and department stores told this corespondent on Saturday that Singaporeans have been sweeping their shelves clear of masks, eye drops and air purifiers.

Says Mr Faris at the Watson's store in Bukit Indah on Saturday: "Group after group come here and ask for the same things. We replenish the stocks and they are gone in minutes."

I think many of us are guilty of that panic buying. I am sure some have bought more masks than we need, and have bought in bulk, no less.

Many of us will offer excuses that we are buying for the young and old in the family. And as the PSI continues to climb, we just cannot help fretting over the health of our loved ones. Sure. But is there really any reason to buy hundreds for a family of four?

If there is one thing to take away from this episode, it is how the environment really affects us all.

I agree with the concept that life should go on. The haze season has been with us all the way back from the early 70s.

Yes, this spate has been exceptionally bad.

Yes, we need to all be sensible about what precautions to take. But living like hermits is no solution either.

Hawkers like yong tau foo seller Richard Lim, 57, have still been plying their trade, but his takings have dipped 40 per cent.

Should they bear the financial brunt of the haze? It seems somewhat unfair.

It sounds trite, but I say, let's band together. Let's get through it together. While the environment officers try to work out some kind of solution, I think we could all take a leaf from the people banding together to help the less well-off.

That is the true spirit of Singapore.

maureenk@sph.com.sg


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