The Singapore government has withdrawn a series of cartoons that it published this week with the intention of warning people about the dangers of the coronavirus, and explaining the government’s lockdown measures known as a “circuit breaker.”
On Monday the government began publishing cartoons featuring five superhero characters, collectively known as the Virus Vanguard. The cartoons were taken down just a day later, following objections from the public.
One of the superheroes is Dr Disinfector who was described as being able to detect the presence of viruses and bacteria through sight, smell and sound.
Bizarrely, another character, Must Always Walk Alone Man (MAWA Man) was a fan of English soccer club Manchester United. He held a strong dislike for fans of another soccer club Liverpool, whose unofficial anthem is “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” According to the government description, he has “repelling power” to push people and objects apart.
Liverpool supporters in Singapore quickly mounted an online petition against the series, that had been created with an artist collective called Band of Doodlers.
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“We have received quite a lot of feedback on the characters and we will be reviewing them. We are sorry if we offended anyone,” said a post on the Gov.sg Facebook page. “As this is the first time we are exploring this content format, we appreciate your patience.” The page on the government website where the Virus Vanguard was previously now shows a routing error.
Other commentators said that the characters lacked empathy. Others said that the deadly disease was being treated too lightly. Others said that they should have projected more positive images of health workers.
Compact and wealthy, Singapore was initially considered as one of the most successful countries at beating back the coronavirus, using testing and contact tracing, but initially avoiding a lockdown. In the past two weeks it has floundered, as a second wave comprising imported cases and infections in the city’s packed foreign worker dormitories, have pushed up COVID-19 infections.
With the highest number of infections in Southeast Asia, Singapore has now been forced to reverse its previous policies on masks and keeping schools open. Singapore reported 1,111 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday (Apr 21), taking the national total to 9,125. Singapore introduced its lockdown measures earlier this month, and Tuesday announced that they would be extended until June.
These measures are now being enforced through a stick and carrot mixture of stern messages and spot fines, and a propaganda barrage of heartwarming examples, chronicling national solidarity and sacrificial efforts to support the community.
The government messaging has been reinforced by repeated announcements dispelling urban legends and online rumors about the virus.
The government has also used its recently introduced anti-fake news (POFMA) legislation to require local media to change their coronavirus coverage. These have included reports on the number of infections, to analysis of the emergency or resilience budget.
The POFMA laws were a significant reason for Singapore to fall seven places in the Reporters Without Borders annual Press Freedom Index, published Tuesday. Singapore now ranks 158th in the world for press freedom.
“Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government is always quick to sue critical journalists, apply pressure to make them unemployable, or even force them to leave the country,” the France-based organization said.
“2019 saw a significant deterioration with the adoption of an ‘anti-fake news’ law with Orwellian provisions that allows the government to act as a combination of Ministry of Truth and censorship office for the social media era, ordering both media outlets and digital platforms to post ‘corrections’ to any content deemed ‘incorrect’.”