This Poet Civil Servant has some thoughts on communicating Covid-19

By Shirley Tay

Aaron Maniam, Singapore civil servant and poet, discusses in a TED talk how thinking of Covid-19 as an “ecology” shapes the way we think about life in the pandemic and beyond.

War-time phrases like ‘front-line warriors’ and ‘defeating the virus’ have been deployed extensively by politicians and reporters to describe Covid-19.

But while a bellicose metaphor is “very useful for imposing public order” and communicates “the gravity of the situation”, it has its limitations, said Aaron Maniam at the TED Global Conference. “I find myself wondering about questions like: ‘Who is the enemy? Where's the solidarity, the collective investment in our future here?’ Because that's not always captured in the idea of a war”.

As a poet and the Deputy Secretary of Industry and Information at Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information, Maniam believes metaphors are a “key part of so much of our lives, including public policy.” He shared how Covid-19 could be thought of in different ways, to communicate and create a more united future.

Covid-19 as an ‘ecology’

Instead of using the common “war” metaphor to describe Covid-19, Maniam suggests thinking of the pandemic as an “ecology”. Using images of ecosystems to describe the pandemic will help us to understand that the virus is a “critical part of nature” and “something we need to learn to deal with”, he added.

The ecology metaphor also highlights the varying effects Covid-19 has had on different groups of people. “These are all things that we need to try and really figure out, because these inequalities are some of the most interesting aspects of the current crisis that we find ourselves in,” said Maniam.

Singapore has been trying to “flesh out” these complex aspects of Covid-19, he said. “We're trying to deal with the warlike aspects of COVID-19, but we're also trying to deal with the ecological aspects, the fact that there are different effects … for the different people who are experiencing this.”

The nation has executed a warlike response in its aggressive contact tracing, testing and quarantine of suspected or confirmed cases. On the other hand, its ecological response lies in the four supplementary budgets pushed out this year, said Maniam.

Like many nations across the world, Singapore has spent billions on subsidies to retain employment, teach new skills, and keep businesses going during a lockdown. These measures focus not just on relief, but long-term evolution, he said. “We can actually use that to put ourselves in a better position for transformation in the future.”

The ecological metaphor also highlights collective efforts that have emerged during this crisis. Just like how different organisms in an ecosystem are connected to each other, communities in Singapore have also come together to support each other during these trying times, said Maniam. It is not just a war waged by professional soldiers.

Equality not a hierarchy

But metaphors have their own complications, the poet and official noted. Language around ecology highlights a “food chain”, but hierarchy is not “something we should accept as a natural part of the life rhythms of the society,” Maniam insisted.

“Moral relationships” exist between humans, he said, where each person can be responsible for others, he added. This is something neither the war nor ecology metaphors capture.

This sense of mutual responsibility has been evident in Singapore’s response to Covid-19, Maniam said. Whether it’s self-isolation or taking precautions, these actions are done to keep others safe, he added.

So, a complex mix of metaphors is needed, he believes. “We don't want to abandon the war metaphor entirely. We do want the huge sense of urgency that comes with a war metaphor, then that can drive and rally a society,” he added.
“It's only when we put these metaphors together, … that we get to a really sophisticated understanding of the kind of situation that we're in.”

Recovering with unity in diversity

The most resilient ecology in the world is usually the most diverse. Similarly, for countries to come back stronger from Covid-19, diversity needs to be strengthened and celebrated, said Maniam.

Maniam himself comes from a diverse family, he shared. His father is half-ethnic Tamil and half-Eurasian, while his mother is part Pakistani, Malay, and Chinese. “So, I've had a long time to kind of make peace with, and not just make peace, but to learn to celebrate my internal diversities.”

What has been critical for Singapore, a racially and religiously diverse country, is to ensure that there is a “sense of unity in diversity”, said Maniam. It’s about building a commitment to a common civic nationalism, but also giving cultures the shared space to express themselves, he added.

Being an island, city, and state all at the same time, Singapore also faces a “unique conundrum” which shapes its policymaking, and national identity, said Maniam.

“When you put the overall kind of cosmopolitanism of a city with the deep nationalism of state, and the general openness to ideas, people and flows of goods that an island has, that I think is often what makes up the core psyche of a Singaporean,” he added.

There is a unity in Singapore’s diverse identities as an island, city and state that can be celebrated. Harnessing this ‘ecology’ will help foster the innovation needed to evolve throughout the pandemic.

This article was written based on Aaron Maniam's talk at the TED Global Conference in June.