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To contain the coronavirus, Singapore must fight fake news: Minister

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Visitors wear protective face masks at the Marina Bay waterfront in Singapore on January 26, 2020.

Roslan Rahman | AFP | Getty Images

The ongoing spread of a new coronavirus that originated in China is not just a test of public health systems worldwide — it’s also a fight against misinformation, a Singapore minister said on Friday.

The coronavirus has infected more than 30,000 people globally and killed more than 600, mostly in mainland China. But Singapore has one of the highest number of infections outside of China, with 30 confirmed cases as of Thursday.

“When you have an outbreak like this, it is not just a public health challenge. It is also a communication and psychological challenge,” S Iswaran, Singapore’s minister for communications and information, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia.”

“If the measures you undertake are to be effective and achieve the desired results, you need a calm, well-informed and disciplined response from the population. And if you don’t have that, then I think it makes the task that much harder,” he added.

False information about the virus is being distributed around the world, including suggestions that garlic, sesame oil and vitamin C can kill this particular strain of coronavirus.

The World Health Organization, which has declared the illness a global health emergency, has warned against misinformation and the harm it can cause.

Singapore, a Southeast Asian country with a population of 5.7 million, has also seen false information circulate since the outbreak began.

That includes a forum post last month alleging that an individual has died of the infection (Singapore has not had any deaths in this outbreak as of Thursday) and social media posts claiming that a public transit station was closed for disinfection due to a suspected case of the coronavirus (the station was not closed).

That’s why the Singapore government has made communication with the public an important part of its effort in containing the virus spread, said Iswaran.

In addition to working with the press and updating the Ministry of Health’s website, the government is also distributing updates about the coronavirus via WhatsApp. Around 360,000 people have signed up for the WhatsApp service, the minister said.

“The idea is really to get as diverse a range of channels as possible to get authoritative information out so that citizens and residents get the information and have confidence that they’re getting it from trusted sources,” he added.

— CNBC’s Natasha Turak contributed to this report.



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