Friday, December 3, 2010

Health Communication: Singapore v. Canada

My colleagues recently presented research on SARS in relation to communication, using case studies of Singapore and Canada comparatively to demonstrate how two countries tackled this particular health issue differently, each yielding different results. What I found most interesting were the cultural implications behind how each country handled the epidemic of SARS. When the WHO put Singapore on the list for countries that should not be flown to due to an outbreak of SARS, the country was very open about their status and immediately brainstormed ways in which they could encourage good health practices and raise awareness among the population on how to prevent SARS and what to do as soon as you see signs that you may have it. Canada on the other hand tried to deny their placement on the same list by WHO and spent more time fighting against their status instead of working to inform the population and raise awareness on an epidemic that was quickly and quietly affecting them.

Immediately, I think East v. West. Why was Singapore so much more accepting and open about their status on the WHO list when Canada chose to hide this information and fight it? Culture plays a huge role in these country's responses and in turn affect the final result in each country of how many lives were saved and how devastating SARS outbreaks were.

In many Asian countries such as Singapore, Confucious ideas of the community being more important than the individual no doubt played a part in the underlying approach that health initiatives are put in place to protect the society as a whole. It was up to each person to do their part for the larger good. Also as a more open society, it was much more affective for Singapore to face SARS head on, recognize that yes, there is a problem, and immediately begin to handle it.

In comparison, the West is usually perceived as always thinking that they are right -more selfish even. These concepts seem to appear in the way Canada handled SARS. It's almost as if you can imagine Canada saying "We're a developed nation, we don't have a SARS problem! We can't be put on the same list as Singapore!" In turn they ignore the real problem and are focusing on image. When it comes to health, the Western world also seems to be a little more private, diseases are not necessarily a matter to publicize. So all of these themes worked together to in the end, hold Canada back from addressing the SARS problem and preventing infection which cost them millions of dollars in the end.

It is cultural aspects such as these that are important not only for health communication, but for understanding the reactions of different countries to many different obstacles or challenges that can face modern societies today. Understanding these differences can also help foreign policy makers or diplomats to be effective when working with foreign audiences.


  1. I agree that culture plays a large role in health communication, but the political environment also affects responses to health disasters. Canada and Singapore have different forms of democracy.

    Singapore's government is more top-down, and while the country has elections, it has been ruled by one party since its independence in 1965. And while it is not nearly as strict as China, there are still restrictions on civil liberties (freedom of speech and assembly). Freedom house lists Singapore as "partly free." There are also strict laws and penalties for offenses such as jaywalking, spitting,and littering; with a mandatory caning sentence for vandalism. In addition, there are no jury trials. Instead, a judge hears the case and decides the sentencing.

    While these aspects of Singaporean culture may not be directly related to health communication and SARS, they illustrate the authority of government. This political culture likely influenced the implementation of the SARS response. Though Canada would have benefited from being more transparent and providing better information to its citizens, a Singapore approach to SARS may not have had the same effect.

  2. I though the presentation was a good demonstration of the power of culture in political behavior. Both Canada and Singapore have very different governing styles that influenced how they handled their situation. I though Renee's comment was interesting and further highlighted the cultural differences between the two nations. I didn't know that Singapore has such strict laws and such a minimal judiciary system. I wonder if there were any Singaporeans who felt the way Canadians did and if any Canadians felt the way Singapore acted. Was there evidence of resistance in Singapore or disapproval of government action in Canada?

  3. This health communication issue brings up many points, one which you touched on is the East v. West issue. This is something I think is very important to international communication as well as in politics. We must look at cultural and political implications for a country's potential for having a crises of legitimacy. They must be able to provide for their citizenry. If not, we might see power shifts in the global north and south, and a rise of power from some unexpected places.