Why the Virus Vanguard (Singapore's COVID-19 Initiative) was Pulled; And Better Coronavirus Responses that Actually Worked.

Taking a look at why the Virus Vanguard was shelved, and its contrast to well-received initiatives within communities grappling with the Coronavirus.
Huang Jing Jie (JJ)
Huang Jing Jie (JJ)


Why the Virus Vanguard (Singapore’s COVID-19 Initiative) was Pulled; And Better Coronavirus Responses that Actually Worked

Community campaigns involving COVID-19 are commonplace right now. Typically initiated to bolster spirits of communities well into weeks of enhanced government restrictions on movement, these campaigns usually aim to rise above the COVID-19 noise—to inspire, educate and uplift.

Unfortunately for Singapore’s government agency, Gov.sg, a group of characters designed to affirm positive action amongst citizens during the nationwide soft lockdown (colloquially called a “circuit breaker”), was pulled in under a day after being panned by the public.

The Virus Vanguard, created in collaboration with the Band of Doodlers (an art collective), was poorly received by a public well into its third week of the said circuit breaker. Despite presumably good intentions, people were rubbed the wrong way by this initiative.

Why the Virus Vanguard, cartoon COVID-19 heroes, didn’t work

In this challenging period, citizens expect government initiatives to allay their fears, and they have to do it with tact.

The Virus Vanguard likely gave an impression that the government was focusing efforts elsewhere, when it should be 100% focused on the spread of the virus. Not a good impression, when people are still anxious about rising coronavirus numbers. Utilising humour to address a serious issue, in hindsight, was ill timed. It was a case of too much too soon.

On top of the ill timing, the Virus Vanguard fired salvos at Liverpool fans, immediately deciding how that subset of people felt about it (our founder, JJ is a huge Liverpool supporter, and he definitely did not take a liking to the initiative). The overall message and objective was also unclear, as the public couldn’t see a direct path in which the cartoons helped. All these factors led to the unceremonious shelving of the initiative, that was barely a day old.

Better community response examples to COVID-19, that the public didn’t actually hate.

Let’s explore better response initiatives with examples that were contextual, had a clear objective, and kept their intended audience in mind.

1. Singapore didn’t always do this poorly: Phua Chu Kang - ‘Singapore be Steady’ released a month prior, was a great example of a well-received initiative.



Ironically, this initial attempt at using humor (the initiative was fronted by Singapore’s most-recognizable comedian) from the city-state was actually well received. Playing on nostalgia, coupled with clear education and action initiative, the ‘Singapore be Steady’ mini-initiative was a recipe for success for Gov.sg. It directly answered the social chatter to bring Phua Chu Kang (a beloved sitcom character from the 90s) back, to release a new public announcement service, as he did during the SARS epidemic, with his ‘Sar-vivor Rap’ in 2003.

To say ‘Singapore be Steady’ was well-received is an understatement, garnering over a million views on YouTube (in a country with 6.5 million people!), with a catchy tune, memorable lyrics, and recognizable, nostalgic audio-visuals.

This was of course released in the early days of the pandemic when community cases in Singapore remained low, and the country being heralded as a case example of handling a viral spread. The public’s mood at the time was different from today when people are anxious about the exponential increase in infections.

2. The British rally behind their national healthcare system. Stay home, Protect the NHS (National Health Service), Save lives.


After using words like ‘we advise’ and ‘we suggest’ in regards to informing citizens to stay at home—to little avail—the UK government took on a much more direct tone and approach. They continued an ongoing campaign from before COVID-19, and repurposed it as a cry for action for social distancing, in the name of protecting its national healthcare workforce.

With bold red and yellow visuals and phrases such as “People will die”, the campaign was carried out in all government announcement podiums and in an extensive array of campaign materials to reinforce the clear and concise message.

A great measure of a campaign is when people take ownership from where it originated, and become advocates for the cause. And advocate, people did; with hashtags a-common on social media platforms, reinforcing the message to stay home.

3. Businesses want to help too: Novocall launched ‘Call for Care’ which offered its software for free to healthcare providers, and readies TimeSync, scheduler purpose-built for remote meetings.

While community responses often need to be initiated by the public sector or through grassroots to make an impact on society, businesses too, are eager to help.

At Novocall, we heard customer sentiments on-ground with challenges they faced with their ‘new normal’ with the Coronavirus reality. By listening to our customer base of over 2,000 businesses, we recognised how a new service we were developing could be enhanced to help remote teams be more productive with how they scheduled meetings.

With most of the professionals forced to stay (and work) at home, we tailor-built TimeSync, a meeting scheduler designed to give true scheduling automation to remote teams. And unlike existing software solutions that made essential features needed by remote workers free for now, we decided to make key features available free, forever.

This includes the important integrations people need from a scheduler, like with Google Meetings and Zoom. Check it out here.

In the earlier stages of the virus spread, we also saw how our software could help alleviate the strain on the healthcare providers in coping with a surge in enquiries. We created the Call-for-Care initiative: A US$100,000 fund set up to empower healthcare service providers with the technology to facilitate web-to-phone calls between themselves and patients in need of care.

COVID-19 initiatives need to be genuine, and understand real community context, so it clicks with people it’s intending to reach.

The public at large are currently experiencing news fatigue, from being barraged on the daily with coronavirus news blues. At a times like this, community initiatives need to be genuine, and listen closely for signals from the very people these initiatives are crafted for.

Ultimately, everyone has the same goal—that we get through this together, by ironically, staying apart. If there was one good thing the well-intentioned (but poorly timed) Virus Vanguard did, it was to unite local netizens online in our common distaste for the initiative. Stay safe (and stay home) everyone!


JJ is the Co-Founder of Novocall. When he’s not busy building the Novocall brand, he spends his time watching crime shows and documentaries.

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