Alone, together: living through Covid-19 in Singapore
EDITOR’S NOTE 23 April 2020: Since publishing this article on 8 April 2020, a lot has changed in Singapore – including a surge in Covid-19 cases. Singapore’s sudden and recent change of situation just reinforces the unpredictability of the virus. Our experiences around the world are constantly changing and the purpose of this series is to give a snapshot of life in that current time.
With the world temporarily closing its borders and more of us encouraged to stay home, it’s difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But perhaps one of the most poignant things about living during a global pandemic, is that we’re all experiencing this new reality together. While our routines are turned upside down and we struggle to make sense of the situation, there’s something strangely reassuring that we’re not alone in this.
Working for Contiki, we’re fortunate enough to be connected via our global team. And already I’ve felt that we’re more connected now than ever before. Sure, we might be dealing with different struggles, cooking different meals and watching different movies, but there are so many similarities between our worlds right now. While self-isolating, we’re still virtually connecting with our loved ones, thinking about the most vulnerable people in our communities and seeking out the silver linings whenever we can – alone, but together.
That’s why, across the next few weeks, we’re spotlighting our teams and travellers around the world and asking them to share their current experience of living through Covid-19.
For our first story in the series, we chatted (digitally, of course) to Gerri Kwan, Head of Marketing, and Stephanie Hung, Assistant Marketing Manager, at Contiki Asia. They both live and work in Singapore. Here, they help to reveal the human stories behind the headlines…
Singapore’s approach to the virus
Despite the country’s initial handling of the outbreak, new cases of Covid-19 are currently on the rise in Singapore. “We used to see fewer than 10 new cases a day. But in the last two weeks, despite our best efforts, we have routinely had more than 50 new cases daily,” explained the Prime Minister in his address on 3 April. Unsurprisingly, the government is now introducing new rules around social distancing and group gatherings.
“It’s now 100% telecommuting for all services deemed as non-essential by the government,” explains Gerri, and the pair have changed from working alternate weeks from home to fully remote working.
So many countries around the world right now are in different stages of containment. However, in Singapore, the word ‘lockdown’ isn’t used. “It makes people nervous, you know?” explains Gerri. “But I think the current situation is the most serious that we’ve seen so far [since the outbreak started at the beginning of 2020]. Singapore is known for being strict about rules and if you’re caught not observing the social distancing rule of staying one metre apart, you could be fined S$10,000 or be put in jail. We’re quite heavy-handed on even the smallest measures. It sounds harsh, but I feel that I can appreciate it in some way, too.”
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It’s true that Singapore, alongside Hong Kong and Taiwan are being hailed as some of the best places in the world for controlling and dealing with the outbreak. Potentially because they’ve taken the virus so seriously and worked proactively from day one to prevent the spread.
“I think generally we can agree with that,” says Gerri. “This is one time that everyone is proud to be in Singapore and in some ways, we are very blessed to be living here. Here, we’re very transparent. From the start, the government has encouraged those of us who are showing the symptoms of Covid-19 to step up and get tested – with all the bills covered by the Singapore government. Because of this, nobody feels they need to hide. The government has also offered rebates for workers who are in quarantine.”
Keeping our distance
“For social gatherings outside of work or school, you can’t meet up with more than 10 people,” says Gerri. “All the entertainment spots, parks and discos are closed from tonight until 30 April, so we had some farewell parties yesterday. The government has advised: ‘yes, it’s ok to do your farewells, but please keep your distance!’
“There are rules around public spaces and shoppings malls, too,” explains Stephanie. “We’re only allowed a certain amount of people per square metre. When I went to lunch today, there was a long line outside because they’re counting how many people go in and out.
“So, now a lot of people are watching Netflix at home. Kingdom (a Korean drama about zombies, similar to Walking Dead) is currently trending…” says Gerri. “It’s all about an infectious disease so I draw a lot of parallels between this and what’s happening right now.”
Interestingly, Pandemic is one of the most-watched films on Netflix in the UK, which just confirms our universal fascination with contagions right now. Or perhaps we’re all just keen to skip through to the ending here?
Transparency is key
“So far, we’ve had two public TV telecasts of the Prime Minister telling us how they’re dealing with Covid-19,” says Gerri. “They’ve explained that even though we’re ahead here, it could come to a stage where, if our hospitals are being burdened and your symptoms aren’t so serious, they need us to stay at home. Things are always communicated ahead of time, so we’re never in a purely reactive situation. I think this helps in instilling a lot of faith and trust.
“There was a video that went viral, recorded by a Chinese tourist – Fan Zhao Han was in Singapore and had to undergo a test at the NCID (National Centre of Infectious Diseases) and she recorded the whole thing,” says Gerri.
“She showed just how professional the whole process is. Even when she was being tested, there was no contact with the health workers. There was a machine that brought her food and a safe way to dispose of things.”
Gerri also tells me that one Singaporean recently documented his 14-day SHN (Stay Home Notice) at 5-star Swissotel Stamford after returning from the USA. Marcus Chua documented everything from his amazing balcony views to the contact-free dinners (which he ordered using a Google form!).
It’s Day 1 #CIRCUITBREAKER (month-long closure of non-essential businesses) in Singapore.
I’ve never seen the streets so empty in the heart of the city, though it’s picking up slightly now.
— Marcus Chua (@marcuschua) April 7, 2020
The new daily routine
For many of us, our daily routines have changed drastically – probably including more trips to the sink for rigorous handwashing and for some of us, setting up our offices at home. Locals in Singapore are now experiencing a few key changes, too.
“At the start of all this, there was a lot of uncertainty,” says Stephanie. “But as this has been going on for about two months here in Singapore, it’s almost become the new normal. I’m someone who is quite restless and I don’t like to stay at home too much, so I’m feeling the challenge! My social life has kind of mellowed out, but on the flip side I also feel very blessed to be living in Singapore.”
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“I haven’t been wearing a mask,” says Gerri. “The Singapore government has made it quite clear that masks should only be worn by people who are sick, as this prevents the spread. I’ve seen upsetting reports from Malaysia where the healthcare workers don’t have sufficient protection, so they’re using plastic bags to wrap up their arms and legs – this is heartbreaking to watch as they’re on the front line. So, I feel as citizens we should listen to what makes sense.”
It’s clear that we all need to be thinking of others as much as ourselves. Though we’ve all been scared at points; panic buying is damaging for the most vulnerable in society, we need to acknowledge the needs of our frontline workers and be mindful of putting unnecessary strain on the health sector. That’s the same wherever you are in the world.
The way we’re consuming media as a global community is also very similar. For many of us, watching the news can be the most anxiety-inducing part of the day. However, being more selective with the media we’re consuming can help. “As well as the national newspapers, I follow two online titles – Mothership and The Smart Local – they push out regular Covid-19-related news on Telegram,” says Gerri.
“We get daily reports on how many cases there are in Singapore – how many are local, how many of which are overseas and how many people have been discharged. The government is also pushing out a new app that tracks your movement to help trace cases more easily. The information is collected on your phone and if you ever actually contract Covid-19, the government is able to do more contact tracing and can effectively see who you’ve come into contact with.
“Interestingly, there are some cultural differences when it comes to the app’s reception, especially from New York. But we’ve been sharing it with our friends and family, and the government has assured us that the live data will only be used if you have a confirmed case of the virus.”
It’s also no surprise that the way we’re connecting with our friends and family is changing too. “We’re all being a bit more selective about who we meet,” says Gerri. “We’re lucky that we’re able to move around relatively freely, but with the latest measures, we have to keep to smaller groups, and gatherings like birthdays and baby showers may have to be postponed.”
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Stories of positivity
Now more than ever, we’re all trying to find the silver linings and if you look closely, they are there… In Singapore, The Straits Times has shared reports of community-led activities for seniors, free food for health care workers and extra support for freelancers.
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“We also have a lot of Malaysian workers who commute daily into Singapore, and recently there was a last-minute rule that prevented them from commuting freely,” explains Gerri. “This was hugely problematic, as some workers were left stranded and sleeping rough in the city, unable to afford an expensive hotel room.
“I saw that Singaporeans were posting on social media offering their homes or bedroom space. Strangers are opening their doors to strangers.”
“When there wasn’t any hand sanitizer, people were making their own and giving it out,” says Stephanie. “Given that this was one of the most difficult items to get hold of worldwide, this simple act of kindness had a huge impact.”
As for the future of travel, well that’s still very uncertain, wherever you live in the world. “I think this whole experience underlines just how important travel is,” says Gerri. “I keep hearing from people how much they miss travelling, it’s almost like a need for them. So, I think travel is indispensable. We just don’t know how fast the recovery will be – it’s the big question on everyone’s mind right now. I have one friend who lives to travel and every day she’s posting throwback pictures on social media – it’s keeping her sane.”
The not knowing is perhaps the toughest part of all of this. But one thing’s for certain – never before has the world’s community of travellers appreciated the freedom to venture wherever and whenever they want, as much as now. At six-two and Contiki, we’re keeping faith that the world will open up again soon. Until then, we’ll stay focused on the real and human stories behind Covid-19, remembering that the only way to get through this is by coming together.