July 29, 2020
This is what it means to be Singaporean
“Stock up on hand sanitizers. And face masks,” my friend Dipika advises. I zip up our suitcases on 3 February, stuffed to the brim with protective gear ordered off Amazon, feeling like an acutely neurotic germophobe. Not realizing that in a few weeks I will discover the first mask I was compelled to travel with, crushed yet resolute at the bottom of a bag, and look at it like an old friend.
“Oh hello there. You were my first. We meet again.”
Moving countries with 20-month-old twins is challenging under the best of circumstances, never mind with a mutant virus looming. But that’s what we did when we left Mumbai for Singapore. Friends exhorted us to stay safe, but off-handedly, as is the way of most Mumbaikars, who had not yet understood what a global health crisis looks like. When we disembarked with sleeping toddlers, I asked my husband why our temperatures hadn’t been checked. I had read up all about the screening process, how imperative it was to report a fever or flu symptoms when we landed in Changi and how a rigorous screening process would keep passengers honest for the greater good.
“We just passed through heat sensors,” Jason whispered discreetly. My head swivelled and I paused. I couldn’t help myself. I saw a station manned by masked officials, staring at a screen.
Ah. I understood we were poised at an inflection point; it was up to us to adapt our mindset to face the magnitude of a global contagion. The first few weeks flew by with the normal chores of settling into a new city, but with a twist; there was a new vocabulary to familiarize ourselves with and it was not in a foreign tongue. It all had to do with the malady that originated in Wuhan, China, in late December. And it had to do with Singapore’s comprehensive and robust response to the novel coronavirus outbreak right from first contact, and before the rest of the world understood its gravity and imminent spread.
Quarantine order (QO). Stay at home notice. (SHN) Cluster infections. Safe distancing. And contact tracing, which makes me think of a benevolent disembodied hand coming with you everywhere. My husband and I subscribe to the government’s regular updates on the Covid-19 situation via WhatsApp, which delivers a daily round-up of new and total cases. It’s a datum addict’s dream. But even for someone like me who normally avoids statistics, this level of transparency and disclosure is a solvent for fear.
The prime minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, made a televised speech on 8 February and 12 March, a picture of reassuring statesmanship. He shared the seriousness of the situation in detail and expressed the government’s solidarity with citizens. I am now convinced if people are respected and informed, asking for social responsibility and a sense of common purpose is a natural outcome.
But we are human, and we grapple with uncertain times, I thought last week at Tanglin Mall, as I watched an expat slide a bottle of turmeric across the table to another, in the manner of sharing state secrets.
“To wear a mask or not wear a mask?” I ask Jason in the back seat of a cab. It’s so confusing.”
“What does the ministry of health say?” he asks.
Our taxi driver catches my eye in the rear-view mirror.
“Best thing is to check the official website. You know, all the media is doing is spreading panic and false information. Follow the government,” he offers helpfully.
This level of faith in government from taxi drivers is, well, “novel” for me.
And so we begin this chapter of our lives filling out forms testifying that we have not travelled to the Hubei province, Iran or South Korea before entering most public spaces. The list of countries expands as time goes by. But everywhere in Singapore, I encounter patience, tempered by the understanding that we are inhabiting a new world order.
But I know the real frontier is the fear in our minds. As a cancer survivor, I have an intimate relationship with both uncertainty and catastrophic health events. My maintenance therapy leaves me immuno-compromised, putting me in one of the highest risk groups for the virus, but I am meeting new friends for coffee, bumping elbows. These times test our values. And this is where my new home has come out aces.
“How are you guys?” a friend WhatsApps from Mumbai.
“Fantastic. Swimming in our building compound with the kids.”
“Oh. Must be tough with masks. LOL. You all stay safe. Maybe you guys should come back to India LOL.”
When I related this exchange to my friend Neena, India had just three official cases and COVID-19 was not top of the mind. ‘Their house is not burning’ she said. ‘They can’t understand.’
This was before Covid-19 became a ground reality in India. Before much of the rest of the world had to resort to border shutdowns and curfews to dampen the tide of transmission. By the time WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic, we in Singapore had already rapidly cycled through the stages of fear and had moved to stockpiling essential commodities such as equanimity, humour and the social conscience that it takes to get through a time like this (and yes, the odd toilet paper roll). We watched with deep sadness the suffering borne by countries like Italy and Iran. Singapore, like Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, had to contend with the SARS outbreak in 2003 and those lessons have been internalized both institutionally and individually. Every day brings new advisories from the government, outlining tighter measures, such as non-contact food deliveries, where your order is placed like an abandoned baby on your doorstep. Jason is now working from home, but we live in a flow of cautious human interaction, not isolation.
“Scare-mongering to care-mongering” is how another friend describes community efforts to run errands for the elderly and those with stay-at-home orders. “Disaster convergence—the impulse to help, sociologists tell us it’s a thing!” The low-lit, Italian restaurant where my friend and I meet has temporarily laminated menus, so it can disinfect them between guests. The flip side of the menu is printed with a Renaissance art inspired figure of a woman holding a plaque that says “This too shall pass”.
Sometimes, you feel guilty about leading a largely normal life in Singapore while the rest of the world is on fire. I wake each morning with low-level anxiety fluttering tiny wings in my head. I worry about friends and family, scattered around the world. I am worried about accessing my life-saving drugs, which opens me to the pain of many others who are grappling with the same. I scan the news in the morning and see images of strangers who are now family. We are all in this together. Today, the virus will impact you, tomorrow me. The opposite of isolation is deep union, with our own hearts and with others; even as we maintain secure distancing, our travails and suffering bring us closer.
And so, despite a spike in numbers over the last week, largely due to imported cases, my husband and I look at our girls and we are filled with gratitude to be living in a city-state that puts safety and cooperation first. Still, there’s no mistaking the sinking feeling of wondering whether to mask toddlers or the impossible task of sanitising every surface for little hands. I’ll not soon forget the intensity with which Sufi stared down her first digital thermometer: like a protestor facing the barrel of a gun. We have gone from ‘mama what is that?’ to normalising temperature checks and face masks. Parenting through this is bringing out my creative side. My girls are delighting in this new game of ‘Kween, kween, kween your hands’ which rings out like an anthem in our home. Though Singapore has not imposed a curfew and schools are still open, we elected to pull them from playschool a few weeks ago. They are joyful and relaxed as long as we are, so the main curriculum is just that: a relaxed environment. My Souffle has provided me a sanctuary when it feels there’s no solid place to stand. Kids are solace. Adaptable. Resilient. Even though wee fists bang on my door when I’m trying to write and my binge watching days are behind me, I wouldn’t trade a thing.
The fact that we have made a home in Singapore for our family in a time of crisis is strangely reassuring; once you have weathered the tough times, the good times will be exultant, you imagine. I believe we need to make an effort to tell different stories about difficult times, about the indirect, positive consequences of disaster on the human spirit lest we forget the “reasonableness of hope”.
Now that all our houses are burning, what do you carry when you flee to safer ground?
“Ultimately it is upon your vulnerability that you depend,” the poet Rilke writes. “For the time that we are here, we are dependent on the web of life.”
There is no chance for evasions any more. We need each other, we need to look after each other, we must infect each other with fortifying emotions. At the time of writing this, India is enforcing an unprecedented, countrywide, 21-day stay-at- home order and Singapore is introducing more precautionary measures, like shutting down entertainment venues.
Living with the decisive manner in which Singapore has responded during this time of “surreal disrepair” has fortified my faith in what thinking about the greater good can accomplish for the individual in times of both uncertainty and fragile tranquillity.
I hope these teachings will be internalized by my daughters. Yesterday, I dressed Sufi and Soleil in their favourite lehnga-cholis. Because now we are the sort of people who haul out our finery and best plates to try to bring cheer into the everyday.
And yes, I am giving away all my dystopian fiction. Any takers?
First published in Mint, March 2020.