I’m supposed to be boarding my flight to Australia right now. The day has finally come for our annual holiday to see family in Perth, one which my five-year-old daughter has been eagerly anticipating since October. Instead I’m at home, writing this.
We’re just one of many families who had planned getaways during this week’s school holidays. Any lingering hopes that vacations could still go ahead, however, were scuttled on Wednesday when the Singaporean government advised its residents to put all travel on hold in response to a record high of 47 new cases, 30 involving residents who had been abroad. Anyone returning from overseas would now also have to isolate themselves for 14 days.
The travel advisory was just the latest in a series of inconveniences that most Singaporeans have taken in their stride. We’re a notoriously pragmatic bunch, and many of us still retain unpleasant lessons learned during the SARS outbreak of 2003, which shrank the country’s GDP and reinforced the importance of hygiene in a city already renowned for cleanliness. SARS has no doubt increased compliance among residents, most of whom feel they can rely on the government to combat Covid-19 effectively. Since the first confirmed case of the coronavirus on January 23, it has acted swiftly and decisively. Contact tracing of each new case is carried out through interviews and detective work, such as checking CCTV footage, and when necessary, consulting hotels and transport companies.
Singapore also quickly limited access to travellers from key affected regions, and has vigorously enforced stay-home notices. Temperature and symptomatic screening protocols are in place at its famed Changi Airport, with on-the-spot swab testing done when necessary. Unlike some of its neighbours, Singapore has yet to effect a total lockdown. While you may need to get your temperature and contact details recorded before entry, the island’s hotels, attractions, restaurants and businesses remain open for business. And yesterday the government announced – to the dismay of hopeful children everywhere – that school would resume on Monday.
To date, there have been 385 cases recorded and no fatalities, although we’ve been warned that deaths are “inevitable” down the road. A legion of cleaners has been working overtime for the past few months, making the whiff of disinfectant Singapore’s signature scent. Surfaces in MRT stations, for example, are cleaned at least thrice a day, while the number of hand sanitiser bottles at the airport alone has been increased from 160 to over 1,200.
A frequently updated government website provides the latest facts and debunks fake news, critical when every auntie and uncle at the coffeeshop is busy declaiming social-media “cures” (Turmeric! Salt water! Hot showers!). And Singaporeans are not immune to some good old-fashioned panic buying. When the government raised its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level to Orange, locals reacted swiftly, emptying pharmacies and supermarkets of hand sanitiser, toilet paper and instant noodles. An image of a masked woman and her trolley overflowing with noodle packs instantly went viral, prompting endless wisecracks about MSG overdoses and Singaporeans’ kiasu-ism, a uniquely local brand of FOMO.
Buying quotas were quickly instituted and shelves restocked, along with government assurances of months’ worth of national stockpiles at the ready. But when Malaysia, a key food supplier, announced it would close its border this week, the hoarders struck again, this time also absconding with armfuls of eggs, meat and fresh vegetables.
Perusing my neighbourhood NTUC (Singapore’s largest supermarket chain) in the aftermath, I observe there’s not a roll of toilet paper left. A makcik (Malay auntie) is carefully making a video with the professionalism of a news reporter, steadily panning her phone from shelf to shelf. My daughter looks at her, then the empty shelves, then asks why there’s no more toilet paper? I reply it’s because there are a lot of silly people in Singapore, and the makcik turns to my daughter and says “Ya, really!”, spoiling her perfect footage.
At the wet market, I buy chicken bones for stock and the stallholder hollers at me in Mandarin: “Don’t you want to buy chicken to freeze? Everyone is buying, don’t miss out!” At least some people are coming out winners.
Living on the edge of anxiety gets a bit old after two months, and people are venturing – armed with hand sanitiser – back into restaurants and malls. The concept of social distancing hasn’t really taken hold here, but people joke that flatulence is now more socially acceptable than coughing. Nothing unites people quite like a shared menace and Singaporeans have rallied remarkably, placing home-made sanitisers in lifts and penning heartfelt letters of appreciation to Singapore’s overloaded healthcare workers under the #braveheartsg movement. Two thousand drivers from local ride-sharing service, Grab, are voluntarily ferrying healthcare workers to and from their work. And charitable giving spiked last month, hitting over S$2.2million.
Still, crowds are noticeably thinner, with Orchard Road, the tourist-beloved shopping belt, uncharacteristically quiet. Hotels continue to struggle. Many have dipped below 30% occupancy and are busy rolling out staycation promotions to entice locals in. Unimpeachable hygiene is canon at hotels such as the famed Raffles Singapore, which reopened to great fanfare last August. “Since the Covid-19 outbreak, we have started thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting all our public spaces and suites based on guidelines provided by authorities,” says its General Manager, Christian Westbeld. “We have adopted all precautionary operational measures recommended by the government to-date and will continue to remind our staff who are unwell that they should not report to work.” Over at Resorts World Sentosa, which operates one of the country’s two casinos and the popular Universal Studios theme park, precautionary measures include replacing buffet breakfasts with breakfast sets, a “seven-fold increased frequency of cleaning, disinfection and sanitisation of guest touchpoints”, and social distancing between staff.
But the overall sentiment is that life simply has to go on. Elections are in the offing, and people continue to work and attend religious services, albeit online. A global survey by Visa previously found that Singaporeans are the region’s most avid travellers, little wonder when you can drive the entire length of the country in 40 minutes. “I’m heading out as soon as this is over,” declared a friend whose Tokyo holiday was cancelled, as we elbow-bumped after lunch.
She’s not alone. We can’t wait to get back to business. We can’t wait to get back out there in the world. It’s the Singaporean way.