By Abam Mambo, Regional Legal Director (Asia) – Microsoft
I was walking across the landing early one July morning last year when I saw Lily at the foot of the curved staircase. Clad in shorts and a t-shirt, her back was flat against the polished wood floors. Knees bent, she moved her feet from heel to tiptoe in a slow, rhythmic cadence as if replicating the Moonwalk. Her hands were raised mid-air as she wove something invisible with her fingers, and her face was awash in sunlight streaming from the tall windows.
It was only when she opened her palms to block out the sun that I heard the whisper of notes from a Tagalog song escaping her lips. She didn’t notice me at the top of the stairs. I tiptoed down a few steps, my feet inexplicably clad in socks despite the signature Singaporean swelter. Then I sat and waited for her to look up or say something.
Since the Prime Minister first announced Singapore’s Circuit Breaker four months earlier in March 2020, people looked for ways to cope. Before much of the world caught on to the realities of the pandemic, Singapore’s residents were saying goodbye to some of our favorite things – from eating out to visiting family and friends, to shopping, grooming and most of all, traveling. The implications were significant. Food and beverage services were hard-hit from both the consumer and business owner perspective – Singapore residents have a broad palette and an impressive array of cuisines to match.
The travel industry was hit even harder, considering Singaporeans are among the world’s most travelled people, and the Singaporean passport having long been held to be the most powerful in terms of travel (it moved into second place after Japan in 2020). Then there were malls and shopping centers where residents meet not only to shop but also to eat, socialize and just hang out (which is enough especially when you’re talking malls like Jewel whose beauty warrants a visit to Changi just to see it).
Visits to relatives, friends and neighbors were suspended except in specially identified circumstances. The vast majority of Singapore’s residents ride the MRT (train) or bus to get around. With restrictions on travel and requirements to work from home, that industry too was altered as were service delivery operators, who now primarily depended on food and grocery delivery to make ends meet. It was obvious at the time that circuit breaker might usher in cultural changes in the Singapore way of life and it was in this context that I met Lily lying on her back at the base of the stairs that morning.
In the ten months since, there was a sputtering and then a near roar back to life. By the time the Christmas and Lunar New Year celebrations rolled around, people were allowed to socialize first in groups of no more than 5 and then no more than 8. Dine-ins had returned with limitations on group sizes and requirements to wear masks before and after meals.
Hotels opened up to staycations and residents craving travel answered the call in droves. Thereafter, the most noticeable signs of the pandemic were in the omnipresent masks outdoors, in the big markers delineating the 1-meter safe distancing requirements and the trace scanning at the entrance of public establishments. The government continued to issue twice daily updates on new cases. Even the economy began to bounce back, with significant job loss recovery for Singaporean, although droves of expats had left the country.
That morning on the staircase, I asked Lily what was wrong. She was quiet for several moments, then said: “Never I go home again? I tired already.” She sighed and pulled herself up to sit on her buttocks. “So difficult wah! Three years, I never been home… My mother very old already. Anything happen now…” She looked at me, her eyes opaque with unshed tears. I recognized the increasingly familiar blend of desperation, resignation and gratitude coloring her face. I call it the Covid feels.
It’s all the things about the pandemic dragging us down miraculously buoyed by the gratitude that we’re still here, still healthy and that Singapore’s death toll from Covid stands at 31 out of over 60,00 reported infections. There is plenty to be grateful for.
So it was with trepidation that I received last week’s announcement for the pause of non-urgent procedures requiring medical specialists. A few days later entry or reentry to residents from all countries except less than a dozen few were suspended. Then the May 14 announcement: work from home as the default, dine-ins suspended for food and beverage services, congregations limited to no more than 2 people, whether you’re walking in the park or going grocery shopping.
By this evening, there were long queues at some grocery stores. But this time, we know to some extent what’s coming, and hopefully our past experience of Singapore’s widely-praise for its handling of the pandemic will mean I won’t have to wake up to Lily lying at the bottom of a staircase, eyes vacant and faraway, borne down by the wight of the Covid feels.