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A First-Person Look At How Singapore Is Handling The Coronavirus Pandemic

Dealing with Covid-19 has been a trying time, but we’ve made some interesting and amusing discoveries in the process

The year 2020 was initially going to be an epic one for Anna and myself with a ton of travelling involved, due solely to the fact that a lot of ophthalmological conferences and other eye-related organisations wanted to take advantage of the potential for 20/20 vision puns. The year started relatively normally, first boarding a ship in Sydney in mid-January and cruising to to New Caledonia and back for my friend’s 40th birthday and then celebrating Chinese New Year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia almost as soon as we got back. The next month we spent a few days in Mexico before making our way to San Diego so Anna could be inducted into the Macula Society, but that all seems like a distant memory at this point in time. In fact, the idea of taking a cruise ship now just seems insane and it appears as if people will forever now question their decision to get on a giant boat with several thousand other people, but it will have nothing to do with the possibility of seasickness or even the ship sinking. In fact, at the end of March there were still more than 10 cruise ships and 10,000 passengers stranded at sea, all unable to dock anywhere because of the risk of Covid-19.

We definitely dodged a bullet with the ship, but so far a lot of our plans for the first half of the year have been dashed; by the end of July we were supposed to have traveled to China, South Korea, Taiwan, USA again, Ireland, Philippines, Thailand, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. The bulk of those were for Anna’s work, Philippines was a local holiday in place of a canceled conference to use already booked leave, Thailand was a wedding, and both Tanzania and Zimbabwe were for a Safari to celebrate Anna’s 40th birthday which incidentally happens to coincide with a conference that was supposed be held in Cape Town, South Africa. Now we’re not even certain when we’ll be able to go shopping, eat in a restaurant, or just hang out normally with friends again.
Maybe the current situation is the new normal for the foreseeable future, but one thing is for sure — I’m certainly glad we’re stuck in Singapore during this pandemic, because the government here got on top of the whole coronavirus thing early, first taking action on January 2 when mandatory temperature checks were issued at Changi airport for passengers arriving from Wuhan and all passengers from China two and a half weeks later. Regardless, the first coronavirus case was reported in Singapore on Thursday, January 23. In an interesting twist, the 12th reported case in Singapore was apparently a prostitute from Wuhan, China, having visited two red-light districts and stayed in three-different hotels, one with hourly rates, with different men.

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I sure am glad we got to skip all that

On Friday, January 24 we were set to travel to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for Chinese New Year with Anna’s family, but that was also the first day that mandatory temperature checks at all Singapore borders were enforced due to the first case in the country the previous day so we were met at the airport with insane hold ups (right). Fortunately for us, with all of the flying we do we are classed as Priority Passengers when we fly with Singapore Airlines and other Krisflyer affiliates so we got to skip the queues, check in, have our temperature scanned, and be on our way. This was well before the US had even considered the possibility of taking any measures on the coronavirus, but it wasn’t like they were oblivious to what was going on in other parts of the world; I posted these photos of some of our Chinese New Year dishes on several Facebook food pages (unfortunately, I don’t have links to the exact pages) and the responses generally weren’t all that positive, mainly because of the belief that Covid-19 started as the result of people eating bat soup in rural China:

It was mainly the picture of the chicken that got the attention, but all of the meat dishes were served with the heads merely for presentation and, with the exception of the fish, the head isn’t consumed. Fish heads have been eaten by the poor in both Eastern and Western culture for centuries, but pig heads are a little too crunchy, and if any of the detractors had tasted the chicken without being able to see its cranium, they would more than likely agree that it was one of the better braised chicken dishes they had ever been served, but that didn’t stop the onslaught of hate and racist comments, ranging from, “That’s why you have coronavirus,” to “We need to nuke China!!!” and everything in between. When I clarified that these pictures were taken in Malaysia, not China, the same arguments constantly came up, with people claiming it is the same place. That’s funny, because it takes six hours to fly from KL to Beijing, whereas the flight from Toronto to Mexico City is shorter, yet Canada and Mexico are not generally considered “the same place.” Other detractors on the pages just pointed out that there is a Chinese woman in one of the photos so it must be in China. When I clicked on the profiles of those posting the worst comments, they were almost always Americans so the the citizens there obviously knew there was trouble afoot. It’s strange that the country with the chicken head on the plate is doing far better when it comes to handling the virus than the US currently is.

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Genuine WHO advice received on January 28

We returned to Singapore on the evening of Monday, January 27 and when we had stopped laughing at the World Health Organization’s advice on reducing infection (left) the following day, we decided to go grocery shopping. Definitely a good decision. On Friday, February 7 the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level was raised from Yellow to Orange, putting us in a position where the future was rather unclear. This meant that all healthcare workers were from then on required to take and submit their temperature twice per day in order to prove they hadn’t developed a fever. For the general population, however, that’s when the panic-buying began. Now, I’ve watched enough TV shows and movies that begin with similar events including OutbreakThe Stand, and Shaun of the Dead so I thought I knew the type of stuff people would be hoarding in a time when a virus makes the future a little uncertain; bottled water, canned food, pasta, rice, batteries, that type of thing, but it turned out that those items weren’t that high on the general population’s shopping lists. People here mainly wanted toilet paper and at first I thought it was just the local mentality, but it would eventually turn out to be a global thing. Back when I was in university I had no money so I learnt quickly that many things can be used as toilet paper — I used to use the free Melbourne street-press in desperate situations and then have a shower to wash the newspaper ink off my backside afterwards. Many things can be substituted for toilet paper, but very few can be food, yet that was secondary on most people’s collective minds. Once the toilet paper had run dry that’s when the kiasu mentality kicked in on all other goods. I’ve mentioned ‘kiasu’ before, but for those who don’t know what it means and can’t be bothered clicking that link and scrolling down, here’s the definition:

kiasu

ˈkjɑːsuː/

adjective

  • 1. (of a person) having a grasping or selfish attitude arising from a fear of missing out on something: kiasu parents enrol their kids in more and more tuition classes.”

noun

  • 1. a grasping, selfish attitude.

Origin: From Hokkien (驚輸 POJ: kiaⁿ-su, kiaⁿ-si); literally: “afraid to lose”

Despite being told time and time again to stay calm and that hoarding goods wasn’t at all necessary, people started taking all of the items on the shelves that they could possibly fit in their car and filled up rooms in their homes to the point that they could start up their own convenience stores. However, if you take a look at the videos in that link, you will see that for some there wasn’t a whole lot of logic involved, especially the people who were essentially just stocking up on condiments and expensive, auspicious foodstuffs. Of course, this idea backfired for a lot of people when it became clear that supermarkets weren’t going to close, especially for those who had stashed perishables and then later had their requests for refunds rejected when their food rotted, as fresh vegetables tend to do over time.

It was Friday, February 14 when we flew out to Mexico and California, going through all of the temperature screenings again as we left Singapore, but absolutely no safety measures whatsoever when we arrived at LAX. When we were to fly back from the US to Singapore more than a week later, after stocking up on hand sanitiser in San Diego, another commodity rapidly becoming in short supply in Singapore at the time, we drove to the airport and were herded into large groups and searched for drugs going out of Los Angeles, but still they didn’t particularly seem all that bothered by people’s health. Kind of unusual, because not long after we had returned to Singapore, a couple of my friends here were put under 14-days home quarantine because one of them had been to the same gym on the same day as a reported Covid-19 case. This action wasn’t taken lightly by the Singapore government, either, as the pair were subjected to multiple random visits and calls throughout the day without warning, the phone calls requesting they send their GPS coordinates to confirm they hadn’t left the house. In the most Singaporean story possible, one of the first people charged under the Infectious Disease act with breaching a mandatory stay-home notice was a man who was being quarantined for 14 days at home after returning from Myanmar, but felt he just needed to go out and eat bak kuh teh, a regional pork rib soup dish. In a sign of how seriously the Singapore government is taking its quarantine measures, the case went to court, he will be sentenced on April 23, and the Deputy Public Prosecutor Kenneth Chin urged the court to sentence him to at least 10 to 12 weeks’ jail to “reflect the seriousness of the offence” and deter others from committing a similar act! In slightly more subtle measures, Anna developed a runny nose 13 days after our return to Singapore so she had to go to the hospital for a rather painful nasal swab and then we waited until the next day for the results, hoping there wouldn’t be any men in hazmat suits knocking on our door to take us away. The results came back clear, but she was still given five days mandatory sick leave, all because we had been overseas in the previous 14 days.

Temperature checks when entering any public building in Singapore became the norm in mid to late February so even if you went to a shopping mall, you would be screened and then certified with a sticker placed on the sleeve of your clothing to confirm your temperature was in a healthy range. This made shopping in major areas kind of amusing, because you could look at a person’s clothes and see how many different malls they had visited, some of the more obsessive shoppers appearing as if a game of Connect-4 had been played on them.
It was Tuesday, March 24 that it was announced that the beginning of the end had officially begun — As of the Thursday, March 26, all entertainment outlets, nightclubs, bars, places of worship, attractions, and tuition centres would be closed and a S$10,000 (US$7000.00) fine and/or six months imprisonment penalty put in place for offending operators, however, eateries could remain open, meaning you could still go out for a drink if the venue was licensed as a restaurant and wasn’t showing anything on screens or playing music. This entertainment closure even specifically included “Axe-Throwing Centres,” something I didn’t even know was a thing here. In fact, I can’t recall ever even having seen an axe for sale in Singapore, let alone someone throwing one! Boy, is my finger not on the pulse:

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A huge blow to the axe-throwing industry

Social distancing measures were brought in as well at that time, there needed to be a space of one metre (3’4″) between people and groups hanging out together could consist of no more than 10 individuals and they were still required to be spaced a metre apart. We knew at that time the end was near and then it happened, the Prime Minister gave a formal announcement on Friday, April 3 saying that as of Tuesday, April 7 a “circuit breaker” would be put into place for at least four weeks and that is where we are now. What’s this circuit breaker I hear you ask in your internal monologue? Well, it is a stricter set of laws that means all non-essential business and workplaces are closed, schools are also closed and have become home-based learning, and any food and drink establishment has become takeaway or delivery only. To add to all of this, everybody is required to stay at home except for essential tasks such as buying necessary goods, dog-walking, or forms of solo exercise and if you do leave your abode, there is a S$300.00 (US$210.00) fine for not wearing a face mask when you do so, increasing substantially after the first offence. For a little perspective, Florida Govenor Ron DeSantis has extended “essential services” to include professional wrestling matches. Anna had managed to purchase some masks online for us when the outbreak first happened and the government also delegated four reusable masks per person per household, but the reusable masks are just too small for me; my big nose makes the mask painfully pull my ears forward, while the surface area of the mask only allows me to speak through clenched teeth like a ventriloquist, otherwise my aforementioned massive nose pops out over the top.
Fortunately for us, the circuit breaker was announced with a few days warning so we had time to think of some hobbies to fill in our homestay. I enjoy art and have always loved Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting, every episode of which is currently available on YouTube, so I showed Anna a couple of episodes and she was keen to take up landscape painting, however, we have recently sold our apartment, yet are still staying in it and I can’t see us successfully being able to paint all that cleanly so she opted for sewing instead. This meant going to Spotlight to buy some supplies and a sewing machine to get started, also finding that they sold wall art of a dog that eerily resembled ours in the process, and while we were in the mall I decided to purchase a PS4 so I could play video games in between tasks, chores, and errands while Anna was making Tim-sized masks among other things. The only problem was that, while the rest of the world had only recently caught up and were panic-buying toilet paper, Singaporeans had moved on to purchasing emergency gaming consoles. They were sold out everywhere! We still got the sewing machine, as well as a case of beer and some other groceries, but those larger items in a trolley with some stuff from the supermarket would have given the impression to others that we were doomsday prepping too. The following day was the last feeling of freedom we would experience for at least a month so I walked into town to visit Funan, a mall specialising in electronics, with the intention of buy a PS4, but it was impossible to find one anywhere, the stores had just resorted to putting signs out the front saying that all consoles were sold out, they even had very few games, so all hope was lost… or so I thought. The last store I tried was Best, a chain of electronics stores, and I saw a display box in a cabinet so I thought I may as well ask, only to be met with a reply of “sold out.” Upon closer inspection, it appeared as if the security seal was still on the box so I asked the elderly man working in that department if I could see the box in the cabinet and the look on the employees’ collective faces confirmed my suspicions, I may have found one of the very last PlayStations in Singapore, complete with five games including an old favourite of mine, Grand Theft Auto V. I took it over to a younger, dumbfounded cashier, he opened up the box and told me that the membership included would have expired so he knocked an extra S$50.00 (US$35.00) off the price, an action that was met with death-stares from all of the other male customers in my immediate vicinity. I tried to play it down by blatantly lying and saying that the PS4 was for my non-existent son, but that didn’t really clear the air with the other shoppers.
A few scenes from the days before the circuit breaker kicked in:

So, since we’ve been put on a stay at home notice, Anna and I have both been collectively losing our minds and we’re only a little over a week in. After we went grocery shopping we decided to clean out our cupboards and fridge to store food more easily and that’s when we realised that we probably should’ve cleared out our kitchen a lot earlier. Besides many other outdated goods, we found some baking soda that expired in 2015, a bottle of Sriracha sauce that was so old that it had turned a very dark shade of brown, and some grated cheese in the freezer that should’ve been thrown out more than two years ago. However, after a little research we discovered that the cheese expiry only counts if it’s stored sealed in the fridge, but frozen, grated mozzarella lasts indefinitely so I later used it to cook with and we’re still here. The next day I plugged in the PS4, downloaded NBA 2K20, and tried to create my own player by scanning my face and it does resemble me, but only if I had recently suffered a stroke, mainly due to the fact that I was staring into a light while doing the facial scanning. It’s still a bit of fun, though.
The last major event was that eight days into quarantine there was an internet outage islandwide, but Anna thought it may have just been our place so she tried the old adage of “turn it off and on again” to get the modem restarted. The only problem was that she didn’t turn the devices off individually, she decided to just turn everything off at the wall, an event that stopped our TV from working again. Initially we thought she may have blown a fuse, but when a repairman was able to come over three hours later with us sans internet or TV, we were informed that the circuitboard was burnt out, would need to be replaced for a substantial amount of cash, and wouldn’t be ready for another four days. We do have a second older and smaller TV that we are now using in the meantime, but its screen is pretty burnt out too, with weird, snowy white patches all over it and only watchable from directly in front, otherwise appearing to be a cloudy version of a negative picture. Cool.
Some of the latest images from our quarantine:

If you’ve made it this far through the story of living in Singapore during Covid-19, then congratulations. The beginning of this post says that we made some amusing and interesting discoveries during the pandemic thus far so here they are, my equivalent of tl;dr for this post:

  • Don’t have unprotected sex with animals, wild or otherwise, if you want to avoid contracting the coronavirus
  • A large portion of the Covid-19 virus in Singapore was initially more than likely spread by a hooker
  • Eating bak kuh teh has the potential to land you in jail
  • Axe-throwing is a game here
  • People panic-buy gaming consoles in Singapore too
  • Some also tried to return hoarded goods for a refund when they rotted
  • Spotlight sells wall art that looks suspiciously like Kermit
  • Frozen cheese lasts indefinitely
  • Florida classes pro-wrestling as an “essential service”
  • Try not to squint during the face scan for the NBA 2K20 “My Player” build
  • Watching our current TV is how people with cataracts would probably experience it

There’s at least almost three more weeks left of quarantine officially remaining here and I still think that is a little optimistic so I’m almost certain there will be a sequel to this post. In the meantime, to give you something to which you can look forward, I came up with an idea that I am certain someone else would’ve thought of as well — Although I’m not a particularly hairy person, I’m not going to shave or cut my hair until I’m allowed to hang out with friends in public again, and I will take a photo in the same pose as an earlier one, a la the Beatles, to show the results of my complete lack of hard work or effort:

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  1. Eating Some Interesting Stuff For Anna’s 40th Birthday – Dr. Tan's Travels
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