COVID-19 SPECIAL: Thinking Aloud

Field notes from the middle of a pandemic

Solidarity with all in our midst means striving for a certain standard of living for all, including migrant workers and low-income families: ensuring safe shelters and that no child goes hungry

It's been 34 days since Singapore went into semi-lockdown, with most workplaces, retail outlets and schools closed.

On April 7, the Government imposed what it called a "circuit breaker", to curtail the spread of the coronavirus that causes the Covid-19 disease ravaging the world.

Social distancing and isolation rules forbid people from socialising with anyone outside their household; and frown on anyone going out except for essential work, to get food, or to exercise.

Most Singaporeans have tried their best to abide by the rules. Slowly but surely, we are getting accustomed to a new way of living.

The human brain is so malleable, and our memory so short, it is getting harder to visualise life beyond this severe cycle of working from home, cooking and eating at home, relaxing at home, sleeping at home and waking up the next day to repeat the cycle - for those lucky enough to have a job to do at home.

It is an unusual existence.

This too shall pass, eventually - but human memory being what it is, while we are in this Pause mode of life, it might be good to think about what living in the midst of a great pandemic is teaching us and think through what we might want to do differently when this is over.

Here is one aspect of what I am learning.

SHARING

After Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced in Parliament that every Singaporean will get an increase in the Solidarity Payment to $600, some netizens began a campaign to get people who did not need the money to donate it to others. Within hours, the campaign got traction. Looking on, I felt this was truly an act of solidarity - to give away a bonus from the state one does not need, to those who need it more.

The experience of living through a major trauma like Covid-19 heightens our sense of solidarity. Diseases are a great leveller. Being vulnerable to sickness together, and suffering common inconveniences, reminds us of our shared humanity.

In Covid-19, we are in it together.


Advertising agency Kinetic Singapore started a ThankYouDeliveryHeroes poster campaign, where people can print out posters and stick them on their doors to thank delivery workers. The experience of living through a major trauma like Covid-19 heightens Singaporeans' sense of solidarity, says the writer, and this has fuelled an amazing array of ground-up initiatives. PHOTO: PANN LIM

That sense of solidarity has fuelled an amazing array of ground-up initiatives. So many Singaporeans are so eager to do something helpful for others, big or small: buy masks to give away, sew masks, convert factories into mask-making plants, cook food, deliver food, pack hand sanitiser to give away, buy groceries for the elderly, donate groceries to the needy, help hawkers go online to get customers, and so on.

We are beginning to develop a stronger social conscience and learn to share what we have.

This means not giving in to our natural instinct of caring only for ourselves and family, and thinking of how others will be affected if we fend only for ourselves. This means for example refusing to hoard food, toilet paper, masks or other critical supplies that everyone else needs.

Because we are in a public health emergency, we understand it is a matter of life and death not to hoard masks or personal protective equipment, and so we buy and keep enough for ourselves, but not to excess.

 
 
 

I hope we carry that sense of solidarity with us out of the Covid-19 crisis and embed it in our daily life. Then life here will be so much more pleasant.

Imagine if solidarity means people stop trying to cut queues to get ahead; imagine how much less stressful our roads will be if drivers give way to one another, and when you signal that you need to go into their lane to make a crucial turning at the next junction, the car behind you slows down.

Imagine how much less stressful school will be if people stop competing with one another for the last available school place or tuition slot; and students never hide key reference texts in other rows in the library so only they can find them in future.

NOT EQUALITY BUT DIGNITY

Solidarity has also made us more attuned to the situation of migrant workers, whose crowded dormitories are now the scene of a massive outbreak of the virus.

Many of them work in construction, travelling in lorries where they sit close together, too near for social distancing, from their dorms to different workplaces at construction sites around the island. This means a small infection cluster at one site can be picked up and spread quickly in dorms, and passed on to other workplaces.

Many workers also go to Mustafa, a 24-hour department store popular with South Asian shoppers, which was an early infection cluster.

Within the dorms themselves, crowded sleeping places, and the use of communal spaces for eating, toileting and recreation, make them natural venues for viral spread. It's the same reason why nursing homes worldwide are susceptible to Covid-19.

With dorms too heavily occupied for any meaningful social distancing to take place, tens of thousands of foreign workers are being moved out to alternative housing in vacant Housing Board blocks, vacated army camps, and rapidly set-up shelters at convention centres. Once occupancy is reduced, the remaining workers can continue to live in the dorms while observing social distancing rules.

Some activist and advocacy groups have long complained about poor living conditions for these workers. With the Covid-19 infections spreading rapidly among this segment of the population, much is being promised now to improve their housing and living conditions.

 
 
 

Standards are to be raised - but to what levels? Give these migrant workers quarters on a par with our national servicemen's bunks? Give them HDB flats to live in? House them, as now, in resorts, hotel-style accommodation, cruise ships?

But this ignores the reality that life is unequal. Not everyone lives in a Sentosa Cove bungalow with a private pool that one can still swim in during the circuit breaker period (public pools, as well as those in private condominium complexes, are all closed).

Solidarity with others does not necessarily extend to inviting them to enter and share your home or your room.

Rather than assume false equality for all, solidarity requires that we uphold a certain standard of decency and dignity that we think everyone in Singapore should be entitled to.

And we then back that commitment with the resources to make it come true.

For example, we may say that migrant workers in Singapore should be entitled to housing according to the International Labour Organisation standard. Then we make sure dorms are built to those specifications such as to have "one toilet, one wash basin and one tub or shower for every six persons". Urban Redevelopment Authority guidelines now stipulate one set of toilet facilities for 15 dormitory residents.

We may also say that solidarity means we aim for a standard of life where no Singaporean should be without shelter; and no child here should go hungry.

These are easy statements to write, but bold targets to aim for, which will require a huge amount of political will, resources and coordination and determination to achieve.

And yet, increasingly, I think that we must do this or suffer the consequences.

The current crisis has exposed the underbelly of society in Singapore, just as it is doing across the world. Indeed, in many parts of the world, the problems surfaced by Covid-19 are more severe. Millions of migrant workers worldwide are going without salary, food or shelter as workplaces close and employers are unable or unwilling to help, and government help is distant or non-existent. Few countries are doing what Singapore is doing: providing housing and food, promising them their salaries - and providing free medical care, Wi-Fi and prepaid SIM cards.

 
 
 

As far as the response during this crisis goes, I think Singaporeans have every reason to feel proud that we are doing our best.

At the same time, however, some of our weaknesses as a society are being exposed.

The ugly parts that we are prone to tuck away out of sight - migrant workers in dorms far from our living spaces, the poor families in rental block enclaves, the rough sleepers who curl up at night in alleyways in the central business areas long after workers have left - lie open to our gaze and that of the world.

In this public health crisis, we can no longer ignore them, because their poor living conditions make them vulnerable to the disease, and their health affects all of us, because disease does not care about nationality, status or race, because we are all in it together.

Covid-19 makes it crystal clear that those who live among us - work permit holder, work pass holder, permanent resident or citizen - are part of us.

Covid-19 is a global crisis; so many societies are going through similar bouts of soul-searching. Each will have to come up with its own solution.

On our part, Singaporeans have to get over our denial of the poverty and suffering in our midst and open our eyes to what is being laid bare.

 
 

It is easy to push all blame onto the Government, or onto the workers themselves, but such externalising is immature.

Far better to accept the underbelly of Singapore society as our own, and then take disciplined, methodical steps to set things right. How? For a start, by aiming for living standards that offer dignity: safe shelters for all including migrant workers, and doing our best to make sure no child goes hungry.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 10, 2020, with the headline 'Field notes from the middle of a pandemic'. Print Edition | Subscribe