COVID-19 SPECIAL: Thinking Aloud

What I have learnt since Covid-19 happened

The pandemic has exposed the kind of parallel universes we have been living in

In recent months, my five-year-old daughter has been flipping through a book titled My First Question And Answer Book.

It is a 499-page tome of reassuring certitude. For every question, there is an answer.

How much hair do I have? (Answer: 5 million all over the body)

What is a rainbow made of? (Answer: Sunlight which bounces through raindrops and is split into different colours)

At this point, what intrigues her most are questions about pirates.

What is a pirate? (People who steal from ships and ports)

What do pirates eat? (Dry biscuits and pickled meat)

Can girls be pirates? (Of course)

But there is one more question she has been asking, to which there are no easy answers: When will "the virus" go away?

It gets an airing now and then, when she misses her grandparents and friends, or simply when she is feeling blue.

We don't know yet, I reply each time.

It has been six months since Covid-19 first emerged, and swept through the world like a tornado, laying waste to lives, jobs, economies.

Till today, as the number of infections and deaths continues to climb, much about this new coronavirus remains unknown.

Just last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had to clear up confusion over the question of just how frequently those without symptoms have spread it to others.

The answer: It does not know, because it does not know in the first place how many people who get infected with the virus never develop symptoms.

This makes the pandemic harder to contain because such silent spreaders cannot be identified and isolated before they potentially infect others.

Other unknowns the WHO experts raised include how asymptomatic people are spreading the virus if they are not coughing or sneezing - it could be that they still expel infectious droplets through singing, yelling or even just talking.

It comes atop other questions big and small for which there are no definitive answers so far:

 • How long the virus lives on surfaces

 • If it can be spread by human waste

 • If it can be spread through air-conditioning

 • If it can be spread by cats

Scientists all over are racing against time to find out as much as they can to answer these questions and more.

For the rest of us, we have our own investigations to do, as we try to make sense of what has happened and what lies ahead of us.

From migrant workers' welfare and low-wage essential workers to Singapore's economic model, these are topics now being aired and interrogated. When the dust has settled, what actions will we - as a society and as individuals - take, and what changes will we make? What do we do about the hefty recruitment fees that foreign workers pay?... Will we as individuals indeed go on to increase the fees we pay for essential services so that cleaners and waste collectors get more - as respondents in a Sunday Times survey say they are willing to do?

In Singapore, we have begun, slowly and cautiously, to emerge from our circuit breaker measures over the past two months.

And this is what I have learnt for now.

PARALLEL WORLDS

That I can be happy just seeing my husband, our two children and our helper, day in day out. We miss our extended family and friends, but during this time, it feels comfortable to be enveloped within this small circle. When there are no others to run to, no activities outside to throw ourselves into, we have no choice but to seek one another out, even when we had just done fighting.

That when May makes way for June, the sun's rays creep into the heart of our flat at 10am. All that heat accumulates and, by 4pm, the kids are small bundles of sweat and smelliness. I never noticed that in the past because I was rarely at home during those times.

That I can make fried eggs, shepherd's pie and gingerbread women. But everyone prefers the husband's cooking to mine, and I am happy about that. I embrace my limitations as a wife and mother.

That as busy working parents, we run the risk of prematurely labelling our children. We had assumed, for instance, that our "cautious" daughter will be slow in taking to cycling but she mastered it after a few tries during the circuit breaker period. Being around her more, round the clock, has plugged gaps in my understanding of her.

 
 

That she will need more time to come to terms with having a younger sibling for life. And that we are lucky to have a home that gives us all enough personal space when we need it - a privilege that the crisis has thrown into relief more than ever, when many families live in tight spaces.

That my helper's days are unremittingly tedious. She cleans, cooks and loves the kids like they are her own. I am thankful, and yet guilty knowing that because she is spending the prime of her life helping to care for them, her chances of meeting someone and having her own children before it is too late are much diminished. And yet we do not pay her nearly enough to set her free for good.

That while I congratulate myself for making it through the circuit breaker period juggling full-time work and parenting, there are women like Michelle Silvertino. The single mother of four children, who worked as a maid, waited five days along a highway in Metropolitan Manila for a bus ride home to her family in Calabanga more than 400km away. She died there by the road, still waiting, of Covid-19 on June 5.

MORE QUESTIONS

I have also learnt:

That almost every politician and pundit's favourite catchphrase this season is inspired by the quote that purportedly originated from Winston Churchill: "Don't waste a good crisis."

The Economist has said it. Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing has said it. The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China has said it.

And I agree.

 
 
 

The pandemic has deepened the inequities in our society, and exposed just what kind of parallel universes we live in.

In Singapore, it has cast a light on issues previously tucked away in the laptops of activists or discussed in small circles. From migrant workers' welfare and low-wage essential workers to Singapore's economic model, these are topics now being aired and interrogated.

When the dust has settled, what actions will we - as a society and as individuals - take, and what changes will we make?

What do we do about the hefty recruitment fees that foreign workers pay? What is stopping us from overhauling our construction industry so we have highly skilled and well-paid local workers who can complete one storey in four to six days - as they do in Hong Kong, in half the time taken in Singapore? Will we as individuals indeed go on to increase the fees we pay for essential services so that cleaners and waste collectors get more - as respondents in a Sunday Times survey say they are willing to do?

Or, when we return to "normalcy", do we carry on as we always have?

I have also learnt that the crisis may have exacerbated fault lines and long-held prejudices. In a time of fear and uncertainty, the us-versus-them tension sometimes seems even more charged.

There have been heightened mutterings about how foreigners are predominantly the ones not toeing the line (although a count of court cases will disprove that): from the Robertson Quay party that gathered for some unmasked jollying, to expatriate families that "accidentally bump into" one another at parks.

 
 
 

A Singaporean, worried about catching the virus from nearby dormitories, contacted the media, asking if infected foreign workers were trying to game the system by falling sick. "They come from Third World countries and are probably used to these sort of things," she said.

But for every one such person, there are others working to knit the social tapestry together: from Ms Debbie Fordyce, president of TWC2, to Temasek Polytechnic graduate Elmer Chan, who conducts swab tests for foreign workers as a paid volunteer, to Bangladeshi construction worker Omar Faruque Shipon, who set up a Facebook page translating news and announcements relating to Covid-19 for other migrant workers.

I have also learnt that the most learned experts and the most well-meaning government leaders can and do get it wrong.

There has been conflicting research, and in turn, conflicting rules. U-turns have been made, sometimes seemingly on a dime.

But sometimes, if not most times, they have been right. And just as sorry should not be the hardest word, neither should thank you.

Most importantly, I have learnt to appreciate more so than ever how lucky I am, to be able to write this article - at a time when thousands of businesses close, and 100,000 people are estimated to lose their jobs this year, with more possibly falling into poverty.

For the fortunate among us, Covid-19 is a time-out. As we wait the pandemic out, we wonder which food delivery app to use tonight. For the less fortunate, the conundrums they face are far graver.

What questions are their five-year-olds asking?

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 14, 2020, with the headline 'What I have learnt since Covid-19 happened'. Print Edition | Subscribe