Thinking Aloud

Coronavirus: Make haste, but slowly, as Singapore moves ahead into phase 3

Having endured months of restrictions, everyone wants to move on, but a nasty, crafty bug stands ready to pounce

Singapore is slowly-but-surely reopening its economy, with new business and leisure activities re-emerging. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

And then, as everyone has been hoping for, comes phase three.

Yes, perhaps coming soon to a cinema, restaurant or sports hall near you, is the third phase of Singapore's slowly-but-surely reopening of its economy, with new business and leisure activities re-emerging.

Having endured months of restrictions, socially and economically, it is little wonder that this has been anxiously anticipated.

Painful as they were, the measures worked in flattening the infection curve, beating the coronavirus back to low or zero levels in the community.

In effect, we are now back to roughly where we were in February.

Remember those halcyon days, which seem an age ago, when most of us still made the daily trip into the office, ventured out pretty much as we pleased, travelling and consuming airplane food in the air, or even enjoying cruises that were not just sailing to nowhere.

Then, as now, the virus outbreak at home seemed largely under control, even as it was flaring up abroad.

Having paid the high price of the circuit breaker to check the virus, minds have now rightly turned to how best to jump-start the economy, without allowing the virus to surge again.

This will require a measure of Goldilocks not-too-hot and not-too-cold balancing to get things right.

Move too fast, whether out of fatigue and frustration, giving in to political pressures or commercial imperatives, and the virus will be back with a vengeance.

Should that happen, the seasonal blockbuster coming to a cinema near you will be Circuit Breaker II, a sequel, I suspect, that few will be in a hurry to catch.

Yet, move too slowly, and Singapore's hard-earned position as a regional and global hub, where the world comes to connect and trade, risks being snatched by others only too eager to displace it from its coveted perch.

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Besides, there is added urgency to getting the economy going. After all, push, it would seem, has come to shove.

Retrenchments, held off for months, look set to rise, as government support grants taper off. Wage cuts loom, now that the National Wages Council has sanctioned such a recourse if all else fails to stave off job cuts.

Further afield, there is talk of a long, dark winter ahead, as the virus surges in Europe and the United States, with case numbers and deaths hitting new highs. New lockdowns in France, Germany and elsewhere portend a double-dip recession in some countries.


Long and short of Covid-19

In the light of this, the talk among the experts has turned to what is being called "long Covid".

Put simply, this means that the pandemic, which some had initially said, rather hopefully, would pass in weeks or months, now looks like it is here to stay well into the new year, and alas, perhaps even beyond.

For even if a viable vaccine is found any time soon, it will take many more months to scale up production and ship it widely before it can do its healing magic. Restoring economic confidence and social well-being might take longer.

It is against this gloomy backdrop that Singaporeans, ironically, are looking forward to the sunny prospect of a reopening ahead.

Who can blame us, given where we have been?

Indeed, given the experience of the past months, we should count ourselves lucky.

Our hospitals have not been overwhelmed. Intensive care units here are relatively quiet. Ventilators, once frenziedly sought, are stashed away. Community care facilities, ramped up at speed, have been allowed to stand down.

Most importantly, the death toll here - at 28 - is remarkably, and thankfully, low by most objective standards.

We lose sight of these achievements at our peril.

For doing so opens up a void, which can too easily be filled by restiveness or even resentment, as seen in so many parts of the world.

Past is prologue

In this regard, what's past is prologue, as William Shakespeare famously says in one of his plays.

For the difficult challenge for us now is how to gradually get back to where we were, resuming economic and social activities, step by cautious step, only too aware that we must give no quarter which a nasty, crafty bug stands ever ready to seize on.

The experience of the past months has taught us that this coronavirus does not take a summer holiday, as European countries have learnt the hard way.

Similarly, it will not hold off just because Singaporeans want - no, need! - a break or have to go on holiday during the upcoming December vacation season.

Covid-19, it should be clear by now, respects neither rank nor reputation, striking presidents and paupers alike.

It cares not for political rhetoric or wishful thinking about how it will soon pass or be brought under control.

The coronavirus' message to us humans has all along been clear and simple: We just want to replicate! Just give us half a chance to do so, and we will.

So, even while we might all be chafing at the bit, and want desperately to go rushing ahead with phase three, we will have to brace ourselves for many more months of cautious gradualism - feeling our way forward, dialling things up and down to reset our world as we knew it, and reacting to the inevitable ebbs and flows that are still to come.

A bit of a grind

Indeed, like it or not, as Canadian author Emily St John Mandel put it in a recent interview with the Financial Times (FT), the months to come could be "a bit of a tedious grind".

The author of Station Eleven, a 2014 novel about a fictional pandemic that hits the world, points to the prescient blog in March by Mr Tomas Pueyo, titled The Hammer And The Dance.

That described the process of societies beginning to "dance", as the virus numbers fall, opening up one thing at a time, with hammer in hand ready to batter the bug down should virus numbers jump again.

And, to complicate matters further, even as we learn to live with the bug in this new normal in the short term, we will have to keep an eye on how to make the best of a difficult situation in the medium term, while also trying to minimise the long-term scarring of our society and economy.

This will be a tricky trilemma, with difficult judgment calls having to be made, without quite knowing what the future might entail, and perhaps the only certainty being that it is unlikely to be just a regression to the past.

To see this more clearly, consider how we might choose to work once the pandemic has passed. A recent survey by The Straits Times and OPPi, an opinion research firm, showed that eight in 10 of those polled preferred to continue working form home, or some sort of flexible work arrangements.

Only one in 10 said they yearned to go back to their offices, with the other one in 10 having done so already.

In other words, employers must gird themselves for some difficult conversations with staff who might well ask why they must return to the old ways of working, when the months of telecommuting they have endured - and some rather enjoyed - proved so effective.

Yet, while working from home has many upsides, it comes with costs too. We are all social animals, and most would accept that something vital is lost from our enforced social separation, in terms of our ability to collaborate, foster bonds, build cultures, train and mentor, to hone the skills and instincts that will be needed for success in the future.

In addition, the societal tendency to revert to the familiar, coupled with pressures to do as others are doing, could also drive a reversal to deep-seated business norms.

A recent thoughtful FT report on the future of work summed it up well when it argued that it would be "unwise to commit to permanent plans about work patterns on current circumstances".

This is because the choices made now about whether to work from home are not real ones, given that the virus continues to rage in many places.

"This isn't genuine remote working in that it has removed autonomy of choosing when to work from home versus when to work in the office - autonomy being a key success factor to remote working."

So even here too, we look to be in for a bit of a tedious grind, plodding uncertainly along, trying things out to see what works, adjusting and adapting, as the situation unfolds, for many more months to come.

"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day," as Macbeth lamented in the eponymous play.

Angst and fatigue

I know, it all sounds frightfully trying and tiresome, enough to induce a wave of what the experts call "pandemic fatigue" - that sense of restlessness and resentment that is fuelling so much angst, both here and around the world.

The French, as so often, have a word that sums the mood up well - ennui - referring to the boredom and mental exhaustion that come from not having much that is interesting or exciting to do.

Sound familiar?

Nowhere to go these December holidays. Scaled-down Christmas decorations in Orchard Road. Parties restricted to five (or mercifully, by then, eight?). Gifts ordered online, delivered in dull brown boxes.

Rightly, many are now saying that we ought to pay closer attention to the deeper scarring that might be wrought by "long Covid".

This might resemble the mental traumas that arose from enduring years of wars, depressions or occupations.

Trying times

The questions we must consider then are these: How to cope in these trying times? How to stay sane, and still, when our instincts are to rush ahead to regain our lives, just at a time when we have to exercise restraint, or risk what we have gained?

How to do so when the usual antidotes to the stress and strain of our hyper-urban lives - the annual getaway, the frenzied shopping, the dizzying lights, and parties with friends and family to add some cheer - all seem impossible or ill-advised?

There are no easy answers, and at the risk of sounding flippant or facile, I would simply say: Be.

Take heart from the ancient Zen wisdom in dealing with the ineluctable vicissitudes of life, always ebbing and flowing, ever changing, even as things stay pretty much the same.

Be kinder. To yourself, and others.

Pause. Ponder. Peruse.

You are, after all, going nowhere, and time, for once, is not so scarce.

You might also turn, as I often do, to the Bard for solace and succour.

In his play, Henry VI, these words are offered to the weary:

"Wise men ne'er sit and wail their loss

But cheerly seek how to redress their harms.

What though the mast be now blown overboard,

The cable broke, the holding-anchor lost,

And half our sailors swallowed in the flood?

Yet lives our pilot still. Is't meet that he

Should leave the helm and, like a fearful lad,

With tearful eyes add water to the sea,

And give more strength to that which hath too much,

Whiles, in his moan the ship splits on the rock,

Which industry and courage might have saved?...

Why, courage then! what cannot be avoided

'Twere childish weakness to lament or fear."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2020, with the headline Make haste, but slowly, as Singapore moves ahead into phase 3. Subscribe