Space in the time of the coronavirus

What happens when public space becomes private space, when a city is measured in distances? Insight channels writer Italo Calvino

I dream of the hanging city of lights in the National Gallery Singapore. It is January; I am at the Light to Night Festival, its theme this year taken from Italo Calvino's novel Invisible Cities.

We crowd the atrium to take photos of the lights. Outside on the Padang, children push giant five stones onto one another, screaming with laughter. I see a friend selling books outside The Arts House and go to embrace him.

This is the city of memory. I wake up, and I am in another city, a city held in thrall to an invisible dread. I have not gone outside in 16 days.

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in one of the greatest losses of public space since humanity threw in its lot with one another and began living together in cities.

In Singapore, this takes the form of a circuit breaker, a month of stringent measures in which the Singapore Government embarks on its most ambitious spatial control effort to date.

In an attempt to halt the pandemic's spread in the community, they have laid out new rules on safe distancing, which forbid nearly all private social gatherings between people who do not live together.

Every day, the regulations get tighter, because they are still being disobeyed. Parents will no longer be allowed to drop children off daily with grandparents. Sports stadiums have been closed after too many people continue to exercise in them.

The pandemic has been many things, among them a crisis of space.

Singapore did not have very much space to begin with - having to share public space is a constant source of tension and unhappiness - and now, at a time when space is a matter of life and death, we are running out of it.

Hospital capacity is finite; the Government has turned to converting places like the Singapore Expo into isolation facilities.

It has been hard for Singaporeans to give up their right to public space, and many cling stubbornly to it.

Witness the party-goers who amassed for a final hurrah before bars had to close, or the long queues at furniture store Ikea last weekend.


Even under the circuit breaker measures, supermarkets and wet markets continue to be crowded, making grocery shopping a fraught venture.

On Tuesday alone, more than 7,000 written advisories were issued to members of the public for flouting safe distancing strictures.

Within every city, there are other cities - thin cities, hidden cities. To most of us, they are invisible. In the best of times, they go unseen; in the worst, like now, their need to be seen is all the more desperate.

It is perhaps only now, when it has been taken from us, that we realise how much we depended on space.

A city is not merely a set of buildings and infrastructure; nor is it confined to the urban plan laid out by the authorities. "There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city," wrote urban planning activist Jane Jacobs. "People make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans."

Space is produced by people when they move and meet and live, in what philosopher Michel Foucault calls "a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein".

That city, that intricate skein of life, is gone now. Isolation has made it invisible to each of us, sealed away from one another in our homes. We are living in the shell of it.

This is now a city of elderly people gazing out of their windows, alone; distracted parents trying to keep their children occupied at all hours; lovers parted, watching each other's lips move on a screen.

It is a city mapped in dead ends and measured in distances. The metre between you and the next person in the queue. The time it takes for the delivery person to get to your place with your order. The height of the National Parks Board drone overhead, counting the number of people on the green.

It is a city where the boundaries between kinds of space - the oppositions that Foucault would have once called "inviolable" - have collapsed.

Work space is leisure space; family space is social space. We are trying to import real life into virtual arenas, which - from the teething problems with telecommuting to the hacking and sexual harassment of a secondary school class over Zoom last Wednesday - has had its perils. There is nearly no public space any more, so private space will have to make do.


Not everybody had enough private space to begin with. This circuit breaker will be especially hard for those in rental flats, those who have large families in small homes and those who live alone.

It is hard for the migrant workers who were living more than 10 men per room in dormitories, long before safe distancing rules forbade Singaporeans from gathering in groups of more than 10, and who, with more than 600 cases of infection, are now the community hardest hit by the virus in Singapore.


It is hard for those who have been isolated with their abusers, as domestic violence surges around the world in the wake of the pandemic.

Within every city, there are other cities - thin cities, hidden cities. To most of us, they are invisible. In the best of times, they go unseen; in the worst, like now, their need to be seen is all the more desperate.

In Invisible Cities, the explorer Marco Polo says to the emperor Kublai Khan: "The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together."

Perhaps the city we lived in has always been an infernal one. It is only that with the pandemic, more of us began to feel the flames.

Marco Polo has two strategies for dealing with suffering in times like this. "The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it," he says.

"The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."

People who are doing the second include those risking their lives on the front line of the pandemic.

The volunteers assembling care packets and topping up prepaid SIM cards for the thousands of migrant workers who cannot leave their dormitories.

The Singaporeans who gave away their $600 Solidarity payments from the Government to those who need it more.

The people on Facebook saying, message me if you need help, these are the code words if you need me to call the police or a domestic violence helpline for you, I am here for you, I will listen.

Kublai Khan says to Marco Polo: "At times I feel your voice is reaching me from far away, while I am prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable present, where all forms of human society have reached an extreme of their cycle and there is no imagining what new forms they may assume.

"And I hear, from your voice, the invisible reasons which make cities live, through which perhaps, once dead, they will come to life again."

In the still time of the circuit breaker, we can think about the city we will rebuild in its wake.

How, when public space is once more safe space, we may better appreciate its value and open it to more people. How, when distance need no longer be enforced by law, we will remember the communities that we should not have kept our distance from to begin with.

In the meantime, we can learn to give each other space. And so we will endure.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 12, 2020, with the headline 'Space in the time ofthe coronavirus'. Print Edition | Subscribe