The Straits Times

Standing together against the virus

As countries around the world struggle to come to terms with lockdowns, quarantines and, sadly, deaths in the light of the spreading coronavirus, The Straits Times' editorial writers have been reflecting on the profound effect that the outbreak is having on people and societies around the world. Our editorials this week will focus on various issues related to this, in the hope of helping readers think through the way forward in these difficult times.

In Wuhan, residents at the centre of the outbreak in China shouted "Wuhan jiayou" from their windows, urging fellow residents to stay strong. Italians opened their windows to sing, play music and wave at neighbours. Germans in a Bavarian town used their rooftops and windows to sing out Bella Ciao, an Italian anti-fascist classic, to proclaim solidarity with Italians. A Batak policeman in Indonesia's Jambi province gained fame, and gratitude, after singing Jiayou Wuhan.

These expressions make the defiant point that while the coronavirus is a biological reality, culture offers a resistance to its effects on human relations. People are social creatures whose surroundings influence their sense of themselves. Home quarantine, to say nothing of a city-wide or national lockdown, forces individuals to retreat into private spaces that are usually cut off from their accustomed social hinterlands. Physiological and psychological problems could follow. Long-term isolation, it has been argued, can cause a "social recession" akin to the economic problems caused by the pandemic. Such isolation deprives people of the everyday companionship of friends and colleagues that helps to reduce stress, which texting, video calls and telephone conversations can only mitigate.

These cannot replace the value of face-to-face communication in personal and social relationships. That is why the citizens of China, Italy and Germany made attempts to cheer those under the stress of isolation, whether next door or a border away. Singaporeans are not an emotionally demonstrative people. So singing from balconies is not a familiar practice. In any case, despite the widening restrictions implemented here to check the outbreak, the city has not - yet - been locked down.

One way to overcome the outbreak psychologically is to remember the cultural traditions of filial care and shared sense of community that have helped Singapore thrive. While there is little doubt that keeping a safe distance is a necessity today, this is not to say that Singaporeans stand alone and apart. This society has weathered many storms over the decades, and shown tremendous resolve in overcoming past crises. A new generation now faces testing times. It can draw strength from the way its forebears managed to pull through, over and over again, by standing together.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2020, with the headline 'Standing together against the virus'. Subscribe