Coronavirus: Many seniors still shop for groceries at markets despite PM Lee urging them to stay home

Elderly shoppers explained that they live alone and are reluctant to ask their children for help.
Elderly shoppers explained that they live alone and are reluctant to ask their children for help.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - A day after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a special appeal to older Singaporeans to stay home during the coronavirus outbreak, many senior citizens were still out doing their weekend grocery shopping at markets on Saturday (April 11).

Elderly shoppers The Straits Times spoke to explained that they live alone and are reluctant to ask their children for help with errands as they can also be susceptible to the coronavirus.

A number said they were taking precautions like wearing masks and keeping their distance from others, so they did not believe it would be an issue for them to be out.

At the Ghim Moh Market and Food Centre, many patrons there at about 8am were seniors who were shopping alone.

Most of the seniors wore surgical or cloth masks, although some of them had pulled their masks down their faces or were tugging at them.

A handful were accompanied by maids, who pushed them along in wheelchairs in the market, which did not appear too crowded, or outside it. Enforcement officers were seen inside and outside the market to guide patrons and remind them to keep a safe distance from one another.

Hawkers said that older patrons usually visit the market earlier in the morning, around 6am, when it is less crowded.

Retiree Lim Kam Buay, 66, who lives in Dover, was visiting the market with a friend. Both of them sported masks and exercise gear and had gone to the nearby canal to exercise at 5.30am before shopping for groceries.

Madam Lim agreed that senior citizens should stay home, especially those who are very old or have health conditions.

"But for us, we are active and we've been running every day for 20 years," she said. "We are only out to exercise, then buy groceries, and we start at 5.30am. It's very quiet at that time and there is no crowd at all."

She added that she does not want to rely on her children for help with grocery shopping as they live in different areas from her. Besides, they have their own families to tend to and are busier now as they have to care for their children, who are on home-based learning.

 
 
 

"Why would I want to trouble them when I am fit and can walk and move around on my own?"

Likewise, housewife Choo Sue Chuam, 66, said that her children live far away from her, in Bukit Batok and Punggol, and they also have to take care of their own kids.

"It's not practical to ask my children for help. It wouldn't make sense," said Madam Choo, who added that she wears a mask and tries to complete her activities quickly when she goes out to shop for groceries two to three times a week.

Public servant Adeline Ong, 64, said: "Young people can also be vulnerable to the virus, so we don't want to send them out to do things for us and endanger them."

She added that she has stocked her freezer with frozen food so that she does not have to go out too often to buy groceries.

Similarly, retiree S. H. Chew, 78, said he still goes out for his morning walks and to buy food.

"I'm not married, and I live with my brother and sister who are also single and elderly, so we have no choice but to come out and buy food for ourselves," said Mr Chew, who wore a surgical mask and had just bought some dough fritters to go with a pot of congee he had cooked in the morning. His brother is 67 years old, while his sister is 74.

PM Lee on Friday used part of an online video address on the coronavirus situation to speak directly to the elderly, a group considered most vulnerable to the virus.

“I am one of you, so I know how you feel. When we are cooped up at home, we get restless and frustrated,” said PM Lee, 68. “But please understand. We are telling you to stay at home for your own safety. Older people are more vulnerable to the virus. If we catch Covid-19, it is a serious matter.”

As he had in previous addresses on the outbreak, PM Lee spoke plainly about the risks: “Our chances of dying are much higher, and if we get infected and spread the virus to our friends around our age, or bring the virus back home to our families, then we put them in grave danger.”

With the death of a 90-year-old man announced on Saturday night, eight people in Singapore, aged between 64 and 90, have died due to the coronavirus.

In a Facebook post on Saturday, President Halimah Yacob also urged the public to respect social distancing ambassadors when they are performing their duties, saying she was dismayed to learn from one such person that she and her colleagues “were abused and threatened even by members of the public, when they asked them to go home or checked them for not complying with other measures”.

She added: “They are just doing their best, walking in the hot sun even to try and keep Singaporeans safe. The last thing that they should expect are insults and threats.” 

Meanwhile, restrictions were in place to regulate the movement of visitors into the wet market at Pasir Ris Drive 6. A queue of 25 people had snaked around one of the entrances to the market at about 7.30am. Almost everyone queueing outside the market wore a mask and patrons generally maintained a safe distance of 1m from others.

The queue was brisk and people were generally able to enter the market within 10 minutes. Keeping a safe distance inside the market was more difficult, going by observations, although the market was not too congested due to efforts to control the inflow of visitors.

Outside the market, there were short queues in front of food stalls as people kept a safe distance while waiting to buy breakfast.

Retired children's apparel seller Audrey Ho, 70, was queueing to buy fried beehoon for her family from a nearby coffee shop before shopping for groceries at the market.


Customers at Kallang Estate Market on April 11, 2020. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

"There is a system to restrict the crowd flow and I'm not too worried. I take precautions - for the public, as well as my grandson, who is five years old," said Madam Ho, who wore a mask.

Other seniors have come up with a strategy for their grocery shopping.

Retiree Anthony Tam, 62, drags his marketing trolley behind him so that people do not trail him too closely.

"I get dirty looks, but I don't care. You keep your distance," he said with a laugh, speaking through his surgical mask on the way home after he bought fresh vegetables, pork and eggs from the market.

Mr Tam has been trying to avoid the market, but he made the grocery trip on Saturday as he had run out of fresh food, he said.

"We're not a society that takes frozen food. My daughter lives in the US and she orders stuff from Costco. But we don't have that culture here," he said, referring to the American big box retailer.

He noted that it is difficult to maintain a safe distance inside the market, as some stalls are more popular, although there are fewer people now due to the restrictions on the inflow of patrons.

A similar scene of crowd management was seen at the Bukit Timah Market and Food Centre. The market was cordoned off with tape, with only one entry and exit point, but there was no queue of customers from 7.30am to 9am.

National Environment Agency (NEA) officers patrolled both the wet market on the ground floor and the hawker centre on the floor above it.

Several patrons who were not wearing masks were allowed into the market. From Sunday, those who do not wear masks will be turned away at the 39 markets managed by the NEA or NEA-appointed operators.

Shoppers who did not wear masks said they had not heard about the new rule, which was announced on Saturday night.

Many patrons at the market kept a safe distance of 1m and others complied on the few occasions NEA officers reminded them to do so.

An elderly woman, who declined to be named, said that she visited the market later than usual, at about 8.30am, to avoid crowds. She lives alone and did not want to trouble her children to do grocery shopping for her, she said.

 
 
 

One fishmonger said that the market was not as crowded as Friday, a public holiday, adding that he had fewer customers on Saturday than the day before. "I think what PM Lee said has had an effect. And compared to Saturday mornings in normal times, the difference (in business) is like that between the sky and the earth," he said.

Elsewhere at Marsiling Lane Market and Food Centre, it was packed with people, who were not keeping a safe distance of 1m, before enforcement officers arrived at 7am to regulate the entry of patrons.

A few senior citizens were spotted among the crowd buying vegetables and meat.

Over at a supermarket at Great World City, it was also crowded but there were visibly fewer seniors in the outlet than the wet markets, with many shoppers being younger adults who tried to keep some distance from other shoppers.

Meanwhile, the Singapore Botanic Gardens was less crowded than usual on Saturday morning, with many visitors comprising couples or families, few seniors and nary a cluster of people.

Some families were playing on the lawns but seemed to be from the same household, and no move was made to stop them by enforcement officers, who were patrolling the park.

An officer told ST that she has to take a photo and update her supervisors on whether there is a crowd every half an hour.

Another officer, who declined to be named, said that many of the gardens' foreign visitors visit for strolls with families, while locals tend to jog in there and not linger around for too long.

Pasir Ris Park was not congested when ST visited it between 6pm and 7pm on Saturday. A large bulk of visitors, who comprised mainly young joggers, families and middle-aged people, were not wearing a mask when they were exercising in the park.

Among them was retired bus driver Lim Kim Tet, 75. He was in the park for his daily walk and said that PM Lee gave “very good advice” but he is used to going out and needs to “sweat it out”.

He believes that people who visit the park would not be sick and at risk of passing the virus to him. However, he takes precautions and tries to avoid enclosed spaces, for example, by climbing five storeys to his flat upon returning home instead of using the lift.

Over at East Coast Park at around 6pm, the park was not too crowded, but it was still busy with cyclists and joggers.

While many people tried to keep a safe distance from one another, it was not always possible with people running and walking at different speeds and human traffic in both directions. There was also bunching of people at some areas such as zebra crossings in the park.

Mr Bernard Chan, 66, a self-employed second-hand goods dealer, said that the elderly should stay home. Asked why he was out himself, Mr Chan said that he was only at East Coast Park for a walk and would be out for only a while.

He added that he takes precautions and brings two masks out with him, but only uses them when he is on the bus, even though the bus is often very empty.

"I am listening to the Government’s advice. I’m only here for a walk. It's very boring at my place, that's why I come here," said Mr Chan.

"I'm not frightened of the coronavirus. I do take precautions, I wear masks and I wash my hands in the public toilet. Also, I used to come every day, but now I come maybe about once every two days. Also after my walk I go straight home."

For retiree Lam Yong Huat, 67, who was at East Coast Park with his wife Madam Maggie Png, 65, he understands that the elderly are advised to stay at home and agrees with the advice.

"But the elderly also need to come out to exercise and get some fresh air right? I wear a mask and I only remove it when I exercise. I also make sure I avoid other people," he said.