ThinkingAloud

Everyone is a Covid-19 circuit breaker

By wearing a mask, you have contributed. By keeping away from others, you have helped.

In two days, the Covid-19 circuit breaker period will be over - in name, at least - bringing to a close a 56-day stretch that will long be remembered as among the most trying periods the country has had to face.

And while the challenge is not yet over, it is worth taking a moment at this milestone to pause and acknowledge the efforts so far of a largely overlooked group: ordinary Singaporeans.

It can sometimes get lost in the flurry of news about a few bad actors, but when Singapore was faced with a national challenge, Singaporeans rose to it.

Make no mistake, what every single person was required to do - especially during the weeks of the circuit breaker - was not trivial.

A people, sometimes with a reputation for kiasuism and individualism, was asked to think not about themselves, but about society at large.

Never mind what you and your family want to do. Decisions on whether to go out and what to do when out of the house had to be made not just on personal risk, but also what it could mean for your neighbours.

Wearing a mask when out is not something Singaporeans were asked to do because the mask protects the wearer from infection - the science on that remains inconclusive. The act of wearing a mask is one of social responsibility.

It is not about keeping the droplets of others from you, but more about keeping your droplets to yourself.

In a crisis, it is not always human nature to think of others but it is exactly what the people of Singapore have done.

It is the extreme cases that tend to be the most visible - the few who flagrantly, selfishly (or even sometimes inadvertently) fail to participate in the collective effort.

We have all heard of the case of the "sovereign" woman who refused to wear a mask and argued with those who exhorted her to do so; the security officer who breached his stay-home notice five times to go to work; the man who violated the order to go have a bowl of bak kut teh; or the woman who left her house twice to meet her boyfriend during the circuit breaker.

ST ILLUSTRATION: CEL GULAPA

Early on, there were also bad examples among those who would crowd into supermarkets at the slightest hint of a tightening of movement measures to secure enough rice and toilet paper to stock a minimart. And also those who thought that the closure of nightspots warranted a final fling.

Yet, it is also worth noting that the learning curve during this outbreak has been steep.

We have all had to become overnight experts on concepts like "flattening the curve" or polymerase chain reaction tests, as well as the relative benefits of surgical masks versus reusable ones.

And through the course of just a few weeks, many of the activities people have taken for granted have suddenly become criminal.

On the other end of the spectrum were the heroes, those who engaged in acts of charity or service when confronted with the crisis.

There were those who made hand sanitisers and placed them in lifts at a time when the stuff seemed among the rarest liquids on earth; those who toiled to donate hundreds of meals to foreign workers quarantined in their dorms; those who worked for free to help create platforms for businesses, hawkers and freelancers to try and operate during a shutdown.

Staying at home is not the role of a passive bystander in the coronavirus fight, it is very much the role of someone in the front lines. Everyone has been asked to contribute, and in his or her own way, everyone has - even if it has sometimes felt less like contributing and more like eating lunch on the sofa out of a takeaway container while in pyjamas.

There were those who offered up places to stay for Malaysian workers that were forced to look for accommodation on short notice; artistes and singers who took their talents online to help entertain those stuck at home; pilots and air crew who willingly staffed evacuation flights for fellow Singaporeans; and countless others who saw the outbreak as an opportunity to be kind.

This is not forgetting the front-line health workers, the foreign workers facing the brunt of the outbreak, and those working in essential services that keep the country running while so many keep to their homes.

We may never be able to properly show our gratitude to the heroes. Everyone knows the clapping, cheering and singing from balconies and living rooms will do little to chip away at the mountainous debt owed.

But there is also a need to recognise those who may not have even been aware that they were contributing.

While the heroes and the villains have been the most visible, the invisible efforts of society have nonetheless been extraordinary.

For those not in healthcare or a task force or an essential service, the coronavirus battle can often seem like someone else's fight.

But that is only because this battle inverts everything we think we know about how to unite in a crisis.

In previous crises, the battle cries around the world were to come together as part of a fighting force, or stand in solidarity in a protest or to go out and engage in the economy to boost a rebound.

None of that applies now.

Now, we are called to stand apart to stand together.

The call is to stay home and keep your distance - a notion that evokes more of a "get out of my way" vibe than a "come join the fight" one.

Yet, joining the fight is exactly what everyone has been doing.

 
 

Staying at home is not the role of a passive bystander in the coronavirus battle, it is very much the role of a soldier.

Everyone has been asked to contribute, and in his or her own way, everyone has - even if it has sometimes felt less like contributing and more like eating lunch on the sofa out of a takeaway container while in pyjamas.

If you put on a mask before you leave the house, you have contributed.

If you kept away from your elderly parents and friends, you have helped break the circuit.

If you have struggled to work from home while helping your children with their home-based learning, you have helped stem the spread.

If you did your best to observe the spirit of the many rules and guidelines you've been given; if you have kept your distance while going out to support your favourite hawker or eatery; if you've engaged in the countless small acts of kindness that we have seen from helping a neighbour with groceries to donating your Solidarity Payment to those who need it more; you have joined the fight.

And the nation is starting to beat the virus.

To be clear, the fight is not yet won. The virus is not yet beaten, the race is not yet run.

When the circuit breaker is nominally lifted, life might not even feel all that much different from when it was going on. Many of the restrictions will remain in place for weeks or months to come.

 
 

Yet, there are signs of progress. New cases that used to number around a thousand daily are now in the hundreds. Cases among Singaporeans and permanent residents that were regularly hitting 50 and 60 cases a day last month are now in single digits.

This progress was achieved through everyone's effort and sacrifice.

After all, the pandemic is a test not just for governments or healthcare systems, it is a test for societies as well.

The only way for Singapore to win, is if everyone does his part.

It can be easy to let heads drop or become cynical as the weeks stretch on with lives on hold, for pay-offs that are not always clear.

And though we sometimes allow the bad in society to obscure the good, it should be clear that the good far outnumbers the bad.

 
 
 

So this is not a congratulations about a battle won.

Rather it is an acknowledgement of sacrifices already made, effort already put in.

In the long battle against Covid-19, this is to say, you're doing well, keep going.

And most of all, thank you.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 31, 2020, with the headline 'Everyone is a Covid-19 circuit breaker'. Subscribe