Singapore's Covid-19 journey: 10 best photos capturing the pandemic

The Straits Times picture desk has documented the coronavirus and its impact on Singapore since it struck in January 2020. PHOTOS: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - From fast-paced scenes in hospital corridors to poignant aerial images showing empty locales that teemed before the pandemic; from a migrant worker tearing up from a nasal swab to an only son stoic amid the loss of his mother, The Straits Times (ST) picture desk has documented the coronavirus and its impact on Singapore since it struck in January 2020.

Some of its work illustrates In This Together: Singapore's Covid-19 Story, a new book published by Straits Times Press that was released on Thursday (Jan 20), about Singapore's two-year fight against the pandemic.

The selections below are accompanied by the reflections of the ST photographers behind them.

1. Neo Xiaobin

A patient suspected of having Covid-19 being transferred from a Singapore General Hospital ward to the National Heart Centre for an emergency scan in March 2020. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

"I was expecting the general atmosphere to be tense and heavy, but I was really heartened to see that the healthcare staff were positive and professional. They go about their duties in a serious manner, but they remain in good spirits. If that's something I can feel, I'm sure the patients can feel it too. Like how viruses, fear and panic are contagious, so are love, calm, joy and kindness.

"We've seen scenes like this all around the world now, so it's perhaps not as shocking to see hospital staff in full personal protective equipment (PPE) two years on, but my respect for the healthcare workers has only increased because while we all feel the pandemic fatigue, they are right on the front lines and I don't think anyone of us can imagine the mental and physical stress they face daily."

2.Ng Sor Luan

Sign of the times: A montage of the reminders for people to keep their distance during the pandemic, taken from March to December 2020. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

"In the second half of March 2020, social distancing stickers and tape started popping up all over Singapore to encourage people to keep at least 1m away from one another. It was surreal to see these appearing all over clean and neat Singapore; I thought this might not happen again and decided to record it.

"In the beginning, all I saw were marking strips of yellow, black, or red. But people quickly became creative - large or tiny stickers, overlaid or otherwise, some even came with jokes or handwritten notes. Worn-out tape and stickers later showed how long the pandemic had gone on."

3. Chong Jun Liang

People crossing the Causeway towards Woodlands Checkpoint in Singapore on March 17, 2020, two hours before Malaysia's movement control order came into force. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

"The Malaysian government gave barely 24 hours' notice when it announced a two-week nationwide travel ban in a bid to beat Covid-19. It was a rude shock to more than 350,000 people who use the land crossing daily, most of them Malaysians working or studying in Singapore. I reached Johor Baru at about 7.30pm and started to photograph the chaotic jams, following a stoic crowd who decided that walking across the Causeway was faster than taking a car or bus.

"At that moment, who knew that the borders would end up closed for almost two years before the vaccinated travel lane (VTL) was put in place? The last time the Causeway shut down dates back to World War II, when the British bombed it in a futile attempt to stop the Japanese advance."

4. Mark Cheong

Inside the migrant workers' S11 Dormitory @ Punggol on April 21, 2020. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

"This was where one of the first Covid-19 clusters in migrant worker dormitories was identified. It was one month into the lockdown, and what you don't see in this picture are the frustrated yet curious eyes that greeted us when we got to the main courtyard, which was as far as we were allowed to go. The workers were asked to go back to their rooms, as being in the general corridors was not encouraged.

"Looking at this picture, I am reminded of the extremely frustrating and sorry situation that dormitory residents had to deal with. It serves as a reminder of how good the rest of us have it, and how some of the restrictions that affected our daily lives were incredibly First World problems, compared with what migrant workers went through during those months."

5. Kevin Lim

A worker cannot help but tear up after a nasal swab at the Ng Teng Fong General Hospital on April 28, 2020. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

"The test collects a sample of nasal secretions from the back of the nose and throat, causing discomfort to nerve endings that may elicit tears and coughing. This Bangladeshi migrant worker started tearing up after his swab. At that point in time, I had yet to experience a swab myself. From the look of it, the process seemed largely uncomfortable and I wanted visual evidence.

"This photo was taken during a time when migrant workers were maligned and blamed for the number of Covid-19 cases. I had hoped that the photo could add to the discussion of their living environments, provoking thought and challenging mindsets along the way. The face represents, for me, one of the many Covid-19 cases which arose in migrant worker dormitories that brought to light their overcrowded situation."

6. Benjamin Seetor, Mark Cheong

Drone image of Toa Payoh Swimming Complex on May 5, 2020, during the circuit breaker. ST PHOTO: BENJAMIN SEETOR, MARK CHEONG

"This was part of a feature called 'A city at a standstill', where the idea was to capture popular tourist spots, shopping strips, recreational facilities and other areas that were usually crowded before the pandemic. We wanted to document what the country looked like from above with these drone photos.

"Looking at the photo now, the emptiness of what we know as a 'bustling' city seems surreal. As much as we enjoyed the space and peacefulness during the circuit breaker, we hope the virus will be defeated soon and the world can reconnect once again."

7. Gavin Foo

Office workers with packed lunches in June 2020, one week after the circuit breaker formally ended. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

"This was when people were allowed back in their offices, but dining out was not. I had to find a picture to illustrate this transitioning phase, and chanced upon these office workers stepping out of Market Street Interim Food Centre with their purchases. What stood out for me were the red plastic bags they were holding, against the dark green backdrop. It helped that they were all walking in one direction.

"When I look at the picture now, I feel that we are all still trying to play our part amid the pandemic - head in one direction, united - but the destination remains unknown."

8. Jason Quah

The multi-ministry task force tackling the pandemic holding a meeting on Jan 7, 2021. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

"This was just before the meeting commenced. I was in the room as the task force members came in, and was allowed to take photos for around two minutes. There was minimal room to manoeuvre physically, so the challenge was to capture nuances in body language, gestures and expressions that reflected the gravity of these meetings.

"It was a rare opportunity to observe and take photos of politicians in a more candid setting, compared with the staged or carefully orchestrated 'diary' events which I previously photographed them at."

9. Kua Chee Siong

Mr Ng Khee Chee with a photograph of his mother, Madam Chin Chye Yin, when she was in hospital. He could only communicate with her virtually. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

"It was heartbreaking for me to listen to Mr Ng's story, about how his family could not say their last goodbyes to his mother. During the portrait session, I had asked Mr Ng to sit at the spot at the dining table where his mother used to have her meals. I then gently asked him to think about his mother. He tried to be stoic but was obviously holding back his emotions in front of us - tears started to well up in his eyes but he didn't let them flow.

"After covering the pandemic for two years and being consumed with news on the latest Covid-19 numbers and emerging variants, Mr Ng's story still deeply touches me and brings home the risk of infection. It could happen to any of us."

10. Lim Yaohui

A radiographer preparing to take a chest X-ray of a Covid-19 patient at the Singapore General Hospital on Nov 16, 2021. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

"The medical staff knew exactly what to do inside the ward and carried out their duties professionally. I have the utmost respect for them because they are on the front line treating Covid-19 patients, taking care of them so that they can return to their loved ones in better health one day.

"For this shoot, I remember that a few days before, I had to try five different models and sizes of N95 masks before 'passing' a mask-fitting test. I then had to declare a negative antigen rapid test result on each of the three days I went inside the hospital to take photos.

"After every shoot, I would use alcohol wipes to sanitise my equipment, spray my shoes with sanitiser when I got to the doorstep of my house, and shower and wash my clothes straightaway. The virus may be invisible to the naked eye, but it does not mean it does not exist."

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