Singapore's Generation Covid

(Clockwise from far left) Mr Derek Neville with daughters Jean, Danielle, Alexis, and Isabel, wife Junia Tan Neville and son Elijah.
(Clockwise from left) Mr Derek Neville with daughters Jean, Danielle, Alexis, and Isabel, wife Junia Tan and son Elijah. The children have experienced Covid-19's impact on their education, while the parents had to keep them engaged at home. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - Growing up is hard to do - and the pandemic has made it even harder.

For many in the Covid Generation, the last two years have been filled with frustration and a sense of loss as the coronavirus disrupts both school and social life.

"I missed out on a lot - the complete overseas experience," lamented Ms Alyssa Chung, 22.

Enrolled in Australia's Monash University since October last year as an undergraduate, she has been able to take lessons only virtually so far. "As someone who thrives on human interaction, it has been an awfully cold feeling."

Added Zaqeerul Iman Shamshul Qamar, a 14-year-old budding athlete: "I missed out on competitions. I am on the school's cross-country team, but the National School Games have been cancelled for the past two years."

What defines a generation? While there is no universal agreement on where to draw the line between one generation and the next, what is clear is that individuals generally fall into one of several different categories - each of which has been shaped by events in the world around it.

Baby boomers, born in the years following World War II, are characterised by their strong work ethic.

In contrast, millennials would have come of age around the turn of the millennium. Growing up in the Internet age means they would have started off with much more globalised mindsets.

How about those who are growing up in the months since Covid-19 started making headlines all around the world?

As Singapore enters the third year of the pandemic, The Straits Times speaks to parents, experts and young people, in Singapore and across the region, to learn how they have weathered the crisis of their generation.

The little ones

Adults may have resisted putting on face masks when Covid-19 first hit, but four-year-old Elijah Neville has taken it all in his stride.

"I think for him, it's easy," said his mother, Ms Junia Tan, 43. "They are the most adaptable at that age, and it shows very clearly. We just put on the mask and they copy us."

His biggest pandemic challenge? Going to childcare, instead of being allowed to stay at home with his four older sisters who were attending classes online.

But while Elijah may have objected, his parents were relieved he had an in-person option. Like for most other parents, disruptions to school and work put them under greater pressure to ensure their children were meaningfully engaged at home.

However, experts say nothing quite makes up for face-to-face interaction at that age.

"Online learning is close to impossible for the little kids," said Assistant Professor Yong Ming Lee from the National Institute of Education. "They learn with their hands, so learning is definitely impacted when things go online."

Mr Vital Tan, a manager of children's services at the Circle of Care programme run by Care Corner and supported by the Lien Foundation, added that there have been clear signs of increased stress on parents' mental health and bandwidth.

These can impact the quality of parent-child interactions, although long-term effects on children's social and emotional development remain unclear, he said.

But there have been silver linings.

Ms Paige Lee, 33, said working from home has meant more time with her five-year-old daughter, Kimi.

"The best thing which happened was to be able to spend a whole lot more time with Kimi, which I really cherished," the strategic partnerships manager said.

The school years

Things get more complicated when children start going to school.

At this age, they begin establishing a clear sense of self apart from their families, said Mr John Shepherd Lim, chief well-being officer at the Singapore Counselling Centre.

But the pandemic has meant that children have fewer social interactions that occur naturally with their peers, which may have implications for their social skills down the road.

"Though growing up in isolation may allow them to be more self-reliant, it is also important for these youth to maintain a healthy level of sociability," Mr Lim said.

On the education front, children from low-income families also tended to face more difficulties with home-based learning, as they would have had to share devices with siblings or parents.

"Many of them were not able to participate initially, which affected their learning and their performance in school," noted a spokesman for community self-help group Sinda.

It has distributed 970 headsets, 860 laptops and data SIM cards and 400 tablets to students who lack these since last year.

Parents such as Ms Tan have noticed the difference the pandemic made in their own children.

Seven-year-old Alexis, who started Primary 1 this year, has had to get used to "functional" recess times without the freedom of play that her sisters grew up with.

Danielle, nine, was disappointed when home-based learning curbs were imposed, as she enjoys being active and meeting her friends in school.

And 11-year-old Isabel lamented the cancellation of the traditional Primary 5 camp, which her older sister has told her all about. There is likely to be no camp next year, as she will be sitting the Primary School Leaving Examination.

But they have also become more independent. The oldest, 15-year-old Jean, has taken the initiative to cook for the family and also organised library outings for her younger siblings.

And home-based learning has made Isabel more confident about speaking up in class.

"She tends to raise her hand more, but when she's physically in school. she doesn't do that," said Ms Tan, an entrepreneur.

What is clear is that family support is important. While the pandemic may have worsened mental health for children and parents alike, Centre for Fathering chief executive Bryan Tan suggested that families make a conscious decision to set aside bonding time.

"Evidence suggests that children who communicate with their parents during family meals, around all sorts of topics, show fewer signs of depression and anxiety," he said.

The young adults

Ms Yusmarni Mohammad Hasni, who graduates from her diploma course on early childhood development next year, knows exactly what she is going to do next.

But her friends - who unlike her, do not have a government bond to serve - will be at a crossroads.

"I do have friends who are very concerned because they are not too sure what they are going to do after graduation," said the 22-year-old. "Some who were planning to pursue a degree might reconsider."

These anxieties are shared by many young adults.

Prof Yong, who has surveyed more than 2,000 university students since September last year, concluded that pandemic stresses in this age group fall into four categories.

Some chafe under social restrictions, while others grapple with uncertainties about their futures. Yet others have health concerns or feel the pinch of resource constraints, in terms of finances or personal space.

"They are at the stage where they are exploring life's possibilities, in relationships and in work," she said. But the pandemic has curtailed these opportunities and given rise to concerns about the future.

"As older adults, our lives are pretty much constant. But younger people have a lot of transitions to cope with on a yearly basis... the pandemic stress is kind of layered onto that."

For those already in the workforce, job security is also a concern.

Voluntary welfare organisations and self-help groups such as Mendaki have been providing career advice to fresh graduates, as well as interim assistance to students who lost their part-time jobs over the past two years.

Even those who kept their jobs would have found it difficult to adjust to remote working, when many colleagues are just names on a screen.

"New joiners and young employees found that there is less supervision due to the work-from-home arrangements, and they had to rely upon themselves much more to look for solutions," said Mr Joshua Yim, chief executive of recruitment firm Achieve Group. "Some of their supervisors are not prepared to train, manage or work remotely with them."

But for some, the enforced slowdown has also meant a chance to think about what truly matters.

"The extra time alone that I had allowed me to plan my life properly, to sit down and ask myself what I really wanted," recounted 23-year-old university student Arvinth, who declined to reveal his full name.

"It helped me to clear my mind of all the doubts and uncertainty and come out with a clearer goal and mindset."

  • Additional reporting by Yeo Shu Hui and Bryan Cheong

Correction note: An earlier version of the story said the Circle of Care programme was under the Lien Foundation. This has been corrected. The Circle of Care is run by Care Corner and supported by the Lien Foundation.

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