Thinking Aloud

Coronavirus: Keeping a safe distance while coming together as a society

A stronger sense of community can come from bonds built online amid the new normal

Singapore's battle against the coronavirus has entered a new phase, and almost everyone is adjusting to a new normal.

We are not just working from home, struggling with home-based learning for toddlers and teenagers and following new safe distancing norms.

For many, the pace of work appears to have slowed down - though this is not the case for healthcare workers and other essential service providers on the front lines, and certainly not for my colleagues reporting on Covid-19 and how it is affecting every sector of the economy.

But it is also heartening to see many - from individuals and colleagues to groups of displaced workers - stepping up to help others in need during this period, and volunteering to assist vulnerable groups, from low-income families and persons with disabilities to seniors living alone and migrant workers.

While the majority of Singaporeans adjust to keeping a safe distance from loved ones and others to combat the coronavirus, many are also embarking on efforts to help one another in this time of need - and hopefully drawing people closer together as a society.

This will come in handy especially as no one can say for sure when Covid-19 will be defeated.

Although enhanced safe distancing measures and regulations are in place until May 4, in the first instance, there is a chance that they may have to be applied for an extended period if the number of infections does not fall.

Last Thursday saw a new daily high of 287 cases.

On Friday, the number of Covid-19 patients surpassed 2,000.

Five foreign worker dormitories with a combined capacity of more than 50,000 have also been gazetted as isolation areas - quarantine zones to stem further transmission of the virus.

Given that just five days out of the 30-day circuit breaker period have passed, and intensive contact tracing is ongoing, these numbers are expected to rise before they fall.

While progressive travel restrictions have kept the number of imported cases in check, the rate at which the number of cases is growing is worrying.


Singapore confirmed its first Covid-19 patient on Jan 23.

The 100th patient was reported more than a month later, on Feb 29.

It took another month before Case 1,000 was reported, on April 1.

But community transmission, including but not confined to within foreign worker dormitories, meant that within 10 days, the number of cases doubled.

Singapore saw its 2,000th Covid-19 patient on April 10.

As of yesterday, there have been 2,299 Covid-19 cases in Singapore.

This month, the multi-ministry task force tackling the outbreak moved to announce, and impose, significantly stricter measures to pre-empt escalating infections.

As part of these elevated safe distancing regulations that took effect last Tuesday, people must stay at home except to get essentials, exercise or unless they work in essential services such as healthcare.

Social gatherings, even in private or among extended family, are barred.

Most people are staying home, and encouraging their loved ones and circles to do so.

But the message doesn't seem to have sunk in for some.

Stadiums were kept open at first, but after groups got together to exercise there, the authorities decided to close them altogether.

Over the past two days, a number of wet markets, supermarkets and parks were packed. So were parks and nature reserves, and some areas with crowds also had to be closed off. Yesterday, all beaches were closed.

Seniors, especially, are encouraged to stay home as they are more vulnerable.

And people are now urged to wear masks when they leave their homes.

A visit to the wet market or supermarket is no longer the same - there may be queues to enter to ensure room for safe distancing within their premises, and netting draped around wet markets.

And measures are being enhanced.

From today, those going to 39 markets managed by the National Environment Agency or those it has appointed have to mask up. So will all customers visiting supermarkets, convenience stores, pharmacies and shopping malls.

From tomorrow, all food handlers and workers at food and beverage establishments must wear a mask or face shield when at work - whether they are serving food, taking orders, or accepting payment.

Public transport commuters will soon have to don masks when travelling too.

The advisories on masks seek to protect people against possible transmission from others, but more significantly, prevents transmission to others should they be infected but show no symptoms.

Still, continued instances of irresponsible behaviour on the part of a minority have seen calls for more stringent restrictions to be put in place.

On Friday, more than 2,900 stern warnings and 40 fines were issued to members of the public for non-compliance with safe distancing measures.

Yesterday, this figure rose to more than 3,000 stern warnings and 50 fines.

The measures are being ramped up, and rightly so.

From today, enforcement officers will no longer issue written warnings, Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli cautioned yesterday.

Any offender will be asked for his or her particulars immediately, and faces a $300 fine for the first offence. Repeat offenders face higher fines, or prosecution in court for egregious cases.

And why not, if a few continue to blatantly flout rules aimed at safeguarding the health of the wider community?

It is not inconceivable that people may soon have to wear a mask or face covering when they step out of their homes.

Or that enforcement officers may conduct spot checks on roads and public areas to ensure that people are not loitering or moving about without a valid reason.

Other jurisdictions with higher rates of Covid-19 infections have imposed tougher restrictions.

In Ireland, people have been told they should travel no farther than 2km from their home unless it is absolutely necessary, or unless it is to purchase food.

In Northern Ireland, police have come up with an online form for people to submit a complaint or report about a person not adhering to required social distancing, such as a gathering of people in breach of social distancing requirements, a person repeatedly travelling for non-essential purposes, or a bar or licensed premises remaining open when it should not.

Restrictions and regulations are needed to guide behaviour on the public health front.

But it would be a sad day if attention is focused on naming and shaming safe distancing violators.

By all means, the law should come down hard on them.

But we can also do more to help those who are complying with the regulations but who are affected by the pandemic, either because they have lost much of their incomes or are unable to continue with daily activities they are accustomed to.

Singaporeans are by and large fortunate that most homes are wired up, almost everyone has a mobile phone, and funds are available for students in need and even seniors to stay connected while they spend most of their time at home.

But as lockdowns and partial lockdowns elsewhere have shown, periods of prolonged isolation - especially for those living alone - can have an impact on mental health and social well-being.

There are also a number of seniors living alone who often rely on social care services and community kitchens for meals and other daily needs.

What has been heartwarming during this crisis has been the surge in ground-up and community initiatives to help others in need.

These individuals have banded together - including in person before enhanced measures took effect and virtually since then - to help others.

Yesterday, this newspaper featured retired cleaner Zulkifli Atnawi, who helps several of his elderly and needy neighbours with their grocery run amid the enhanced circuit breaker measures.

He and his four grown-up children help 17 neighbours order supplies such as cooking oil, rice, bread and coffee before dropping the items off at their homes.

His children have also helped to raise funds for the items through their own network of friends, many of whom are active volunteers in youth groups. They also help residents in need fill out forms for financial assistance, such as the Temporary Relief Fund for workers like cabbies who are affected by Covid-19.

"I'm also not working, but I'm willing to do this because I want to help people, especially the elderly and those families with a lot of children... What I can help, I'll help," Mr Zulkifli told my colleague.

"I hope that people in other areas will also come out to help their neighbours."

Last week, we also featured several individuals who demonstrate resilience in their response to the pandemic.

Among them was entrepreneur Nigel Teo, 39, who with three others started the app GoodHood.SG to enable neighbours to share items and services, either by selling them or donating them.

The app hopes to build a "kampung spirit" and neighbourliness, and Mr Teo and his team worked to move its launch forward.

"It's tough now, with people losing their jobs and sectors being hit badly. If there is a sense of community, and people give what they can and they have, then neighbours can know one another better," he said.

"If the neighbours care, it's a safe space and it is less likely that you will struggle alone."

In recent days, as the focus has shifted to the outbreak of Covid-19 among foreign worker dormitories, it has also been heartening that many among the four million Singaporeans and permanent residents are concerned about the plight of the lowest-paid of the 1.6 million foreigners on this island.

Non-governmental organisations have banded together to organise donations and collection of items such as hand sanitiser, rice, oil and face masks to distribute among construction workers who are not living in dormitories, as well as care packs and items such as SIM cards for workers who have to be isolated.

No one can predict with certainty when this pandemic will be over, but some things are certain.

Safe distancing is set to be a way of life for the foreseeable future, as long as the virus continues to take its toll around the world and no vaccine is in sight.

But I hope that this new normal is a reminder that people can get together and build bonds and networks online, and that it results in a stronger sense of community all round.

We are all in this together.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 12, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: Keeping a safe distance while coming together as a society. Subscribe