Commentary: Not all of us will be so quick to ditch masks completely
Not all changes brought on by COVID-19 have been bad. As we celebrate the light at the end of the tunnel, Annie Tan takes a moment to reflect on invaluable lessons she learnt during this protracted pandemic.
SINGAPORE: In the early days of COVID-19, my friends and I would sometimes joke about holding a mask-burning ceremony when masks were no longer mandatory.
Especially on particularly hot and breathless days, this vision of this great funeral pyre of masks would carry me through. In my mind, this cathartic act would obliterate this painfully protracted pandemic experience.
After the initial stages of confusion and isolation, most of us grudgingly got used to mask-wearing and other restrictions.
But as the population increasingly got vaccinated and we saw other countries lifting measures, fresh air began to feel like a forbidden fruit. While walking in a quiet part of the park, we’d pull down the mask for a few minutes of reprieve, but self-consciously restore it if someone walked by.
So it came as a nice surprise when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on Thursday (Mar 24) that mask-wearing would no longer be mandatory outdoors from Mar 29. This accompanied the general easing of measures such as increased group sizes from five to 10, more employees being allowed to return to the workplace, increased capacity limits for larger events and settings, and the return of live music.
Finally, after a lonely, claustrophobic and volatile period marked by the constant tightening and loosening of restrictions, this felt like progress.
And though we look with eager eyes towards the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, I think back to the extraordinary gains we’ve made in these two years. Gains that we should keep – even if the pandemic eases out of sight.
OUR NEW CIVIC-MINDED SPIRIT
As news of our imminent unmasking spread, so did memes. One of the most popular memes featured the “badge lady”, Phoon Chiu Yoke, notorious for refusing to wear a mask and self-righteously confronting a safe distancing ambassador when told to do so.
She stood in stark contrast to the vast majority in Singapore who have masked up diligently, despite the personal discomfort in heat and humidity. Though most of us were fully vaccinated and not at high risk of bad outcomes in case of infection, we understood that our efforts contributed to keeping everyone safe.
This civic mindedness extends beyond mask-wearing. As a community, we also made significant changes in personal hygiene and social behaviour – from no longer leaving soiled tissue on the table after meals, to not double-dipping food and sanitising our hands regularly. Notice how wait staff automatically give us sharing spoons for dishes without asking?
There is a new unwritten rule among my friends to inform one another and reschedule meet-ups, even if we just feel a scratchy throat or sniffly nose coming on. We are more mindful of not going to work when sick, where previously we may have succumbed to presenteeism and ended up coughing our lungs out (often sans mask pre-pandemic) on public transport and in the office.
With our heightened awareness of crowds and instinct to avoid them, densely-populated Singapore has never felt more serene and peaceful. We could even walk in at the very last minute to once fully packed restaurants and score a table.
And thanks to safe distancing rules, we’ve found new comfort in our sense of personal space. It has been a long time since someone queued so close to me I could feel them breathing down my neck or smell the char kway teow on their breath.
Such gripes don’t have to make a comeback with the easing of measures. Measuring tape or marked lines on the floor or not, we can keep up a respectable and polite distance between strangers beyond the pandemic.
There are practical benefits to such behaviour as well. Many of us didn’t catch our usual flu or a cold. Doctors have said all this mask-wearing, hand washing and distancing have drastically reduced respiratory illnesses.
MORE EVOLVED WORK CULTURE IN SINGAPORE
Remember the days when we had to dress in stuffy office wear, endure the rush hour commute and spent hours in our cubicles without seeing natural daylight when we knocked off?
Working from the office from nine to five, or in many cases, nine to nine, was simply the prerequisite for most full-time employment. It did not matter if we had toddlers who would be asleep by the time we returned home, or ageing parents to care for. It did not matter if we were introverts who did our best work “in the flow” alone.
I know several who quit their full-time jobs because it did not leave them with time for meaningful bonding with their children or for taking care of aged parents or family members with special needs.
Remote working has changed all that - empowering disadvantaged groups to take more control of their schedules, supporting both introvert and extrovert working styles, helping us reclaim lost time from commutes and office minutiae, and breaking down geographical barriers for more diversity at work.
COVID-19 may have forced us to work remotely but we’ve ended up embracing it wholeheartedly. And as the nine-to-five grind recedes in importance, more companies are also starting to measure performance by the impact of our work rather than the hours we spend in the office.
This enlightened culture of flexibility and autonomy has seen by some as the future of work. Facebook has made remote work a permanent option for its employees. Microsoft will be integrating at least some work-from-home into its structure and offering "work schedule flexibility” to support individual work styles.
So as up to 75 per cent of employees return to the office, shouldn’t more companies follow suit rather than max out these numbers? Depending on the nature of the industry and job, it might make more sense to transit to remote or hybrid arrangements instead of rigidly reverting to cubicle life?
NEW NORMAL MEANS NOT DEFAULTING TO OLD WAYS
Indeed, it would be impossible to erase the mindset shift that took place during the past two years. As a society, we have changed and matured so much during this period of hardship and difficulty.
But this still requires us to be circumspect and not default to our old ways in our bid to simply “go back” to our pre-pandemic lives.
As restrictions ease, perhaps we should ask ourselves: What do we want to go back to the way it was before? And more importantly, which changes would we do well to retain? The past two years don’t have to be an unfortunate blip in our timeline.
So come Tuesday, will you choose the heady rush of fresh air on your unmasked face or stay masked to protect unvaccinated children or immunocompromised loved ones?
For my part, that mask-burning ceremony will have to wait. While I can’t wait to enjoy quiet nature walks mask-free and guilt-free, I intend to keep wearing masks voluntarily in crowded places, even outdoors.
Mask on or mask off, let’s remember to look out for one another and not lose the good things we’ve gained.
Annie Tan is a freelance writer based in Singapore.