But in case anyone had missed this great turn of events, we also enthusiastically shared it with friends and family afterwards. My mobile phone lit with a succession of messages sharing the joy.
Realistically, in a year marked by tectonic shifts, Phase 3’s changes seem marginal – they could fit on a single mobile phone screen grab.
The highlights are: Instead of five, eight will now be allowed together. Attractions will be allowed to expand their capacity from 50 to 65 per cent. Malls, worship services and outdoor live performances can also increase their capacity.
Despite the marginal increments, in a year of cascading bad news, multiple restrictions and mass anxiety, Phase 3 felt like a much-needed reprieve, and indeed, the best gift to end an extremely troubled year.
HOW COVID-19 DEFINED OUR YEAR
No one had expected 2020 to turn out this way. Looking back at the 2020 New Year pictures now feels rather surreal.
As the clock struck midnight on Jan 1, people all over the world were cheering, dancing and embracing. There was so much love and promise in the air.
2020 was going to be a big year for everyone. We were going to find love, make new breakthrough in our careers, see the world, change the world and change our own lives.
Changed our lives we did – but probably not in the ways we imagined or may have wanted. “COVID-19” quickly became the word that defined the entire year of 2020, globally.
At first, as eerie images emerged from China - deserted mega cities, men in hazmat suits, exhausted medical personnel with masks marks etched into their faces, people dying while waiting for beds to free up – it looked like a dystopian world from a sci-fi movie, far removed from reality.
Then, it arrived at our own shores, and raged through some of our most beloved streets. Familiar haunts were cordoned off like crime scenes.
By March, the coronavirus made almost every major headline and was weaved into almost every news story. From the very minute we woke up in the morning, we ceaselessly worried about it. It became Google’s most searched word of the year in Singapore.
In April, we entered two months of circuit breaker, cut off from many loved ones. Lovers could not meet. Grandparents were separated from grandchildren. Some were living alone amidst a mounting sense of anxiety.
First-world citizens began fighting over groceries – toilet paper, instant noodles, canned food and rice – and branding one another “Covidiots”.
COVID-19 also changed the way we socialised, worked, dated, lived and died. Births, weddings and funerals became silent affairs with relatives tuning in online.
THE LONG ROAD TO RECOVERY
On Jun 2, Singapore finally emerged from the circuit breaker and entered Phase 1. Then, less than three weeks later, on Jun 19, we swiftly moved into Phase 2.
We could now meet with restrictions. More people could go to work. Children could go to school, take milestone examinations and graduate. Lovers could hold small engagement and wedding ceremonies.
We came up with many workarounds – work from home (WFH), Zoom meetings, Google hangout parties, virtual cocktail dates, virtual tours, as well as live-streamed weddings, graduations and religious ceremonies.
But many of these did not fully restore the important connections in our pre-COVID world – connections that as social creatures, have been key to our happiness and well-being.
Google hangouts could not replace the good cheer that comes from enjoying a hot meal with family and friends after a long tiring week, virtual tours could not replicate the sacred experience of forest bathing in Kyoto, live-streamed religious ceremonies could not make up for the fellowship that comes from worshiping together, and virtual cocktail dates could not replicate the warmth of a hug.
The easing of restrictions – slightly larger gatherings, open-air performances and religious services – helps to restore some of these social connections and experiences to some extent.
On a separate note, many of these restrictions also badly affected our economy and impacted many businesses and livelihoods as jobs were cut.
While panic buying quickly eased, food insecurity remained a real concern. Many people I know have done things they would never have considered before 2020 simply to keep their families afloat.
READ: Commentary: Singaporeans queued for toilet paper and instant noodles – there is no shame in that
Small business owners, airline crew, designers, deejays, photographers, videographers, event organisers and insurance agents became home-bakers, safe distancing ambassadors and deliverymen.
In fact, just a few weeks ago, a young man came to my house at 9pm to make a delivery and a very unusual request. He told us that he had so many back-to-back deliveries that he could not find a toilet in time and he ended up wetting his pants. As he had to continue deliveries till 1am, he asked to borrow a pair of old pants to change into.
We passed him a pair of pants and told him to keep it. However, a few days later, he returned it cleanly washed and neatly folded with a small packet of Maltesers chocolate.
This encounter lingered in my mind for many weeks. I often wonder how difficult it must be for a young man to knock on a stranger’s door, make such an embarrassing admission, and trudge into the late-night shift in a stranger’s old pants – how much resilience and humility it must have taken.
READ: Commentary: Concerns over severe allergic reactions to COVID-19 vaccines don't outweigh benefits of vaccination
It also became a keen reminder of how the unprecedented scale of the pandemic had affected so many people we know and people we meet on an everyday basis.
Therefore, the easing of capacity restrictions for events, malls and tourist attractions under Phase 3, as well as cautious border openings eventually, no matter how incremental, could make a real difference in the livelihoods of many.
A BEACON OF HOPE
Beyond social and economic implications, on an emotional level, most of us will admit to experiencing some COVID-fatigue.
While we swiftly progressed from Phase 1 to 2 in a matter of weeks, Phase 2 went on for the better half of the year. And many of us felt stuck in a rut, in a world fraught with uncertainty with no clear end in sight.
And as this turbulent year draws to the close, the truth is, most of us simply do not know what to make of it.
Yes, there is the same soft chill in the breeze, dreamy Christmas jingles and flashing festive lights. And whether you typically celebrate Christmas and New Year’s Eve or not, the year-end has always been the time for gathering with loved ones.
Those who can afford it are in fact living it up with a vengeance – going on luxury staycations, spa-cations, shopping sprees and binging sessions. Yet, despite all the “revenge shopping” and “revenge feasting”, the sense of closure has been somehow lacking in all the celebrations.
Indeed, Phase 3 feels like the long awaited turning-of-the-corner: One that allows us to symbolically close the chapter on a very long and dark year.
Of course, it should not be a celebration of delirious abandonment, with COVID-19 still ravaging the world. However, at least now, we may cautiously celebrate the return to a greater sense of normalcy.
Personally, despite the challenging year with endless hurdles, or precisely because of it, more than before, 2020 feels like a year worth celebrating.
If anything, COVID-19 has taught me the lesson of impermanence, and shown me that anything can change in a heartbeat. It has taught me to live in the “now” and treasure the people by my side. And despite all the social distancing, I have never felt closer or been more grateful for my loved ones.
As I look forward to welcoming a new baby in 2021, I will be celebrating a year of strengthened friendship, hard-fought personal growth and renewed hope with real hugs, not Zoom gatherings and emoticons. The worst storms shall eventually pass and we shall come through together.
Listen to infectious disease expert outline what's needed to get a vaccine manufactured, transported and administered in our Heart of the Matter podcast:
Annie Tan is a freelance writer.