Commentary: Our muted joy over Phase 3 is the true new normal

Commentary: Our muted joy over Phase 3 is the true new normal

Let’s celebrate Phase 3 but also count and appreciate the losses in a year that has been unlike any other, says June Yong.

Singapore COVID-19 virus office workers
Office workers wearing face masks enter a building during lunch time in the financial business district in Singapore on Aug 11. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman) 

SINGAPORE: We’ve all been looking forward to the big announcement. Yet when the news of the launch of Phase 3 was announced on Monday evening, I felt happy but also strangely underwhelmed. 

Yes, Phase 3 means progress. 

The additional headcount means that families with six members or more no longer need to sit at separate tables at restaurants - with no mingling.

It also means most of us can have more over for reunion dinner for Chinese New Year in 2021.

Places of worship can also receive more people.

Some degree of normalcy is returning to our daily lives. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: 

Now that vaccines are becoming available, we can see light at the end of the tunnel.

READ: Commentary: Phase 3 will bring us much-needed closure to a difficult year

Yet at the same time, much remains the same.

Mask-wearing will still be a daily reality. And let’s face it, just because we can now meet in groups of eight doesn’t mean that we’d be partying 24/7. The marginal increment simply does not affect our day-to-day life that much.

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful because I too want to celebrate this new milestone. (I’ve already postponed one Christmas gathering till after Dec 28 to reap the full advantages.) 

But in feeling grateful, it also hits home that in spite of having spent the most part of 2020 as a hermit, it will still take some time before we fully step out of the shadows of COVID-19.

READ: Commentary: Why I still stay home most days even though circuit breaker has been lifted

GAINS AND LOSSES

Singapore has come a long way from the days that saw four-digit new infection highs each day and when toilet paper was an object of desire.

Those were the days of teetering on the brink of a nation-wide emergency, but thanks to everyone’s efforts in complying with the rules of mask-wearing, hand-washing and safe-distancing, we pulled ourselves back to safe harbour.

Raffles Place MRT Jun 2 circuit breaker phase 1
Human traffic was sparse during Raffles Place evening peak hour on Tuesday (Jun 2), the first day after the circuit breaker was lifted. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Undeniably, there have been many losses. People have lost their jobs, investments, and financial security. 

Some have suffered from anxiety and depression, and marital breakups. While others have lost their loved ones to illness and death - not necessarily to COVID-19 but is all the more heartbreaking when safe distancing and restrictions mute funerals and make them more difficult.

All of the above could happen in any given year, but the economic impact of COVID-19 along with the heightened feelings of isolation and anxiety have cut deep. Just take for instance the delicate balancing act of working from home and caring for young children or seniors at the same time. 

READ: Commentary: Robinsons shuttered for good. Does Singapore have too much retail space?

READ: Commentary: I’ve been career oriented my whole life, until the COVID-19 pandemic took my ambition

Indeed, the year has been marked by a quiet collective sorrow. And for those grappling with the loss of a vital relationship or a person, it is hard – or nearly impossible – to just snap out of it and put on rose-tinted glasses.

That there are things to be thankful for does not take away from the fact that we also need to mourn the losses that we’ve counted this season. 

READ: Commentary: When COVID-19 symptoms last for months, recovery feels slow and strained

MUTED AND GRIEVING BUT STILL OKAY

Perhaps it is due to the multiple highs and lows that we’ve gone through in this long-drawn-out journey that experiencing such muted joy is but another strange new normal.

Practically everything has been toned down this year – from wedding celebrations to birthdays, everything has been tainted with a layer of sobriety.

Peng Jing, 24, and Yao Bin, 28, pose for their wedding photography shoot after the lockdown was lif
Peng Jing, 24, and Yao Bin, 28, pose for their wedding photography shoot after the lockdown was lifted in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province and China's epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak on Apr 15, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Aly Song)

This hasn’t been all bad – we learnt to value the things and people who are closest to us, and let go of certain expectations and assumptions of what makes a celebration glorious.

In science, we learn that when a living system is under threat, it responds to ensure its survival by conserving its resources for the things that matter. 2020 felt very much like this.

This strange and challenging year, I turned 40 (complete with a zoom birthday bash) and grieved the loss of my godmother - within a span of two months. In the swing from celebration to crisis, I learnt that although the atmosphere of the events was vastly different, I could count on the same people to be present. 

Grief affects us in different and often personal ways. As a nation, we grieved initially for the loss of freedom and personal space. 

We sought to regain a semblance of control by expanding our homes (like becoming plant parents or creating a home gym) and indulging in new hobbies.

READ: Commentary: In defence of baking bread, watching reality TV and other frivolous fads in the time of COVID-19

But largely, we’ve grown used to this new way of life. 

Where gathering in people’s homes is now the unspoken norm, as with delaying our dreams, whether it is a long-anticipated big family holiday or a study stint overseas.

So it is perhaps okay to feel like there isn’t much worth celebrating this year. Or that this Phase 3 fanfare may change little for most of us, granted some of us are delighted at specific changes like being to enjoy a live performance.

DEALING WITH AMBIGUOUS LOSS

In the 1970s, Pauline Boss, a family therapist and professor emeritus of social sciences at the University of Minnesota, coined the term ambiguous loss to describe a type of loss that remains open-ended and unclear, with no resolution in sight. 

In a Psychology Today article, Boss describes the current pandemic as causing such an ambiguous loss. She says: 

We’ve had a loss of feeling safe and secure, a loss of control over our own lives, a loss of trust in the world as a safe place. Those losses are ambiguous. But there are also clear cut losses, like the loss of loved ones or of jobs. Or experiencing bankruptcy.

However, the way to deal with the loss is to go through it. Boss explains: “The more you allow people to feel the grief, the sooner they will find a new way to live life without what they’ve lost."

So by all means, celebrate what Phase 3 means to you personally – whether it is being able to take your parents out for a nice meal, or catching up with your besties over a delicious steamboat.

Count your blessings, but also give yourself space to grieve over the losses that you’ve taken, over the lowlights of 2020.

As we partake in this communal step-by-step process of walking into the light, it is perhaps in finding meaning in the suffering and grief that we can truly appreciate the good that has arisen through this pandemic.

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June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.

Source: CNA/sl

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