SINGAPORE: Recently, “normal” has become a rather special word. Seemingly overnight, all the blandness, boredom and tedium previously associated with it had evaporated.
Today, “normal” conjures up images of freely given hugs, freshly brewed hot kopi, boisterous catch-ups, and the soft evening breeze on our unmasked cheeks. Suffused with nostalgia, it has come to represent all the little things we had largely taken for granted before, but are now completely out of reach.
With the circuit breaker ending on Jun 2, one of the questions lurking at the back of everyone’s mind has been: When will things really go back to normal?
While no one really knows the answer to that, one thing is for sure – the end of the circuit breaker will certainly not be the decisive curtain-raising event that some might have hoped for.
Singapore will slowly ease restrictions over three slow phases, only completely lifting them when an effective COVID-19 vaccine or treatment has been found.
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Some businesses will open, restricted visits to parents and grandparents will be allowed, and specialist outpatient and allied health services as well as the hairdresser will be available during Phase 1.
On Thursday (May 28), Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong acknowledged that the Government could review ending Phase 1 by mid-June.
This gradual reopening is no reason to pop the champagne and throw caution to the wind. Warnings of a possible second wave in China and Europe show just how fragile any victory over COVID-19 might be.
That said, the media has reported Chinese “revenge shopping” – an over-indulgence in shopping to make up for their missed shopping opportunities - Italians flocking to hair salons and Americans crowding the beaches.
In fact, even during the circuit breaker, Singaporeans queued for McDonald’s when it re-opened after a brief shutdown and haircuts. Quarantine fatigue is real.
But perhaps, rather than trying to reclaim some semblance of normalcy at the bottom of a box of McNuggets, this might be a good time to pause and take stock of the important ways the world, and our own lives have changed.
And rather than rushing headlong towards life as we knew it before, a more calibrated approach may help us make the most of the lessons we have learnt over the past two months.
FINDING BALANCE IN A HARRIED WORLD
There is a widely shared joke on the Internet that 2020 has been cancelled. Indeed, it has been a year when time seems to be standing still.
With many plans cancelled, our weeks are no longer punctuated with calendar alerts. No longer do we breathlessly rush from place to place, voluntarily or involuntarily.
There has been a silver lining to this. In a world spinning at a breakneck pace, this moment of pause has forced us to do something many of us have never truly done before – to learn to live in the moment.
With time no longer tagged to the next big event – your big weekend brunch, so-and-so’s big day, the next great getaway – we are now forced to live one day at a time, one meal at a time, and one conversation at a time.
Suddenly, some of the most impatient people I know are experiencing slow living for the first time – cooking their own meals, getting to know their immediate families better, and taking short nature walks.
Speaking of which, sheltering at home has also given us a new respect for nature.
A lot of research shows nature to be an effective stress antidote.
A study in Frontiers in Psychologysuggests that spending as little as 20 minutes connecting with nature can help lower stress hormone levels. In COVID-19 times, this has become one of our few lifelines from “cabin fever”.
At the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, near where I live, I now see people not just in the evening but sometimes under the blazing midday sun – probably to avoid the crowd or just to get out of their houses for a bit.
Thrice, when we spotted wild otters and a blue macaw flitting noisily from tree to tree, the delight of my fellow park-goers was palpable.
It was as if for a brief moment, they were free from the oppressive anxiety of living amidst a deadly virus.
Even photos and videos of such animal sighting are so widely shared that they quickly go viral – a recent one being the otters that “flouted circuit breaker rules” and visited KK Hospital as a family.
This is happening everywhere around the world, not just Singapore - a fox den near Lake Ontario, Toronto, a deer in the underpass of Nara, Japan.
These images have lit up our screens and momentarily broken our prosaic homebound existence.
Along with this new affinity for wildlife, many are celebrating the restoration of nature in the absence of human interference.
Yale University and George Mason University researchers recently found that despite the epidemic and recession, “public engagement in the issue of climate change remains at or near historic high levels”.
Six in 10 Americans understand that global warming is mostly human caused, two in three say they are at least “somewhat worried” about it, and one in four are “very worried”.
This sentiment may drive more environmental and sustainability initiatives on a global, national and personal level.
In Singapore, I already see more people bringing their own reusable takeout containers, supporting local produce and shopping more consciously. This may indeed help us build a better world at the other side of COVID-19.
A GREATER SENSE OF GRATITUDE
Hunkering down has enabled us to bond more meaningfully with family. Now that we spend so much time with them, many of us have newfound appreciation for just how important family is, especially in difficult times.
On a wider level, isolation also had the strange effect of reminding us of our shared humanity and common suffering. And this, in turn, has made us more aware of social inequality.
For the first time, we find the accounts of GrabFood drivers more compelling that an out-of-touch and out-of-tune star-studded rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine.
Since we cannot really go “outside”, the only place to go is “inside”. For many, it has been a unique time of introspection, away from the noise and distractions of city living.
Looking inwards has changed our relationship with ourselves as well. No longer having to commute to work, some are finding more time for walks, online workouts, meditation or journaling.
If given time to develop into lifestyle habits, this will have a positive effect on our health and well-being for decades to come.
Working from home has also redefined our definition of beauty, and loosened the largely unspoken social etiquette that is tied to corporate wear and makeup in some industries.
Over the last two months, some of my friends have enjoyed cutting makeup from their daily routines.
Others, who profess an undying love for personal grooming are beginning to redefine it more as a personal pursuit than a “polite” social obligation.
All these little things add up.
If COVID-19 has been a great life detox, one positive outcome is that it has given us new gratitude for things we had previously taken for granted – visiting our aged parents, savouring chicken rice sent by a friend, exploring a new corner of the park. Who knew these things could elicit so much joy?
If we could just hold on to this newfound sense of wonder, we may forget to miss the malls, retail outlets and travel destinations that are yet slow to open.
And more importantly, if we could glean lessons from this difficult period, perhaps they will help us better navigate this brave new world, in so many ways strange and unrecognisable from the one we had left behind.
Annie Tan is a freelance writer.