The Big Read: Post-pandemic, life isn't as different as predicted but some changes — big and small — have stuck
SINGAPORE: For a few months in 2020, Ms Ethel Chang missed out on the joys of being a polytechnic student, as COVID-19 raged around the island.
“My seniors from secondary school would talk about the school camps, co-curricular activities and events where you could meet people while studying in polytechnic ... But my first day of school was sitting in front of my computer screen with barely any interaction with my classmates,” the Singapore Polytechnic student, now 19, recalled.
“I feel robbed of all these experiences I could have had if it wasn’t for the pandemic.”
So when her school resumed in-person classes towards the end of 2020, Ms Chang tried her best to make up for the lost time.
“I found it quite tough to speak up during lessons and group discussions online, so I really tried to socialise more with my classmates and lecturers once we could be back physically," she said.
While she did not like the solitude during the pandemic years, the convenience offered by home-based learning has made Ms Chang partial to hybrid work arrangements — something unimaginable for her just three years ago.
It would be a “good bonus” if her future employer could offer it, she added.
Like a bolt from the blue, COVID-19’s arrival two years ago upended life as we knew it, as infections spread like wildfire, forcing people to curtail social activities and grinding economic activities to a halt.
Governments around the world scrambled to take drastic actions, including closing their borders, to keep the pandemic at bay.
After several false dawns, most countries are now ready to live and let live with COVID-19, with Singapore lifting most of its pandemic-related restrictions in April this year.
As the new normal sets in, several pandemic-inspired changes have become a habit for some Singaporeans, even as other acquired habits are starting to be discarded.
For 49-year-old horticulturist Tan Lin Yean, the pandemic has increased her reliance on her mobile phone, helping her embrace e-payments in the process.
“Coins and cash can be quite dirty, and so can the NETs terminal buttons because you don’t know who touched it before you. But now you can pay for everything using your phone by scanning a QR code,” she said.
“I don’t worry if I don’t have my wallet with me ... I just need to worry if my mobile phone is running out of battery.”
For 23-year-old National University of Singapore undergraduate Yong Jia Yu, “old” habits developed during the pandemic, such as wearing a mask, die hard.
“Sometimes when I’m walking to the bus stop, I’ll wonder why it feels stuffy, before remembering (my mask is on)," he said, adding that he subconsciously wears his mask even though it's only required when travelling on public transport.
With large crowds being a no-no during the darkest days of the pandemic, retired nurse Zainah Ibrahim, 57, has developed a disdain for such throngs.
“I don’t like being in crowded places now because during the pandemic, people go out in small groups which I find more peaceful. That’s the same today,” she said, who still washes her hands more frequently compared to pre-pandemic days.
Singapore took a major step towards normalcy on Apr 26, when the Government lowered the Dorscon level from orange to yellow, signalling that COVID-19 is still spreading here but is typically mild or being contained.
Dorscon, or Disease Outbreak Response System Condition, was raised to orange on Feb 7, 2020.
With the lowered Dorscon level, various restrictions that people in Singapore had to live with for the past two years were lifted and some semblance of normalcy finally resumed: Everyone could return to office, mask-wearing was no longer required except on public transport, and there were no more size limits for social gatherings.
Dr Ong Suan Ee, senior health systems research and chief operating officer of think-tank Research For Impact, noted that people's behaviours can be shaped by policies such as those introduced over the period of the pandemic.
Beyond that, their personal preferences, fears, as well as peer and family influences are part of a “complex host of factors” influencing behavioural changes.
“COVID-19 had a large part to play in this because of the magnitude of its health and economic implications, and the way it forced us to adopt and adapt to new ways of interacting with one another, working, learning, consuming, and travelling,” she said.
But at the same time, some behaviours may change as people see Covid-19 infections being less of a risk, among other factors, said Dr Ong and other experts interviewed by TODAY.
As Singapore and the world settle into a state of endemicity, TODAY looks at how life has changed — or not.
Healthcare and telehealth
Leaving home without wearing a mask feels “wrong” for Ms Chang these days, as she prefers to keep half of her face hidden while out and about.
“Initially, wearing a mask was irritating and stuffing, but now I feel more comfortable wearing it,” she said.
While she previously would have never thought of partially covering her face if she contracted a regular flu or cough, Ms Chang said that the pandemic has made her more comfortable doing so.
“I also bought a bottle of disinfectant in 2020 to wipe my phone down but now I don’t use it as much because it's quite troublesome,” she said. “Mask-wearing is more convenient and since I’m used to it, I think I’ll continue doing so.”
Similarly, while Ms Tan doesn’t wear her mask most of the time except while taking public transport, she finds herself reaching for one in a big crowd.
“I subconsciously try to keep more distance away from others and put my mask on. It’s really habitual now and I still need to remind myself I don’t need to wear it in most settings,” she said.
Beyond mask-wearing and heightened awareness of hygiene among some, Singapore’s healthcare system has also seen major changes that are here to stay, such as the growing prevalence of telehealth.
As of Nov 14, there are 178 clinics offering consultations, antigen rapid testing or both through video conferencing in Singapore, according to the Ministry of Health's (MOH) website.
While using video conferencing tools for medical consultations had been piloted prior to the pandemic, Integrated Health Information Systems (IHiS) assistant chief executive Alan Goh said the crisis served as “an impetus with accelerated adoption by both patients and providers”.
Such services “enabled a lean medical team to care for a large number of COVID-19 patients, while other healthcare workers could focus on providing care to patients with more urgent care needs in the acute hospitals” despite stretched medical resources.
“As Singapore transits into the COVID-19 endemic stage, we envisage that telehealth will continue to be a mainstay feature in Singapore’s healthcare landscape offering greater convenience, improved accessibility to care, as well as time and cost savings for both providers and patients,” said Mr Goh.
Prior to COVID-19, IHiS — which is MOH’s IT arm — had about 1,900 public healthcare patients using video consultations. The cumulative number jumped to more than 34,000 in 2020 and more than 120,000 in 2021.
The figure has continued to rise: By 2022, about 170,000 patients had sought their doctors online.
“We see this as an opportunity to leverage the current momentum where there is now greater comfort and familiarity among residents in using digital solutions as part of their lived experience,” said Mr Goh.
“The core technology and care concepts will form the backbone behind expanded uses in areas such as virtual wards at home, and involvement of the community and social care sectors in supporting better health outcomes for our population.”
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With staying-in being the default option for many during the depths of the pandemic, Singapore consumers spent an average of S$105.23 a month on food delivery services in 2020, more than double the year before (S$67.54), based on a survey commissioned by Deliveroo in 2021.
The trend has continued this year, based on sales volume reported by Grab, one of Southeast Asia’s biggest ride-hailing and food delivery firms.
Grab's Singapore Food and Grocery Trends Report 2022 showed that its food delivery sales volume grew 24 per cent year-on-year in the second quarter of 2022.
The company also reported that consumers used its food delivery service 1.5 times more often on average each month in the first half of 2022 as compared with the monthly average in 2019.
While attitudes towards the environment and nature have become more positive due to the pandemic, it remains to be seen whether these will be translated into individual actions in the longer term.
Environmentalist Shawn Ang, who is a former member of inter-varsity coalition Students for a Fossil Free Future, noted that COVID-19 had increased people's awareness about the benefits of being around nature.
“The restrictions forced people to stay home which impacted their wellness and mental health. Because of this, people saw the benefits of going out and surrounding themselves in nature,” said the 24-year-old environmental science and political science undergraduate at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
In 2020, the National Parks Board told TODAY that it had seen a “significant increase” in visitors across gardens, parks and nature reserves since the pandemic started.
Beyond that, Mr Ang noted that there was increased awareness about biodiversity as images of animals venturing into areas once heavily populated by humans made their rounds on the internet.
The zoonotic origin of COVID-19, which means that the disease had been transmitted from animals to humans, had also sparked conversations, especially online, around human impact on the environment.
Some discussions, for example, revolved around the need for residents to accept having roosters, otters, even wild boars roaming their housing estates since these animals had lost their natural habitats.
While demand in some commercial nature walks — which had seen an uptick amid closed borders — has dropped as expected, some industry players said that there is still healthy demand, which suggests that the interest in being close to nature remains.
Ms Ng Lee Kiang, co-founder of Young Nautilus, which has been offering public nature walks and school learning journeys since 2015, said its prediction of a 30 per cent dip in demand for nature walks had come true as overseas travel resumed.
“Nonetheless, as we approach the December school holidays, we are surprised by a recent (increase in the number) of families who enrolled last minute for our nature walk programmes," she said.
She added: "Although there is a drop in demand from families (in general), we have observed a significant increase in corporate and school groups participating in our nature walks."
E-commerce also benefited during the pandemic as consumers sought to get their retail fix online while being stuck at home, and its convenience continues to appeal to consumers today.
Ms Megan Ong, the director of Nanyang Polytechnic’s Singapore Institute of Retail Studies, said that its analysis shows e-commerce in Singapore will “continue to grow in the next few years” as more retailers adopt online selling as an additional channel.
“Shoppers’ willingness to make purchases online will continue to drive growth … We think these changes are unlikely to be reversed. It’s become part of our lifestyle,” she said, adding that the benefits of delivery and convenience make people “resistant to going back to what was”.
During the recent 11.11 megasales held on Nov 11, Shopee Singapore's head of marketing Winston Goh said consumers here had made seven times more orders with local sellers compared to a typical day.
The e-commerce company also said that compared to an average day, the first two hours of its sales saw 23 times more items sold.
Separately, Lazada chief executive officer Loh Wee Lee acknowledged the "cooling effect" on consumer spending as the COVID-19 situation eased.
But he added: "(Despite the) upcoming Goods and Services Tax increase and other macro challenges in the economy, demand for e-commerce services continue to be healthy and this year’s 11.11 performance delivered results in line with expectations."
The first two hours of Lazada's 11.11 sales saw an increase of over 150-fold compared to a typical day.
While the 11.11 sales for these e-commerce platforms were much higher than a typical day, they did not disclose the total sales achieved — unlike in previous years.
Ms Angie Phang, a lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic's (NP) School of Business and Accountancy, noted the likelihood that the 11.11 sales this year were not as impressive compared to previous years.
"One reason (for non-disclosure of total sales figures) could be that they are experiencing slowing growth, and prefer not to publicly highlight this. This slow growth may not be a reflection of the waning popularity of e-commerce but instead, the high inflation and uncertainty in the economy," she said.
"E-commerce firms are also shifting the focus from sales volume to other aspects of their businesses, such as customer service quality."
According to 2022 data collected by Google, Temasek and Bain and Company, the compounded annual growth rate for the e-commerce sector in Singapore between 2019 and 2021 was 82 per cent — underlining the explosive growth during the pandemic years.
However, the compounded annual growth rate from 2021 to 2022 stood at just 4 per cent.
Earlier this month, Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg told the 11,000 workers whom his company laid off that they were let go partly because he overestimated the staying power of the pandemic’s e-commerce boom.
As shoppers returned to physical stores, e-commerce sales growth slowed.
Still, Ms Ong from the Singapore Institute of Retail Studies attributed the slowdown in e-commerce to the macro conditions affecting purchasing sentiment, instead of a post-COVID-19 effect.
“E-commerce will continue to grow, but with many players offering purchase platforms, there is intense competition among the platforms, and they need to drive towards productivity,” she said.
Unlike e-commerce, digital payment usage in Singapore has seen sustained growth since COVID-19 struck, thanks to increased digitalisation of services during the pandemic.
In response to TODAY’s queries, the Association of Banks in Singapore (ABS) said: “With the COVID-19 pandemic, e-payments which minimised physical contacts are a safe and effective alternative to make and receive payments. ABS, the Monetary Association of Singapore and the Government actively promoted the use of PayNow.”
PayNow is a secure funds transfer service that allows customers to receive money into their participating bank account via NRIC/FIN, mobile number or QR code.
In 2019, there were 67.79 million transactions made on PayNow. Transactions almost doubled in 2020 to 124.98 million, and again in 2021 to 229 million.
The number of transactions this year is set to outstrip 2021 as well — there were 220 million transactions made in the first nine months of 2022.
“We expect to continue to see healthy growth in PayNow sign-up and usage both in terms of volumes and values of transaction even as we return to normal with the resumption of physical activities. For example, in September 2022 alone, a record of S$11 billion transacted, which is a new high in PayNow’s history so far,” said ABS.
Beyond more banks providing PayNow services to their customers, ABS said that it will continue pushing for PayNow’s usage overseas. The service has been available in Thailand since 2021, and ABS plans to expand PayNow to India and Malaysia.
“We foresee the continual growth of digital payments with the push across public and private sectors to adopt digital payments will cause customer stickiness across digital payments solutions including PayNow,” said ABS.
Metaverse, cryptocurrencies and NFTs
While the metaverse has been touted as having the potential to revolutionise everything, its place and even future in a post-pandemic world remains murky for now.
The metaverse is a three-dimensional virtual world which allows people to socialise, work and play. Viewed as the future of digital interaction, companies have sunk billions into developing their respective visions of the metaverse.
Facebook even rebranded its parent company as Meta in late 2019 to show its commitment to the project.
While recent developments at Meta — such as criticisms over the poor quality of its flagship metaverse app, Horizon Worlds, and its recent massive layoffs — have raised questions about its metaverse project, other industry players said it’s too early to throw in the towel.
Mr Isaiah Chua, the chief marketing officer of virtual reality platform Playground MMRPV, said: “New shifts typically meet with initial hype that will crash and eventually normalise. The metaverse narrative only got popularised during the pandemic; it is still in its infancy stages, and it is still too early to judge the metaverse based on the current turn of events.”
Noting that the internet had faced similar hurdles, such as the dotcom crash in the early 2000s, he believes that the metaverse could be the next big thing.
With both the technology and required hardware still lacking, Mr Imran Mohamad, head of marketing at metaverse company Kyber Network, agreed that it’s too early to gauge metaverse’s future.
For the metaverse to gain traction, people need to feel like they have some ownership of the virtual space and have a purpose for using it.
“The metaverse should be something that everyone can find reasons to spend time in. It's also something that should be open, allowing users to maintain their privacy and ownership of items, not dependent on a single centralised party,” Mr Imran said.
Ms Phang, the lecturer from NP, said that the metaverse may play a significant role for e-commerce in the future.
Earlier this week, mega sportswear brand Nike launched its dotSwoosh platform selling Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) of its apparel that can be used in various metaverse experiences.
For now though, it is too early for new technologies such as cryptocurrencies and NFTs to capture a mass audience, said Mr Chua.
People’s attitudes towards work have also changed significantly as many were forced to adapt to working from home during the pandemic. This was something Ms Chang, the SP student, had never expected to be an option for work.
“Although it's not a must-have for me, it’s definitely a good bonus if my future employer offers hybrid work arrangements,” she said.
Such an arrangement provides a good balance between interaction with colleagues and the convenience of working from home, she added.
Several surveys have found that remote working is a must-have for many Singapore workers.
For example, the TODAY Youth Survey 2022, which polled 1,000 people aged between 18 and 35, found that close to half of the respondents would not accept a job that does not provide the option of remote working.
Similarly, a survey by recruitment firm Randstad conducted in February and March this year that two in five of its 1,000 respondents — based in Singapore and aged between 18 and 65 — would not accept a job if it did not offer remote working or flexible working hours.
Emphasis on mental health
While working from home is convenient for many, it has also blurred the lines between work, rest and play as everything could be done within the same confined space of a home.
This had resulted in many employees feeling overworked even as they were isolated from their other colleagues at the height of the pandemic. The ensuing toll on their mental health had prompted calls for greater support for their well-being.
A survey by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) found that about 13 per cent of respondents reported experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety between May 2020 and June 2021, according to the Covid-19 Mental Wellness Taskforce, which was set up by MOH in October 2020.
IMH also saw a peak in calls to its mental health helpline which coincided with the start of the circuit breaker period in April 2020, and another increase between January and May 2021.
“Some of the initial concerns cited by callers included anxiety from having to adjust to working from home or home-based learning and being socially isolated, although less of such concerns were cited following June 2020. Concerns which persisted included friction with family members and concerns over job insecurity,” said MOH in August last year.
Often neglected or ignored pre-pandemic, mental health started moving up people's list of priorities, especially when it came to work.
In November 2020, a tripartite advisory on mental well-being at workplaces was issued by the Ministry of Manpower, Singapore National Employers Federation and National Trades Union Congress. Among other things, companies were encouraged to provide employees with access to counselling services, as well as extend the scope of medical benefits coverage to include mental well-being programmes, mental health consultations and treatments.
Some companies here have also expanded their leave policies to allow for mental health days without a medical certificate, in order to encourage people to take time off when they need it and reduce stress and burnout.
MOVEMENT OF PEOPLE, GOODS ACROSS BORDERS
Air travel and tourism
Although the risk of getting a COVID-19 infection overseas — as at home — remains high, people around the world including in Singapore have been surprisingly quick to pack their luggage for an overseas trip once shuttered borders reopen.
Experts had suggested in 2020 that people may be more cautious about travelling due to the fear of catching the virus. The International Air Transport Association had predicted in July that year that global air travel would not recover from the Covid-19 crisis until 2024.
Nevertheless, despite signs of a faster-than-expected recovery, Mr Johsua Ng, a director at aviation consultancy firm Alton, said his firm is sticking with its prediction for long-haul travel to recover fully in 2023 or 2024 amid global uncertainties.
“While we were indeed surprised by the earlier than expected easing of travel restrictions in Asia, headwinds such as the Russia-Ukraine war, inflation and supply challenges all had a dampening effect on the recovery momentum," he said. "China’s zero-covid policy will dampen traffic recovery this year and into next year at the very least globally, especially for the Asia Pacific region.”
For the Singapore Airlines group, its most recent operating results for October 2022 showed that SIA and Scoot carried a total of 2.3 million passengers that month, up 6.2 per cent from the previous month. This was 71 per cent of their pre-COVID levels in January 2020.
But it's not just holiday-goers pushing the aviation sector’s recovery forward.
While business meetings can be held online, many still prefer travelling abroad to meet their business counterparts in person — the same goes for politicians.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told reporters after the G20 Leader’s Summit in Rome on Oct 31 last year that some things can not be replicated online.
“In a Zoom conference, you cannot interrupt one another, you cannot float an idea and then see what he thinks,” he said.
"You can make a speech, I listen carefully, try and catch your facial features through the little Zoom picture, I make my speech and after we all finish speaking ... well, that's a conference done."
Diversification of supply chain, food sources
While things are looking up for the aviation sector, companies in other industries will take more time to fully recover as they shift towards diversifying their supply chain sources, said experts.
As border closures during the pandemic halted production lines, many people here and elsewhere rushed to hoard food items and toilet paper due to shortage fears. Images of snaking lines in supermarkets, both here and overseas, made the rounds and remain etched in people's minds today.
Such reminders have not been lost on countries and organisations as the world transits to an endemic state.
She added: “The COVID-19 pandemic has taught companies the importance of diversifying sources, ensuring sustainability on all fronts, and increasing supply chain resilience. This means that during times of crisis, companies can sustain themselves.”
However, this will take time depending on the size of the company, the number of players in the supply chain and how much of it has been established already.
NTU’s logistics and supply chain professor Mark Goh said that companies should also rethink the idea of managing a global supply chain and instead, refocus on region-centric supply chains.
“The supply chain can only function well if there is predictability and stability. If we choose to go down the route of globalisation, those regional supply chain strands should be made as robust as possible,” he said.
This is especially important for Singapore as it is an open economy, and “providing the right connectivity for transport and logistics, both in terms of the hard and soft infrastructure, is critical to ensure minimal impact on the unimpeded passage of goods and services”.
Assoc Prof Tay added that through her consultancy work, she found that companies are looking far ahead, beyond the global recovery from the pandemic.
Apart from shifting operations geographically so that they can react faster in emergencies, they are also looking at addressing long-term issues such as climate change.
“It’s not just societal impact and more conscious consumers, companies are also realising that climate change can impact their sources and supply chain. That’s why they need to take a more holistic view and look at how to reduce their future risk by becoming more environmentally sustainable,” she said.
The pandemic has also seen the acceleration of technological advancements along the supply chain and these will continue as they can reduce reliance on labour operations amid a manpower crunch, she added.
Meanwhile, some countries which depend a lot on imports, such as Singapore, have sought to diversify their food sources.
The Singapore Government is also working to increase local production of food, with a "30 by 30" initiative first launched in 2019. Under the initiative, the aim is to locally produce 30 per cent of nutritional needs by 2030.
EXPERTS ON WHY BEHAVIOURIAL CHANGES STICK AND OTHERS DON'T
Given the magnitude of COVID-19's devastation, affecting millions of lives and livelihoods around the world, it is inevitable that the pandemic caused some behavioural changes among people, experts told TODAY.
And the reason why some behavioural changes have persisted, even as people learn to live with the virus, is because the benefits of adopting such changes outweigh the costs, said NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser.
For example, technology has an increased presence in people’s lives when it comes to shopping and work, among other things, because of its convenience, user-friendliness and time and cost savings.
However, Dr Tan noted that human interaction and activities, such as verbal and non-verbal communication, cannot be fully facilitated by digital means.
“The positive aspects of digital use remain, when necessary, but people return to a 'new normal' which allows for multidimensional human interactions, together with the use of digital means,” he said.
Dr Ong from Research For Impact said that at an individual level, there may not be a clear way to predict why some behaviours shift back to a pre-pandemic mode quicker than others.
“Individuals’ own willingness to take risk, their subjective risk perceptions and the tangible or intangible costs and benefits inherent to personal circumstances all shape behaviours,” she said.
“All else equal, certain people may be more willing to take certain risks and go back to their pre-pandemic behaviours more quickly than others.”
Ms Gianna Gayle Amul, senior policy researcher and director of communications at Research For Impact, reiterated that government policies played a large role in shaping behaviours during the pandemic.
“At a more macro level, reversions in some behaviours can also be partly attributed to government policy, for instance, incentives that push for the return of tourism globally and rebooting the economy, not just locally but also globally,” she said.
With most people in Singapore being up to date with their vaccinations or having had a COVID-19 infection at least once, there is also a degree of confidence that they would be safe from severe infection.
“As a global city-state, Singapore cannot afford to remain closed and be left behind when the rest of the world has decided to ‘move on’ from the ongoing pandemic," said Ms Amul.
This story was originally published in TODAY.