The Big Read: As Singaporeans pine for a return to normalcy, COVID-19 has left behind a trail of despair for some
For some individuals here, COVID-19 has been much more than an inconvenience and a matter of adjustment to their daily routines. Many want to caution Singaporeans against being complacent in the long drawn-out fight against COVID-19.
SINGAPORE: It first started with a ban on travellers coming in from China. Within weeks, Singapore closed its borders and imposed stay-home or quarantine orders on all residents returning to the country.
Amid all these, the risk assessment level known as Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) was raised from yellow to orange, religious services were suspended and mass entertainment events were banned.
Then came the circuit breaker on Apr 7, which practically brought almost the entire country to a standstill, as schools, offices and non-essential businesses were closed, and restrictions placed on residents’ movements around the island.
Daily life was upended, with people not being allowed to dine-in at food establishments or meet up with friends or family members from different households, and having to study and work from home.
Such disruptive changes have been a constant in Singapore, as in other countries, since COVID-19 first surfaced here on Jan 23.
Less than four months later, there are now 28,038 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Singapore as of Sunday (May 17).
The majority of cases in Singapore are foreign workers who have been living in dormitories, whose crowded conditions are now under the spotlight as these have been blamed for causing the high number of infections among the migrant worker community.
But with the number of cases among the local community on a downward trend, the authorities here say that the circuit breaker measures are working. And since earlier this week, they have started to ease some restrictions, allowing some businesses to reopen, such as traditional Chinese medicinal halls.
Singaporeans are keeping their fingers crossed that some semblance of normalcy will return soon, with the circuit breaker slated to be eased further on Jun 1.
But for some individuals here, COVID-19 has been much more than an inconvenience and a matter of adjustment to their daily routines.
It has taken away the lives of their loved ones who were infected, caused mental anguish for those who survived, and robbed many others of their livelihoods.
We spoke with several of them who have had to wrestle with the coronavirus’ deleterious impact, and emerge from it with their lives drastically altered.
Some of them, in fact, told this reporter that they were prompted by the easing of the circuit breaker to accept media interview requests - they want to caution Singaporeans against being complacent in the long drawn-out fight against COVID-19.
READ: ‘We are unable to foresee the demand’: Suppliers scramble to meet spike in orders for food containers during COVID-19 circuit breaker
‘THE LOSS IS IRREPLACEABLE’
Mother’s Day would usually be a grand family affair for Ms Siti Noraisah Ali’s family every year.
Her mother would whip up plenty of dishes for the whole extended family as they get together to observe that special day, as it is also the day they celebrate the “birthday” of her grandmother - who is 82 this year - since she has no records of the date when she was born.
Unfortunately, when Mother’s Day on May 10 came and went this year, all they felt was the huge void left behind with the passing of Ms Noraisah’s mother.
Madam Salha Mesbee, 58, died due to complications from the coronavirus on Apr 30. She is the youngest COVID-19 fatality in Singapore to date. While she was declared free of the virus which she had contracted during a trip to Turkey, her vital organs took such a beating from it that her body was not able to hold out any longer.
“That sense of loss is irreplaceable. To think she won the battle against COVID-19, but she still passed away. We still cannot accept that,” said Ms Noraisah, who runs a home-based business.
Adding to the pain is the fact that they were not able to have the usual funeral and burial arrangements due to safe-distancing requirements.
“It’s not like a normal funeral, where you are allowed to talk about the deceased and reminisce … It was very much touch and go,” said the 37-year old.
With the Ministry of Health advising funerals and wakes to be limited to 10 people or fewer, Ms Noraisah was not able to see her mother off on her final journey to the cemetery.
But she was thankful that she could watch the proceedings via live streaming, a service provided by the funeral company.
“It eased the worry and the sadness of not being able to follow your mum to the grave,” said the eldest of three children.
Another source of comfort for Ms Noraisah was the fact that she was able to perform the last religious rites for her mother, as the latter was free of the virus and her body could be returned to the family.
Even then, she had to bathe her mother for the last time while donned in full personal protective equipment (PPE).
“I had three layers of gloves on me. I had the PPE, I had the face guard. It’s not the norm … but you know you have to do (it) because (the virus) is not something you can play with,” she said.
The one-month period where her family members were in hospital also left a psychological imprint on Ms Noraisah.
Her father and two younger brothers were also infected with COVID-19, but they had all recovered before her mother died.
She would be receiving calls from the doctors daily to get updates on the health conditions of her family members, and later her mother. Until today, she still gets the shivers when her phone rings at night.
“Because of that one month, you are anticipating calls, waiting anxiously, wondering if the call is going to be good or... bad. Everytime my phone rings now, I’m like, ‘What’s happening?’” Ms Noraisah said.
“When people call me after 8pm now, I get really scared. It reminds me of that day.”
Ms Noraisah was referring to Apr 29, the day doctors called her around 8pm to notify her that things were not looking well for her mother. The next day, her father made the decision to pull the plug on the life support machine which Mdm Salha was on.
Ms Noraisah recalled that when her mother’s body was brought home, her father lay down beside her, knowing it would be their last time together.
To see her 61-year-old father, Mr Ali Buang - who had always been the strong figure in her family -break down has been heart-wrenching for Ms Noraisah. She is now seeing his fragile side, having caught him staring into space at times.
Two weeks since her mother’s death, Ms Noraisah said her father has been focused on trying to take over some of her mother’s yearly practices during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, such as giving away food hampers to other families and regularly checking in on his wife’s mother and sister.
As for Ms Noraisah, she has taken on the role which her mother used to play - as the glue that holds the extended family together.
In the absence of her mother, Ms Noraisah said she sent Mother’s Day gifts to her aunt and grandmother.
READ: For mum of 7 with husband fighting COVID-19 in ICU, home quarantine is an anxious but tight-knit affair
She cooks the pre-dawn meals before the day’s fasting begins for her father and youngest brother, and has the food delivered to their flat.
She also plans to be the main chef on Hari Raya Puasa, which falls on May 24 this year and marks the end of the fasting month, by cooking the dishes which her mother used to make, such as nasi briyani and ayam merah.
“I have to be strong, like how my mother had been strong for everybody. Once I break, I think (my family) will break,” Ms Noraisah said.
While she continues to find strength and comfort from her husband and four children to come to terms with her mother’s death, Ms Noraisah knows it will be tough to do so.
“I have not had the chance to grieve properly. It’s been a whirlwind situation, a flurry of events.”
COVID-19 SURVIVORS: LIVING WITH EMOTIONAL, MENTAL SCARS
A consistently high fever of above 39 degrees Celsius, hallucinations of loved ones who had died, and having four litres of oxygen pumped into his body through a nasal cannula.
These were far from the experience of some COVID-19 patients that Mr Bambang Sugeng Kajairi had read about, but it was what he went through when he was hospitalised at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) after testing positive for the virus at the end of March.
“I had the full-blown version. That caused me to question a lot, ‘Why me?’” said the 55-year-old business owner.
For Mr Simon Neo, who was hospitalised at NCID in mid-March after testing positive, it was the chills he felt at his fingertips and toes that were the “most terrifying”.
At one point, the 50-year-old psychotherapist had four blankets piled on him as nothing could be done about it.
“I never want to go through that again… It made you feel so helpless,” said Mr Neo.
Mr Bambang Sugeng Kajairi, 55, tested positive for COVID-19 but recovered after 16 days. His wife also tested positive for the virus and has been in hospital for more than 40 days.
Apart from the physical pain, COVID-19 patients also have to go through the mental anguish of struggling with their mortality. And this is true even for those who have mild symptoms.
READ: From intensive care to recovery: Singaporean woman who wondered if she was dying from COVID-19 pays tribute to her medical team
When Mr Andrew Phay was hospitalised at Changi General Hospital for the virus in mid-March, the 56-year-old retiree was not too concerned initially.
Despite the lack of severe symptoms during his initial stay in hospital, apart from having an adverse reaction to a malaria drug he was taking, he was told by the doctor on the 15th day that his lungs were not showing any signs of improvement and he might have to be put on the ventilator in the intensive care unit.
“She asked, ‘Is there anybody in your family you would like me to call?’ … That’s when you realise that things might not turn out well,” recounted Mr Phay.
While he got emotional after hearing that from the doctor, Mr Phay composed himself and phoned his wife.
Since both are Roman Catholics, his wife offered him encouragement by sending him a sermon delivered by Archbishop William Goh.
“After I heard about it and I read about it, I prayed. I never prayed as hard before in my life,” said Mr Phay.
His personal brush with COVID-19 led him to believe that public messaging about the disease needs to be done in a more personal way, instead of focusing on the statistics.
“When we’re talking about your death or my death, all of a sudden the numbers don’t matter anymore. When everybody sees that they can die, it becomes real,” he said.
Thankfully for all three patients, their conditions improved soon after.
While Mr Bambang was discharged upon testing negative twice over two consecutive days after 16 days in NCID, both Mr Neo and Mr Phay were sent to community isolation facilities as they were certified to be clinically well but not yet cleared of the virus.
But even after the battle for their physical health was more or less won, they soon found that they had to grapple with continuing mental and emotional strain.
For Mr Bambang, there are feelings of guilt towards his wife, as she had also tested positive. While she only has mild symptoms, his wife has not received the all-clear after more than 40 days from her first positive reading, and remains in a community isolation facility at the time of his interview on Tuesday.
“Sixteen days in the hospital alone was a killer for me. I had only a small window to look out of. It was tough. I can’t imagine (how things must be like for her),” he said.
His wife’s absence and his son being put on a stay-home notice in a hotel also meant that Mr Bambang’s homecoming was bittersweet at best.
"For me emotionally it’s the toughest. I miss her a lot. Since I came out, I haven’t had a chance to share the moment of me coming out of it (hospital) with her,” he added.
For Mr Neo, besides struggling with feelings of guilt for having to be away from his wife and mother, his 32-day stay in NCID and the community isolation facility was a “roller-coaster ride”.
Seeing two older roommates getting discharged earlier even led him to wonder about his self-worth.
“I began to question myself, ‘Have I not been taking care of myself? What’s wrong with me? Maybe I’m not a good person that’s why all this is happening,'” he said.
Adding to the mental struggle was the fact that Mr Neo had a false negative test three times, where a negative test result was followed by a positive outcome the next day, hence failing to meet the criteria before one could get discharged.
“At first when they tell you it's negative, you get your hopes up. The thought is ‘I’m going to be discharged’. Then after they tell you it’s positive, so it (hope) goes down again,” he said.
“When I got the false negative test the third time, I was thinking, ‘Is the virus coming back stronger than before?’ It's very cruel for anyone to go through this.”
During her 25-day stay at Tan Tock Seng Hospital from Apr 2, Dr Teresita Cruz del Rosario said she did a total of 11 swab tests before finally getting her double-negative results.
When she kept getting tested positive despite feeling physically better into the third week of her hospital stay, the 67-year-old independent scholar started to question whether she was indeed recovering.
The wait between the first and second negative test result was very agonising, with some survivors sharing it was the longest 24 hours they ever had.
“You want it (a negative outcome) very badly but there is that helplessness. All you can do is wait,” said Mr Phay, who was warded for a total of 23 days.
Both Mr Neo and Dr Cruz del Rosario said they had difficulty sleeping at night as they waited for the results to arrive the next day.
“Either I was going to be home or we have to start all over again. It was bad. That was more agonising than recovering from COVID-19 itself,” said Dr Cruz del Rosario, who is affiliated with the Asia Research Institute’s Inter-Asia Engagements Cluster at the National University of Singapore.
Some COVID-19 survivors said they are still feeling the lingering effects of the disease despite being given the all-clear.
Mr Bambang said he still experiences breathlessness at times, while Dr Cruz del Rosario said she often felt tired and feverish the first week after she was discharged, the same symptoms she had when she first entered the hospital.
As someone who has a history of asthma, Dr Cruz del Rosario now has to use her inhaler daily, unlike before when she did not have to use it as often.
“You wonder whether you will ever go back to normal … Will I go back to a time when I recognise my body and how it’s behaving? Or are these changes going to just continue?” she said.
Beyond the physical after-effects, Mr Neo admitted that he gets emotional when recounting his battle with COVID-19, something which he believes will stay with him for a while.
“There were days I woke up crying. The tears, the hopes, and the despair as well. Looking at the entire situation, it encapsulates everything including the joy of being discharged,” he said.
Survivor’s guilt was something that Dr Cruz del Rosario had to deal with as well, as she found herself experiencing sudden crying bouts for a few days last week.
Two of her colleagues from the Philippines died after contracting the virus.
“Why did I survive and others didn’t? Why did I have far less severe symptoms and others worse?” she asked.
Dr Joel Yang, a clinical psychologist from Mind What Matters Psychological Consultancy, said that one way for affected individuals to get through this difficult period - whether they are grieving or reliving the trauma of fighting the disease - is to spend 10 minutes every morning writing about anything.
It may help them to process their feelings at a deeper level and reflect on their values and on what matters.
Learning to embrace uncertainty, while a difficult thing to do, would also help them accept their sadness or anger over their circumstances, he added.
“Acceptance is about being okay with not being okay,” said Dr Yang.
He also emphasised that there is no right way of overcoming loss or trauma as people often go through the various phases in a non-linear way.
For example, one can be in denial in one moment, sad at the next and then angry after.
“People do cycle back and forth. It’s a completely normal reaction to an abnormal situation,” he added.
WHEN DREAMS COME CRASHING DOWN
Mr Derrick Yip, 30, had clearly laid out his plans for 2020.
He was planning to expand his events company, which he had officially set up last year after spending a decade in the industry, and was due to marry his fiancee.
But the COVID-19 outbreak threw everything into disarray in just two months.
The former emcee was forced to close his company and scrap his wedding plans, as the economic fallout from the pandemic depleted his savings and robbed him of the only livelihood he had known.
“That final moment when I closed the doors to my company, it felt as if all the passion and the dreams I had, everything (was) just shattered,” said Mr Yip, who is now temporarily making ends meet as a safe-distancing ambassador.
Alongside tourism and aviation, the events industry is one of the most severely affected sectors as it was among the first few economic activities ordered to shut in Singapore as the authorities began imposing safe-distancing measures.
Even after the circuit breaker is eased, Mr Yip said he does not expect the events industry to recover, at least not until the end of next year.
It is a sentiment shared by Mr Laurence Wong, also an emcee whose source of income has been obliterated.
With COVID-19 forcing everyone to digitalise, Mr Wong said that individuals and firms have gotten used to the idea that events companies and emcees are redundant.
Using video conferencing tools such as Google Meet or Zoom to carry out team-bonding events would be cheaper, more convenient, and require less resources, he pointed out.
READ: 'Surreal' and 'seamless': 115 lawyers called to the Bar via video conference in a first for Singapore
The 48-year-old said he has “one leg out” of the industry which he has been in for the past three decades and is now focusing on how he can contribute to society by working as a safe-distancing ambassador and being a full-time father to his seven-year-old son.
“I work so hard all these years to achieve something. COVID-19 has levelled everything to the ground. I have to start all over again … But it has given me an opportunity to be who I have always wanted to be,” he said.
If the industry does eventually recover, Mr Wong said he would still take up job offers even though they would not be as lucrative as before.
Mr Yip, however, doubts that he will return to the industry on a full-time basis even if things return to normal eventually.
“(The events industry is) not sustainable when a situation like (a pandemic) hits. We are the first to go. What can I do so that I do not have to go through this again? The answer is to get a corporate job,” he said.
But even as Mr Yip set his new plans into motion after feeling lost for a few months, he discovered that he had no transferable skills suitable for the corporate world.
“When I was crafting my resume to send it to the corporate world, it was very difficult. As an emcee, what skills do I have? I can speak well, but that’s just one thing. I can get people’s hands up in the air. But that is not a skillset you can put on (professional networking site) Linkedin,” he said.
He hopes that he would be able to work for as long as possible as a safe-distancing ambassador, while completing a programme under the Workforce Skills Qualifications - a national education and training system for working adults - to eventually become a qualified trainer.
Making future plans in case another COVID-19-like pandemic strikes is also in the works for Mr Edward Malcolm, a director of an events company whose operations have been suspended.
While he believes that the industry will eventually recover, he is planning to take up a security guard licence through a SkillsFuture course, in case he needs to look for another job.
READ: ‘Never approach people from behind’: How enforcement officers and ambassadors handle the public
The 50-year-old emcee, who has been running his business since 1995, admitted that he was initially complacent when the first few cases of COVID-19 surfaced in Singapore, believing it will soon pass.
But when it did not, he was at first embarrassed at having to find new employment with what he considered "lowly" jobs.
Nevertheless, he decided to bite the bullet and began applying for a myriad of jobs, including as a temperature screener, but was largely rejected.
He finally found a job as a safe-distancing ambassador.
“Last time, I was very lazy, a relaxed kind of person. Now I’m a go-getter already. Everything must chiong (strive),” he said.
For these three individuals whose main source of income has been decimated, COVID-19 has also forced them to change their lifestyle and spending habits: They now think twice about buying a cup of coffee from a cafe, or turning on the air-conditioner instead of the fan, for example.
Although the world they had known for so long had vanished in no time, their can-do spirit came through in the interviews, with some saying that they were thankful for the experience and perspective shift that the pandemic has given them, even though it was not something they had wished for.
“When the tough gets going, you just got to go with it. I’m not going to be shy anymore. You need to survive man. That’s the main thing, it’s about survival and nothing else,” said Mr Malcolm.