Singapore residents travelling during COVID-19 – the risks and payoffs of reuniting with loved ones
SINGAPORE: Pre-pandemic, 45-year-old Marilyn Ng would fly from Singapore to Bangkok every weekend to see her three children, who live in the Thai capital.
When she strapped in for a flight to the country last December, she had not seen her kids in 10 months.
The trip was the culmination of months of research and administrative processes.
“You’re required to pay for the air tickets in advance, regardless of knowing whether you can fly.
“Then you have to book a quarantine hotel … pay all of it upfront … then you put in an application with all your reasons to fly,” said Ms Ng, who works for an IT software company.
She also had to submit documents to the Thai embassy to prove her family lives in Thailand.
After navigating processes that changed “on a monthly or weekly basis”, she finally received special permission to enter Bangkok, which was in a COVID-19 lockdown.
She was allowed up to 90 days in the country, which she fully utilised.
Ms Ng is among the Singapore residents who, despite the pandemic, have travelled abroad, triggered by the desire to see their loved ones.
Within Thailand, she took multiple trips with her two sons and a daughter, but with safety as a priority, she said.
“There must be a conscious decision on how to plan a trip every time we go out,” said Ms Ng.
She counts a trip to Hua Hin with her daughter as one of the favourites of her stay. They went horseback riding, golfing and swimming.
“(Reuniting with family) is bittersweet,” said Ms Ng with a sigh.
“It’s so exciting to see them, but you know you have to leave them – and you don’t know when you’re going to come back. That was the hardest part.
“My little girl spent three weeks crying. Every time the sun set, she would ask: ‘How many more days will you be with me and when are you coming back?’”
Ms Ng returned safely to Singapore in February, with five COVID-19 swabs under her belt for the trip.
To those who may criticise her decision to travel, she said: “The responsibility is on ourselves to know, to social distance, and be prepared ... I know there is a risk, but every day there is a risk. You cross the road, you get hit by a bus, that’s another risk.
“So COVID-19 is just a thing we live with now in this situation and you have to plan it out, be careful, be aware,” said Ms Ng.
Singapore's travel advisory, last updated on Feb 9, states that citizens and residents may travel if it is for academic studies, employment, business under fast lane arrangements, compassionate reasons, medical treatment, or legal obligations.
Otherwise, all Singaporeans and residents are advised to defer all other forms of overseas travel.
The advisory also said that all travellers will be subject to prevailing border measures upon entering Singapore, including payment for their stay at dedicated stay-home notice facilities and swab tests.
THE COST OF TRAVELLING DURING A PANDEMIC
Another Singaporean, Pauline Yoong, flew to Italy last December to see her partner, who is based in the country’s eastern region of Marche.
After being apart for 11 months, she took the plunge to see him despite uncertainties over restrictions.
It did not help that websites lacked updated information about entry requirements and the rules varied across different regions, said Ms Yoong, who works in digital marketing.
READ: Singaporeans, PRs who travel from permitted countries can tap subsidies, MediShield Life for COVID-19 hospital bill
On the flight itself, she was fraught with worry.
“I was definitely paranoid. The flight wasn’t full … (but I could) hear people coughing. I prepared like three masks,” she said.
During the three months she spent in Italy, they took several trips to nearby regions. One of the most memorable parts, Ms Yoong said, was getting to visit the highest point of a medieval fortress in Assisi, Umbria, nestled in fog atop a hill.
But their time together came at no small cost.
Ms Yoong spent close to S$1,000 on travel insurance covering herself for COVID-19, S$2,000 on her quarantine stay upon returning to Singapore, and nearly S$300 for two COVID-19 swab tests.
“But it was definitely worth it as I got to see him. After so long, all these costs are really nothing,” said Ms Yoong, who has blogged about her experience to help others who may be in the same situation.
For a traveller who only wanted to be known as Ms Y, plans to reunite with her Hong Kong-based partner were initially scuppered by the suspension of the Singapore-Hong Kong air travel bubble.
After spending seven months apart, they decided to meet elsewhere - making one trip to Turkey in October and another to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in December.
Their criteria for the destination - no quarantine requirements and low COVID-19 infection rates, among other factors, said 26-year-old Ms Y, who works in architecture.
Dubai caught their eye because short-term visitors have been allowed to enter the city since July last year. Visitors must have valid medical insurance and a negative COVID-19 test result.
“(In Dubai), the people in the tourism sector were already vaccinated – every taxi driver we met was already vaccinated," Ms Y said.
She added that in both the UAE and Turkey, authorities had put in place measures like mask-wearing and social distancing, which reassured them.
“It was actually the best thing I have done for my mental health,” she told CNA.
“But of course, we were both aware of the risks we were taking and were prepared to undergo quarantine when we got back,” said Ms Y. She added that they have healthy lifestyles and no pre-existing health conditions.
“Whether you're infected or not, it’s you who has to bear the consequences … You have to be quarantined, you have to get treated at the hospital, you have to pay for (the medical expenses) yourself.”
“So you’re taking responsibility for whatever risk you incur when you travel ... It’s a very self-contained process from the moment you travel out and come back,” she said.
TRAVELLING FOR EMERGENCIES
Travelling is trickier for people who are not Singaporeans or permanent residents.
A 38-year-old Employment Pass holder, who only wanted to be known as Madam, had to make an emergency trip to the Philippines in October after her father died.
Leaving Singapore was no issue – returning was the problem, said Madam, who works in the tech sector.
Work pass holders need their employers to apply for re-entry approval on their behalf. Singaporeans and permanent residents do not require such approvals.
Madam said she tried to get permission to return to Singapore within a month, but ended up having to stay in the Philippines for six to seven weeks.
READ: COVID-19: What is preventing countries lifting border restrictions to travellers from Singapore?
“Even if we tried to appeal that the reason for flying out was due to a family emergency, I still had a long time doing an appeal and requesting for approval.
“It was very difficult and stressful, given all of the personal stuff going on,” Madam said, emphasising that she had not travelled for leisure.
Dr Thomas Soo, the head of health and wellness at Ng Teng Fong General Hospital said that the general advice is not to travel abroad to places that are experiencing major outbreaks of any disease.
“The risk of getting infected and falling ill is high and your treatment may be delayed as the healthcare system there may be overwhelmed.
“There is also the risk of bringing back the infection and infecting others after you return,” he cautioned.
He also said that when travelling, whether locally on overseas on public transport, people should wear a mask, avoid speaking, observe safe distancing and sanitise their hands after touching common surfaces.
In addition, Dr Soo warned that in cases where going overseas is unavoidable, travellers must note that some travel insurance may not cover medical expenses incurred if the person contracts the disease while travelling.
“Do also note that travel advisories and travel restrictions vary amongst countries and may change rather quickly," he said.
“There is a risk that you may be stranded in a particular country for a prolonged period of time, hence the need to be prepared financially to ride it out in a foreign country."