Occasionally on Facebook, I’ve written open letters mainly for family and friends back in the US about how the covid-19 coronavirus outbreak is progressing in Singapore. Here’s the latest.
Hi, everyone. Since I started giving periodic updates out of Singapore, I figured I’d post another. And what a week it’s been.
Where to start? I suppose with the numbers. After having pretty good control of the covid-19 coronavirus for a while now, the number of new cases increased dramatically just this week. The highest jump came just yesterday – 47 more cases – bringing the total since January to 313. (Just below two thirds of those are still hospitalized, while the rest have been discharged. Fifteen are in critical care.)
Globally speaking, these are still excellent numbers. And why we saw a jump matters a lot. Most of the cases have been imported from the rest of the world. Many Singaporeans and foreigners who live here are rushing in. The caseload in Europe and elsewhere is surging; business travelers are finally getting the message and cutting trips short; a local school holiday during which some people traveled is ending; cases from Singapore’s neighbors, Indonesia and Malaysia, have landed here; and students whose colleges have closed are returning. Sadly, a friend of mine is one of these cases, having picked up covid-19 in the UK. He and his spouse are doing well as of right now. (Sadly, the work colleague of another friend has died.)
This surge of confirmed and potential cases has led to a lot of dramatic changes. Singapore is now requiring all travelers to serve a two-week stay-at-home period to see if they develop symptoms. Travelers from some countries, like China and places in Europe, aren’t allowed to come or pass through here at all. While not a full lockdown from the outside world, it inches closer. Meanwhile, aggressive testing and tracing of people who might have been exposed continues. People serving stay-at-home notices and quarantines are carefully monitored (with penalties for disobeying.) Temperature checks and filling out travel declaration forms (with penalties for lying) are commonplace.
Besides the clamping down on outside travelers, the other big news of the week was Malaysia finally getting serious about the virus. (Singapore is an island just off the southern tip of Malaysia.) After a growing number of cases, Malaysia decided to block its citizens from leaving the country, presumably to prevent them from coming back infected. For Singapore, this potentially dealt a huge blow to its labor force and, most disturbing, its food supply.
Between 250k and 300k people travel from Malaysia *each day* to work (and study) in Singapore. Losing these workers could deal a huge blow to a lot of industries. Ahead of the deadline, many Malaysians rushed to get into Singapore, and many Singaporean employers rushed to find places to house them – not always successfully. There are stories of Malaysian workers sleeping in exposed conditions at this time. (Not so bad from a weather perspective – it’s warm here all year long – but the risk of mosquito-borne diseases, like dengue fever, is always high.) These workers are essentially separated from their homes until the end of the month.
As I mentioned, the food supply was also at risk. Many fresh vegetables and meats in Singapore come from Malaysia. (Singapore is basically a city-island. While it tries to grow some food for emergencies, most of it is imported.) Soon after Malaysia’s announcement that it was closing its borders, we had another run on the groceries. We had long lines and many empty shelves (including – yet again – toilet paper. 🙄) The government quickly moved to reassure Singaporeans that there was enough supply by saying it had emergency stocks spread around the island, that it was finding alternative supplier countries for things like eggs, and that it would negotiate some sort of understanding with Malaysia. (Singapore and Malaysia have historically not liked one another, so that’s always tricky.) Meanwhile, one grocery instituted buying limits on some items, and the grocery delivery services are stretched to near breaking. But by yesterday afternoon and today, some shelves were being restocked. This might be resolving itself, but the supply of food and other necessities remains a huge worry.
At this point, a natural question might be, why not leave? After all, we’re foreigners here. Unlike Singaporeans, supposedly we have the option of exit. Well, first off, logistically that’s not so easy. Flights are getting canceled left and right and at short notice. And what do you do with all of your stuff? Just leave it? It’s not like an army is invading. Second, what kind of reception is waiting back in the US? Countries are closing off and turning more xenophobic by the day and might not even welcome back their own citizens. At the very least a mandatory quarantine of some kind seems highly likely. Finally, and maybe most importantly, this is our home. No one becomes a refugee until there’s truly no choice left.
Meanwhile, life goes on, with plenty of disruptions but fewer than elsewhere.
Most importantly, the medical system seems to be handling the caseload.
As for education, local schools have been on break, but the government has announced they will re-open on schedule next week. That said, things haven’t been so calm at the kids’ school. While not explicitly stated, after a parent returned from Europe and tested positive, the school clearly began exploring its options should school be forced to close. (Another parent returning from the US has also since tested positive.) So, as a controlled dry run, in-person school was canceled from Wednesday through Friday this week, and Thursday and Friday are being spent doing distance learning. So far, so good. The kids are sitting at computers all day. Pretty good training for a life of office work, I guess. Next week is spring break. (Absolutely no one is traveling. Or at least they shouldn’t be.) And with any luck, just like the Singaporean schools, they’ll be back in class and with their friends soon enough.
People are still going to work in many cases, but not always. Just today, my wife’s US employer announced that everyone worldwide who can work from home should do so until the end of the month. This mirrors what I’m seeing in many other parts of the world. Since I already mostly work from home, all four of us will be here tomorrow, staring at our own screens
Finally, most social activities are canceled – certainly big events, but many smaller ones, as well. That said, we do not have the blanket closure of all restaurants and venues. Fewer people seem to be going out. (With no tourists, crowds in many places are way down.) Usually people are in small groups and spaced out (even if I did see one packed bar the other evening with a live band playing). But all of this is voluntary, with most people seeming to follow the recommendations of health experts. I know I’ve completely eliminated handshakes and even fist bumps from my social gestures. I’ve definitely given up licking flat surfaces… 😉
To wrap up, I’ve tried to present this fairly calmly, but if I take a moment to reflect on the last week, I start seething. The spike in cases that we’ve seen has largely been caused by stupidity and/or denial. Some countries have been ridiculously slow to respond. For example, in Malaysia, a giant religious event was allowed to go forward, and many people became infected, some of whom landed back here. (Another similar event wisely just got canceled in Indonesia.) Some people have taken business or personal trips, when – to my mind – it was clear that they shouldn’t have. Or if the trip was truly necessary, it was certainly clear that you should separate yourself and those close to you voluntarily when you get back. (I feel the infections at our school fall into this category.) There have been big private parties in the community, and as I said, some people still go to crowded venues. In my more charitable moments I try to remember that this is a fast-moving situation. Maybe people feel they were acting reasonably at the time. But nah, the writing has been on the wall long enough. Some people are just being outrageously irresponsible. And we’ll all potentially going to pay the price.
So that’s the view from sunny Singapore – for now. While it’s been nice to see many people praising the country for its response to covid-19, it’s important to remember that it’s a constant battle to keep ahead of the coronavirus, and there are other forms of instability that can come out of nowhere.
Meanwhile, keep flattening that curve by practicing appropriate social distancing and give our modern medical system time to get the drop on this bug. Stay safe, remember to be nice to one another, and 🤛🙏👋 or even 🖖, but certainly do not 🤝.