I’m tired of hearing about Covid-19.
On Sunday night, when it was announced that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was due to address the nation on the heightened alert, my spirits, already deflated from the idea of facing another Monday at work within the confines of my four walls, depressed even lower.
“Looks like it’s going to be another circuit breaker,” I moaned to whoever was in earshot, which at that point of time, was a lizard chirping away in my curtains.
Yesterday, before 4pm, all I could think about, through copious Zoom conferences, is how am I going to cope with another two weeks of staring at a small laptop screen in lieu of actual human contact.
Then PM Lee took the podium, took a breath, and took my doubts away.
“Barring another super-spreader or big cluster, we should be on track to bring this outbreak under control,” he said.
We’re okay, he said, keep up the good work.
Stay at home, work from home if you can and go out only if you must, PM Lee added. See a doctor if you’re unwell. And if everything goes well, he said, we should be on track to relax restrictions on June 13.
So, no circuit breaker, fingers crossed, and life back to “normal” in two weeks.
But what is the new normal? Every time we talk about it, it seems like the definition changes a little. Dining out in groups of five, then eight, then now back to dabao as de rigueur. Karaoke outlets have been decimated. And what is the rule on gyms and fitness studios again?
I read the extensive guidelines. And I’m not surprised that most gyms have decided simply to move their classes online till the heightened alert is over.
Judging by the number of Singaporeans heading outdoors for trekking, cycling or simply having a picnic, it seems that we’ve put most of our indoor activities on pause too.
Last night, after a run (what else can Singaporeans do for fun these days?), I was surprised to see safe distancing officers lining up along the jogging path, peering at passers-by.
“Wow, I feel like I’m running a marathon,” I quipped to my companion, “they should be handing out water,” I added, waving gaily at a pair of uniformed cops.
Easier testing, faster tracing and convenient vaccinations
In our new normal, we should “expect routine, large-scale, fast and simple testing”, said PM Lee.
He continued: “Contact tracers are working faster and better, because they have more experience and skills, and better tools. TraceTogether helps them identify and quarantine close contacts of an infected case within hours rather than days.”
And vaccination-wise, Singapore is making it easier and faster to issue jabs to the different segments of our population. Seniors can now walk-in to vaccination centres for their shots, and taking advantage of the June holidays, students can start booking their appointments today.
“This approach will quickly provide the maximum number of people with good protection, instead of a good number of people with maximum protection,” said PM Lee.
“So, not all bad news lah,” one of my friends texted our group chat, after I had gloomily predicted more restrictions. “Happy to be wrong,” I replied, breathing a sigh of relief.
Then PM Lee hit us with the news we didn’t want to hear.
“One day, this global pandemic will subside but I do not expect Covid-19 to disappear. It will remain with humankind, and become endemic. The virus will continue to circulate in pockets of the global population for years to come.
“This also means we will see small outbreaks of the disease from time to time in Singapore as well.”
Another “new normal” to absorb.
I think many of us, up till recently, have always thought that Covid-19 will one day disappear. It would take months, years even, but we would eventually go back to our pre-Covid lives, and relegate the pandemic to the dustbin of history – a story to tell the grandkids.
But now the pandemic is endemic, and we have to deal with that.
It’s not a sprint (maybe it never was), but a marathon. In that race, as any runner would tell you, stamina, not speed is key.
A friend of mine asked me what “endemic” meant. At the time, I panicked and babbled: “Oh, it means a thing is part of something else, inextricably intertwined with whatever it is engaged with.”
I later looked it up, the word simply means “native” (oops). In an epidemiological sense, it means that a particular disease (in this case, Covid-19) will be present in our community at a certain baseline (or endemic level) without any external inputs.
Said PM Lee: “In this new normal, we will have to learn to carry on with our lives even with the virus in our midst… Just as we do with the common flu or dengue fever, which we now manage through public health measures and personal precautions.”
“In the new normal, Covid-19 will not dominate our lives. Our people will be mostly vaccinated, and possibly taking booster shots every year. We will get tested often, but it will be fast and easy. We will go to work or school, meet friends and family, participate in religious services, and enjoy entertainment and sports events.
“We will re-open our borders safely. Visitors will again come to Singapore. Singaporeans will travel again to countries where the disease is well under control, especially if we have been vaccinated. And eventually we will even go about without masks again, at least outdoors.
“Right now, we are some ways off from this happy state, but we are heading in the right direction.”
PM Lee talked about technocratic solutions to reassure us. We are testing faster, tracing better and vaccinating more. Covid-19 will one day be treated like the seasonal flu, with booster shots for vulnerable members of society. We are headed “in the right direction”.
These solutions are sound and it is reassuring to know that amid a global pandemic, with outbreaks raging in countries like Malaysia and India, our government has things relatively under control.
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But we need to do our part in running this race. When the heightened alert was announced, Singaporeans moaned and groaned (I’m guilty of that too) and indulged in our favourite past time – complaining.
Then from thinking only of ourselves and rushing to the supermarket, we started thinking of others: Over the past two weeks, we have seen stories of Singaporeans coming together to help others.
Like those three sisters who set up an Instagram account to help elderly hawkers stay in business – Singaporeans made that account go viral. When The Pride talked to Jocelyn, Jasmine and Jacquelyn last Friday, the account had gained 28,000 followers in a week. It is the Tuesday after – it has 31,000 followers now.
Forget all those outliers of xenophobic behaviour. Ignore those people – local or foreigner – who insist on breaking the rules. They aren’t the norm. They shouldn’t influence how we conduct ourselves. We are better than this.
Online and offline, we are hearing stories of Singaporeans appreciating hawkers, delivery riders, public transport personnel – the list goes on. Little stories of kindness, to friends, neighbours, family members and even complete strangers. Let’s focus on that.
Even as Covid-19 is becoming endemic in our society, I believe that empathy has become endemic in Singaporeans too.
What does it mean again? I think I’m liking my definition a little bit more now.
“Oh, it means a thing is part of something else, inextricably intertwined with whatever it is engaged with.”