Despite hearty wishes exchanged between friends and family for a prosperous start to the new year, 2020 had unfortunately kicked off on a more negative note than we would have liked it to. With the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (better known as COVID-19) plaguing many countries, plunging healthcare communities into desperation and paralysing economies globally, it has no doubt been a distressing few months for the world.
The outbreak situation in US
The outbreak began at a time when my husband and I had just relocated to Northern California for a few months, where he had secured a job position as a research scientist. The virus was rapidly making its rounds in Asia, but cases here were few and far between then. While we read about Singapore getting around 40 new cases per day and the rising panic back home, life was still pretty much normal in our Bay Area neighbourhood: people were dining out, no one was donning a mask, and the grocery store was as well-stocked as ever.
It wasn’t only in March before we became aware that this new virus was nothing like what we think we know. Cases in the States had started growing exponentially at an alarming rate. Suddenly, food staples were flying off grocery store shelves faster than we could buy them, in an inevitable trend of panic buying that had preceded Asian countries. Before we knew it, California had declared a state of emergency and a shelter-in-place order swiftly followed, which would require people to stay home at all times, except for when carrying out essential activities.
My husband was already working from home, so we dutifully abided by the new protocol, only stepping out of our apartment to restock our depleting groceries at Whole Foods across the street when we needed to, each time carefully masked up. For a while, it did seem like we could maintain the status quo until the situation gets better. But as the numbers continued to rise ominously, we had enough reason to start worrying that things were far from getting better.
The growing epidemic: Healthcare concerns in US
Healthcare costs in the United States were ranked as highest in the world, so understandably there was a rational fear of catching the deadly virus while on foreign land. Both of us were only adequately insured at best, and the last thing we wanted was to risk incurring four-figure sums of hospital bills in the worst of cases. Then, there was the uncertainty of guaranteed healthcare for foreigners in the event of a pandemic. Access to non-COVID related medical services at this time was also becoming a legitimate worry. With growing numbers of coronavirus patients being admitted daily, the hospitals faced an impending shortage of testing kits, hospital beds and space. As the local healthcare system prepares to prioritise their resources on the most severely ill, there is a possibility of being turned away if your medical condition is not of utmost urgency.
So when the Singapore government announced that they would be fully subsidising public hospital expenses related to COVID-19 for all Singaporeans, we took it as a clear sign to go home.
New Stay-Home Notice policy for US/UK returnees
Expectedly, hordes of Singaporeans returned home over the next few weeks, a huge part of them coming back from the United Kingdom and the United States. Due to the rising number of imported cases from these two countries, it didn’t take long before the government implemented a new stay-home policy for this specific group of overseas returnees in an effort to control further spreading. With effect on 26 March, the Ministry of Health announced that all Singapore residents returning from the United Kingdom and United States would be required to serve a 14-day stay-home notice in dedicated facilities instead of their own homes.
What is a Stay-Home Notice, and how is it different from a quarantine order?
A stay-home notice (SHN) is issued to any Singapore resident or long term pass holder returning from high risks areas. Individuals will be required to remain in their residence at all times while they serve the notice. Family members may continue to stay with them, however, they should practise good personal hygiene. If they become unwell, they should avoid contact with family members and seek immediate medical attention.
A quarantine order (QO) is issued to those officially diagnosed with COVID-19, their close contacts, or individuals who exhibited symptoms of the virus after returning from affected areas. A quarantine order may be served at home, in government dedicated facilities or in the hospital. Unlike a stay-home notice, they will be isolated from others and required to stay in their designated room at all times. They will also need to monitor their temperatures and report their health status to their quarantine order agents three times a day.
Both measures are issued under the Infectious Disease Act and must be duly complied to avoid legal disciplinary action.
The trip home
We arrived in Singapore at midnight after a lengthy 21-hour transit flight, feeling the effects of jetlag but relieved for having reached home safely. A line of temperature screeners, all masked, awaited us as we disembarked the plane. Each of us had to walk up to one to have our temperatures taken, a quick scan of our foreheads with their contactless thermometers. Save for the temperature screeners and the occasional airport cleaners, the usually bustling Changi Airport was stunningly quiet and empty, a little desolate even. When I left for the States months ago, I didn’t expect to return home under such circumstances. It was quite a peculiar sight.
Appointed uniformed officers were ready to receive us as we approached the immigration counters. We were directed to a designated seating area and handed forms with the details and instructions of our SHN. We were then asked to show our electronic health declaration forms, had our passports checked, and briefed shortly about our upcoming stay. Steps were taken to prevent unnecessary interaction between travellers by escorting us in groups of three at any one time, to go through immigration and to collect our luggages. After which, we were taken in the same groups of three to our SHN accommodation in different maxi cabs. My husband and I ended up being grouped separately during the process and hence, checked in separately.
Check in, and let the 14 days begin!
We were assigned to stay at M Hotel Singapore, a four-star hotel situated in Singapore’s central business district. Check-in was a quick process. Each of us were made to sign an electronic agreement for our stay, and given our hotel room cards and menu of the week. I had packed my MacBook into my husband’s hand-carry baggage before the flight and was thinking how I could get it back, since he had checked in before me. But to my surprise, the hotel check-in staff promptly handed me my Macbook before I could ask, then proceeded to inform me of my husband’s room number and explained that we would be roomed separately for effective quarantine. I was impressed at their laudable efficiency.
My room was on the 20th floor. All of us had to take the elevator separately, so we took turns standing at marked crosses on the ground as we waited for the person before us to board the elevator. Mini wooden tables lined the corridor on the 20th floor, one outside every room. These were arranged for the hotel staff to place our daily meals, laundry, fresh bathroom and bed linen so there would be no direct contact between us. I opened the door to a spacious premier room, overlooking the harbour as I’d come to know in the morning, settled myself in and hurried to catch my last few hours of sleep before daylight arrived.
Breakfast was delivered at 8.30am the next day, indicated by two hasty jabs on the doorbell. It was a pleasant start to my first day as I dug into my chicken macaroni with pomodoro, complete with yoghurt, a small cake and chilled fruit juice. After months of missing out on local food, I was anticipating the daily three meals the hotel will be providing us with. They were, by no means local delicacies like nasi lemak or Hainanese chicken rice, but still mostly wholesome and always with tons of variety. On weekends, we were even served pancakes and danish pastries! However, if you still peckish, online food delivery orders were still allowed.
While it may seem like a vacation of sorts, we were technically serving a government notice. We had to report our locations to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) several times a day by means of clicking on a link sent by SMS. As expected, they had stringent rules when it comes to this. There was once when I got overly engrossed in Netflix and missed out on clicking a few, I ended up receiving a video call from ICA asking for a view of my surroundings, and the reason why I didn’t respond to the links. I decided to disable my phone from “silent mode” after that, just in case. There was also a “house visit” made at my hotel room in the second week, and the hotel concierge called every few days to check on my well-being too. The latter was mandatory as well, but still a nice touch somehow.
Keeping sane while in isolation
For some, the idea of being confined within a hotel room for two weeks may send them jumping out of their skin, but for an introvert like me, this had truly been a dream and thriving place. There are literally so many things you could do equipped with just a laptop and mobile phone. And I mean, how often do you get an opportunity to spend your time however you like, without any sense of guilt?
If anything, the stay provided a brief respite from the months of accumulated stress that had been weighing on me due to relocation, managing finances and just acclimatising to a vastly different lifestyle and culture. The constant whirr of activity in my mind finally had a chance to quieten itself in this temporary abode I can call mine for awhile. For the next two weeks, I sought to devote some much needed time for myself.
Depending on how you see it, the day could either be easily lost to time or feel like a slow trickle, so the best way to keep from idling was to create a daily to-do list, and stick diligently to it. It was a good time for me to list down the things that I have always wanted to do, but never had the time or the luxury to. This was also when I first tried out morning meditation, and realised the positive difference it made to my well-being and the rest of my day. To keep myself active, I did short home work-outs daily by following one of the million work-out tutorial videos on Youtube. I even started learning French online for fun— well, a brain work-out is equally important too! Then of course, there was always Netflix.
As the windows of the hotel room couldn’t be opened, the silence in the room could be a tad overwhelming, so I mostly had the TV switched on to the Symphony 92.4 radio station for a bit of ambient noise. As someone who plays the piano I may be slightly biased in my opinion, but classical music is a great stress reliever and makes the best “quarantunes”— as they call it! On some occasions, my time was easily spent immersed in a good book. On others, I allowed myself to indulge in the joy of warm bubble baths. I love how it made me sleep better every time. While the solitude was rewarding, regular conversations with family and friends through phone calls also lifted my mood greatly, and were times equally well-spent.
Thoughts and sentiments
Amid the chaos and anxiety of living with a pandemic, I’m learning to see life as a bigger picture and to focus on the practice of gratitude. In times of crisis, the Singapore government had stepped up and taken huge measures to take care of its citizens. I’m extremely grateful for all that the government has done to aid Singaporeans during this difficult period: from ensuring that we were well taken care of while serving our SHN, providing cash payouts, to implementing various schemes to provide affected citizens with financial support.
The fact that COVID-19 had already claimed lives in the hundreds of thousands made me reflect about life in a way I haven’t before. I have had a few sobering moments as I sat at my hotel desk to have my dinner, heavy-hearted at the thought that at the same time, there are millions out there around the world fighting the battle of survival, wishing they could turn back the clock for a second chance . It made me do a mental rewind of the scenarios in my own life, how I used to let the nuances of daily life pass without further thought. Living in the digital era, we have allowed technology to incorporate itself so much into our lives that the value of social interaction had taken a back seat— until now. If there is anything positive that could emerge from this crisis, is that when it is all over, we would have a deeper appreciation for every hug and handshake received, every empathetic pat on the shoulder, and every meal had together with loved ones.
Most importantly, we would learn to cherish in earnest what could be taken away from us at any moment. Health is not a given, tomorrow is not a guarantee, and life is but a precious vulnerable gift. The sad truth is a lot of people have been living without what we were granted with, even when there is no major health crisis. It shouldn’t have taken us a pandemic to realise how truly blessed we are.
The ach editorial team is based in Singapore and we’re here to give you real tips and resources on how to lead a life that is #BusybutWell. Holistic well-being for the mind, body and spirit is the name of the game. Join our exclusive ach club for a dose of well-being straight to your inbox weekly.