Covid-19: Who will have the last laugh?

Updated: Mar 1

By Liang Lei


Last Friday evening, I popped by a supermarket near my university to get some snacks. I got out soon after, figuring it wasn’t worthwhile to queue for hours just for some fruits and chips. I forgot that Singapore was at DORSCON Orange alert. I went back to my school dormitory empty-handed.

When I returned home the next day, the first thing I noticed was two giant Dettol bottles in the living room. I thought of checking our kitchen pantry to see what else my family have stocked up on but decided against it. I didn’t want to know.

The virus has spawned two camps with contrasting responses to the health crisis. While my peers share memes lambasting panicked shoppers, my parents tell me in all seriousness that we have enough rice and flour for two months. While many of my friends aren’t roused by the mask issue, my parents asked me if my doctor friends know where to get more of them. What they agree on: Schools should be closed, albeit for different reasons.

I laugh at my parents and tell them they are paranoid. But I think I can understand their concern.

My family came to Singapore from Beijing, China 20 years ago. Most of my relatives and my parents’ friends are still there, in the capital and other provinces. While my daily dose of virus news comes from Instagram memes, Telegram updates by local mainstream media and conversations with friends, my parents get theirs from Beijing-based Sohu News and WeChat groups with their university mates, ex-colleagues and our extended family.

While I know about the number of cases in China, I’m not privy to the details of how lives there are disrupted. I know my mum has a classmate down with the virus in Wuhan who appealed for masks for his family from his hospital bed. My uncle received a directive from his company prohibiting his team from leaving Beijing. Others in Beijing shared how access to residential districts were only allowed for registered residents.

That’s what my parents have been telling me, but I’m sure they know more from what they read and hear from their mainland contacts.

My reality is pretty much grounded in Singapore, and in the now. Theirs is split between Singapore and China, between the past and present.

My parents’ generation also bore more scars from Sars than mine did. I was eight when Sars struck in 2003. What a multi-week school closure meant to me then was more TV and play time. I don’t think the severity of the situation ever got to this Primary 2 kid, despite the many measures my school must have taken, of which I can only remember the regular temperature checks now.

My parents, on the other hand, had to scramble to find a caretaker for me when school closed, since we didn’t have a helper at home. Although my mum’s sister had also brought her family over to Singapore, she had two infants in their household to care for. As immigrant nuclear families, we could not rely on our extended family for help. My parents also did not have the immunity of naiveté I enjoyed in facing up to the silent killer.

Over lunch last weekend, I told my parents about the graphs I saw in the New York Times showing how the virus was about as infectious as Sars, but less lethal. My dad had no appetite for such talk.

Do you remember how long it took for Singapore to be declared Sars free then? He asked me. I said I didn’t. Many months, he told me (I checked later — it was three months).

This is going to be a long ride too, he added.

I see the virus outbreak as a serious problem being adequately managed in Singapore. But I think my parents see it as the start of another nightmare they remember too vividly. So much so that I find them sometimes interpreting facts to fortify their views. They think the recent mask shortage is due to the government stockpiling them to prepare for an impending large-scale virus outbreak. They think the government is telling people to wear masks only when ill, to mask the shortage of masks.

It doesn’t help that the chat groups on their phones are filled with ridiculous warnings about no-go zones in Singapore. I have even overheard them talk about steaming masks to reuse them. I generally treat online information on the virus as dubious until corroborated, but my parents don’t adopt such a high bar.

I have been trying to keep up my normal lifestyle as much as possible amidst the virus outbreak. I heed the government’s call not to wear masks since I’m healthy, much to my parents’ ire. I make sure not to miss a step squeezing onto crowded school buses. I attend events I signed up for, so long as they are not cancelled.

I also don’t recall seeing any of my friends wearing masks preemptively. When we talk about the virus, we talk about our hopes of school getting cancelled. One friend shared how he was glad POFMA was in force to stop fake news. We talk about the virus as something that can’t really touch us. I wonder if we are being honest with ourselves.

It takes effort not to be influenced by fake news - or even the facts. We’ve seen the onset of increasingly awful developments – from the first imported case on Jan 23, first local case on Feb 4, first local case with no known links to previous cases on Feb 6 and a step-up from DORSCON Yellow to Orange a day later.

Life’s not the same with these facts. You can control your actions but the mind has, well, a mind of its own.

I now ponder about the air I breathe while on the train and buses. I wonder if I’ve breathed in a virus. I think of how the symptoms will only show up 14 days later. I notice people’s coughs, sniffs and sneezes.

I also wonder if at the end of the day, my parents’ fears, which I now think are irrational, will come true. If so, they will have the last laugh — although I think no one will be laughing by then.

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