HOW THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC CHANGED MY LIFE
How did the worst global health crisis of our time affect you? One year into the pandemic, CNA speaks to people in Singapore to hear their stories.
Lost father to COVID-19
"Papa, you have been a good dad. You have done all you can to fulfil your duty as a father."
This is what 43-year-old Ashley wished she could have told her father, Chung Ah Lay, before he succumbed to the effects of COVID-19 on Mar 29, 2020.
At the time, information about the disease was still in its infancy, and Singapore had not imposed its "circuit breaker" yet, or made mask-wearing mandatory.
So when her father had a fever on Feb 24, the family thought it was just a normal bout of flu. It came as a shock when she had to take him to the hospital five days later, as his temperature hadn't come down despite being on two types of antibiotics.
She was with him until 9pm, when he had to be checked in as his oxygen levels were dropping. "Papa, I will see you. Papa, I will see you," she told him.
Ashley didn't know it would be the last time she or any of her family would speak to him in person.
In the month her father spent in the intensive care unit (ICU), the family kept in touch through FaceTime chats but even then, Mr Chung couldn't speak much as he was hooked up to the ventilator. Ashley later found out from a nurse who tended to him that her dad was given a whiteboard to communicate with them and he asked them: "Why me?"
"I think it's this ... 'why' that gets people really feeling guilty, angry, sad, disbelief - you know, all these things that just come through. There's no explanation why."
At the end, the family kept vigil via a screen that showed how Mr Chung's heartbeat was dropping bit by bit. It got to a point when they told him to not hold on if it was too painful, she said.
"We were kneeling down saying: 'You know, Dad, if staying alive here is going to be very painful for you, please go. Please go to the other side of the world where there is no pain and suffering.'"
This year's Chinese New Year celebrations will be kept to a minimum, Ashley said, as the family observes her dad's passing.
So how will it be different? His presence, she said.
"You won't see Dad doing lo hei anymore; you won't see Dad going in front of the wok (cooking) for the family."
Works in finance
Had COVID-19 and spent 58 days in quarantine
Shortly after Amanda relocated to New York last March for work, the city became the epicentre for the virus outbreak in the US. That ended her short stint abroad, but a longer - tougher - sojourn was to begin.
She had felt slightly unwell, with flu and a slight cough leading up to her flight home. So she volunteered to take a COVID-19 test upon touching down. She was confirmed to have contracted the disease a day later.
"I didn't fear for my life, but I was more fearful about long-term effects and how that would impact me, going forward."
She was hospitalised at NCID for four days before transferring to another facility at D'Resort to recover. It was another 47 days before she was released, after a change in protocol to assess which patients can be discharged.
The initial days were spent sleeping off her jetlag, watching the series The Office and reading, but boredom soon took hold.
It was then that she discovered there were people she could talk to from her balcony without leaving her room. She also asked her contacts online if they knew of people staying at the facility. Before long, a chat was started and they hung out virtually.
"We played games – we played online drawing games – and we would start exercising together."
She also had two roommates to share that time with, including one woman who became a good friend. They still hang out regularly, while the larger chat group plans to meet up in February.
Asked to sum 2020 up, the 31-year-old said she was grateful for the people she met along the way during this journey.
"I met very decent human beings and I think it was nice to see Singaporeans being kind and helping out each other. Also, when I see people willing to share about themselves in the chat and helping each other, I'm also grateful to that community."
Migrant worker from India
Arangasamy Subramaniam is a 41-year-old Indian national who has been in Singapore for 10 years. The Pudukkottai native works in construction here and is saving up for his two children - a girl and boy - and their future.
News of his COVID-19 infection in July last year brought both shock and fear to him.
It started with a cough, fever and phlegm. He dismissed the symptoms, thinking he would get better soon. But the cough did not stop, even though his fever went down. He was later swabbed by medical personnel at the dorm, with the results showing he had contracted the disease. A subsequent X-ray at the COVID-19 facility at Big Box showed issues with his lungs and he was taken to the hospital immediately.
"I was worried about my condition becoming so bad. I didn't think I would die or anything, but I was just thinking about how serious my condition was," Subramaniam recounted.
"That's when thoughts about my family filled my mind and I thought about how I needed to get out of this for them. I only thought about my family."
However, he kept his family in the dark until the day he was discharged from hospital to recover at a hotel as he didn't want to worry them, especially as many back at home were dying from the disease.
"They were quite upset when they found out, especially my wife and my mother. They asked me: 'How did you get it? Why did you get it?'"
Subramaniam has since recovered from COVID-19 but said he noticed slight difficulty in breathing since falling ill. Yet he doesn't want to get it checked.
"I haven't gone for my checkup because … I am scared if I go, they might find something else."
Migrant worker from India
Missed father's funeral due to COVID-19 lockdown
"That time my father passed away (was) Apr 10.
"But (Singapore's) lockdown was Apr 7, so I could not go. My family gave me the photo only."
As the youngest of seven sons, Krishnaramar was to have performed the funeral rites - something his late father had previously instructed him to do. His dad was 70 and had survived two heart attacks, but the third resulted in his death.
"Three days, I was crying. My father, one (last) time also couldn't see."
The 43-year-old also said the lockdown imposed on foreign worker dorms last year was a big problem for him. For months, he couldn't leave his 12-man dorm at Cochrane Lodge II. Cooking was disallowed, and they were dependent on meals provided by the Government, he said.
"Four months cannot go outside. Eating, sleep, eating, sleep. Just go outside, police catch, (so) cannot go outside."
Krishnaramar said he has been in Singapore on and off for about eight years and longs to return to his home in Tamil Nadu to see his wife and children - two daughters aged 13 and 9, and a one-year-old son.
"Two years I haven't seen my family. Very sad. My last baby - my son - every day crying: 'Father coming? Father coming?' (during our) video calls."
Senior staff nurse at Tan Tock Seng Hospital
Fighting COVID-19 at the frontline
"Crushed," Mohd Maliki said, on how he felt about not being able to celebrate Hari Raya last year with his parents.
The 33-year-old senior staff nurse at Tan Tock Seng Hospital was redeployed to the screening centre at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) on Jan 29, 2020, a week after the virus was first confirmed in Singapore. There, he was part of a team of frontliners tasked to screen, swab and monitor patients suspected of having the novel coronavirus.
While he prided himself in having taken the nurse's pledge to deliver patient care, the magnitude of COVID-19 shook him and his colleagues.
"It was truly beyond what we imagined. For sure, SARS gave us a lot of experience … but, in all honesty, I don't think anyone would have imagined COVID-19 would be this big and would drag this long," he said.
And it was not just the sheer intensity of the job that rattled Maliki. He was also concerned about his family back home. He had to think about the safety of his aged parents – the same people who encouraged him to pursue nursing initially.
When he saw he was rostered to be at the screening centre, he called his parents to warn them that he might not be around as often.
But even till today, he has never fully explained to them why he isolated himself then. "It's not that I couldn't tell them. It's just that I felt that they should not be worried ... not be burdened by my worries.
"If I don't meet them, they should not be worried about COVID-19 getting to them. But if I met them and if I had it, I couldn't forgive myself for that"
His first time reuniting with his parents following months of isolation was emotional.
"After the circuit breaker, I met up with them. I said: 'You know what, this is too long. This is too long.' I remember the day. It was at my sister's place. (My mum) came and we met and she looked at me. The first thing she said to me: 'You lost weight. Are you tired?'
"I just hugged her. I couldn't take it at that point of time."
Lost dream job due to pandemic
Poovendran lost his dream job as a pilot at a major international airline as the pandemic put the brakes on global travel.
"It was very hard to accept, especially since I had to sacrifice and go through a lot to get to where I was," he said.
Flying was not his first job. The 35-year-old has been working since 17 and had his fair share of hardship "doing all the crappy stuff". He was a pump attendant, factory worker, bartender, waiter and refinery technician on Jurong Island before throwing it all in to become a pilot when he was 27.
Training to be a pilot cost a lot of money, and he had to take loans to finance it. During the two-and-a-half years of training, he had to support his mother and two younger siblings, but had no money coming in.
"Coming from humble beginnings ... I think I just wanted (to be a pilot) so bad and get out of the vicious cycle of my family being slightly below middle-income. I just wanted more financial freedom, a better life, a better everything," he said.
"For everything to be taken away from you (through) no fault of your own was very, very hard to swallow in the beginning. I took a long time to take myself out of that hole."
The 35-year-old recalls the moment he was retrenched, along with others.
"So the first day was okay; I didn't really feel anything. The next day, then it really hits you – sh*t is real now," he said, adding he was feeling "low" for many weeks after.
"I was sad, very sad. Painful. I felt so much injustice (because of the outbreak) ... because I've been doing my job so well all along - great record, training records are all spot-on - why did I deserve this?"
He's still holding out hope to return to the skies one day, but it's also holding him back from pursuing other options like getting a university degree.
"It's not a six-month or a one-year course; it's at least three years. What if you're halfway into it and things pick up and then they call you back? Waste money and time doing something halfway," he said.
"But what if no one calls you back and it takes that long for things to go back to the way they were before and you have just wasted two or three years doing nothing? So that's the feeling of being at a loss."
SIA cabin crew-turned-care ambassador
Starting over after shattered dreams
22-year-old Zoey had just 10 months of flying under her belt as a Singapore Airlines cabin crew when the global pandemic called time on her fledgling career - and it hit her. Hard.
"Honestly, it broke my dreams into half. It shattered my dreams because I get so much joy from serving people when they are on the flight and it makes me happy to talk to people."
She had been dreaming of becoming an air stewardess since she was a teen and saw them in action on her maiden Singapore Airlines flight to New Zealand. "I was like, the ladies look so gorgeous they're like floating on the aisles," she recalled.
When COVID-19 hit and cabin crew jobs were hard to come by, Zoey started looking at her options and becoming a care ambassador was one of them. She credited her grandmother for encouraging her to give it a go.
"I spend a lot of time with her at home so I understand that a lot of elderly have issues taking care of themselves and … they just need someone to talk to, I think," Zoey said.
"I told her I was offered the option to do this programme and she was like: 'Just go for it. Then you can talk to more elderly (people) and maybe impact them in some way'."
Zoey started in the role last October, overcoming challenges such as learning the medical terminology used in the hospital - "there are endless lists". Despite the hurdles, she also picked up soft skills like empathy.
And she cites patients and their relatives greeting her by name as one of the most rewarding moments of the job.
"It's very fulfilling. But to make that happen, you have to talk to them first and make the first move."
Online manager for butchery
Left start-up job to help with family's wet market business
Emily Tan has lost count of the number of times people have thrown tactless comments her way, implying that she works at a wet market stall selling pork as she didn't study hard enough or got fired from another job.
The truth is that the 28-year-old made the tough decision to quit her job at a Shanghai-based tech start-up after two months of deliberation, having seen how her in-laws' business was struggling because of COVID-19.
"During the pandemic, I came down to the shop (for the first time) at 4am – that's when they start … I saw everyone working very hard, especially my in-laws and they are very old already," Emily said. "I felt like: 'Oh no, they've done this their whole lives and I don't want them to be defeated just by one silly virus.'
"I think, that moment … as much as I didn't want to, I realised this is something that I have to do."
Emily knew she could use her skills to help her in-laws build an online presence for Quan Shui Wet Market, a much-needed move to help tide the business over when movement restrictions during the circuit breaker period prevented customers from physically visiting the stall.
Despite her decision, doubts and anxieties persisted. For her, the biggest challenge of 2020 was taking the plunge to change jobs, knowing her choice could determine the rest of her life.
"It was very difficult … half of me really didn't want to, because (of) coming from a corporate background and then the thought of working at a wet market."
"Then of course the inevitable feeling of having your peers judge you, like: 'Oh you became a hawker?' So (I was) very scared and quite reluctant to be very honest."
The uncertainty brought by COVID-19 also means nobody knows what will happen next.
Emily, though, is pushing on anyway, knowing she gets to do something meaningful for people.
She said: "Eventually, I realised we were feeding quite a few families in Singapore and that was some kind of a sense of fulfilment like you're doing something meaningful, you're helping people, you're reducing their risk of going out and contracting COVID-19 unnecessarily."
Founder of NGO It's Raining Raincoats
Meeting migrant workers' needs amid the lockdown
It's Raining Raincoats (IRR) started off as a personal way for Dipa Swaminathan to show compassion to migrant workers here in Singapore, after she saw two workers in the rain and brought them home to find shelter. The idea then grew to getting those in Singapore to carry disposable raincoats in their bags and offer them to workers when it rains. This was in 2015.
Fast forward to 2020, and the non-governmental organisation had to ramp up its operations beyond anything she could have imagined, due to the impact of COVID-19 and the outbreak within the migrant worker community.
"It just so happened, as things evolved, the migrant workers were caught in the eye of the storm … we were caught in the same storm and had to (work) without precedent or playbook."
The 49-year-old recalled how IRR had put out a poster on Facebook with individual volunteers' WhatsApp numbers as a helpline and as the crisis evolved, the number of messages received proved "overwhelming" at one point.
One of the main issues the volunteers addressed involved food and necessities.
"They were used to going out and buying things and cooking. It's not like they had money to buy GrabFood. Even things like hair trimmers, because they couldn't go out to cut their hair," she said.
"They needed water heaters, 3-in-1 coffee, biscuits. When you're in a confined space, food is a great comfort … and they didn't have the money or means to buy what they needed."
Listening to the workers' stories directly and managing the load was one of her biggest challenges of 2020. Dipa said: "Hearing some of the tales of hardship can be a little … it touches your soul … and you feel that sadness."
"It's always hardest when the most vulnerable in the society face the biggest challenges. When you are one of those who can help them, it's a great responsibility (and) it's a lot of headspace that gets taken up."
Dream house nearly became nightmare
Having lived most of his life in a small attap house that often flooded when it rained and had water leak through the roof, Ganapathy had one dream since he was a child: To build a house for his family and lie on the roof courtyard to watch the moon and go to sleep.
"Sometimes (the leaking) would get very bad and we would have to go over to our neighbours' house to sleep," he said.
Building a new home for his parents and his elder brother to live comfortably became the sole reason the Pondicherry native sought a job in Singapore. Working as a lifter in a shipyard, the 27-year-old slowly financed the loan he took to build his new home. He even eschewed a trip home, despite being away for four years, as he considered it an unnecessary expense.
That dream home was half-completed when the pandemic put a stop to plans. Although Ganapathy was still being paid his basic salary, he was unable to earn the bulk of his salary that he usually got through overtime work.
"When I couldn't send back money, I was worried my dream wouldn't come true. My mother also cried (when she heard). From April to October, my family had to borrow money from others to pay for the house."
"I couldn't go back home also because I have a lot of outstanding debts from building the house – about 7 lakhs (S$14,000) left to pay."
To his relief, the COVID-19 situation here improved and Ganapathy was allowed to return to work and continue repaying his loan. His home was finally completed last September.
With that, he hopes to return this year to a much-awaited catch-up with his family.
"I will hug my mother first. A feeling will come over you when you see your mother, right?" Ganapathy said. "Especially since I haven't seen her for four years, and I've been alone for so long, I will definitely feel like crying."
TAY LI PING
Mother of five children
Navigating home-based learning "hell" during circuit breaker
"There was always something that had to be dealt with, to think about and manage."
As a parent to five children - three biological, one adopted, as well as a foster child - Li Ping often found herself overwhelmed during the first few weeks of Singapore's circuit breaker. It didn't help that she was easing into her new job as a church pastor at that time.
"I was holed up in my room a lot, so that was my sanctuary away from the noise. I was adjusting to multiple things – it wasn't just home life. I was still fairly new on the job – about six months in – and my church was (also) adjusting as we couldn't hold regular services," she said.
"There were times that I felt some anxiety about how we would manage so many things, especially with the kids' (school)work."
The first week of home-based learning stands out in particular for the 43-year-old: "It was hell."
"My main frustration was that, even within the same school, there would be different software, different places I had to go to get my information – email, ClassDojo, SLS, Microsoft Teams. So it was very confusing (and) I have five kids (that I had to do the same for).
"So we just did the bare minimum and worked towards letting them manage themselves as much as they could," she said.
Li Ping and her husband had to figure out where everyone could sit in their five-room flat, what devices they would use and how to keep their children occupied outside of schoolwork.
They also had to plan around their youngest son, who sometimes "acted out" when both parents were occupied with work. When Li Ping was on a Zoom call, for example, she would sometimes have to stop to attend to him.
"He's a very extroverted child who needs a lot of space and physical activity outdoors and we were all locked in … so that was a lot of disruption to his regular routine and it was harder for him to self-regulate," she said.
In attempting to navigate the new normal in which personal time, quiet time and family time are meshed with work, Li Ping said she is still grateful at the end of the day.
"I think I would have been a lot busier if not for COVID-19. I think if not for COVID-19, I would not have to be so intentional about choosing when is work and when is family time."
Journalists: Ainslee Asokan, Gaya Chandramohan
Photos: Gaya Chandramohan
Editors: Kevin Kwang, Dawn Teo, Chung Lyn-Yi
Coder: Calvin Chia