Treading Between Coronavirus Worlds

We’re drowning in an ocean of coronavirus info, but learning how to swim.

By Dulce Zamora

Our family has been swimming in the ocean of coronavirus uncertainty for a couple of months. We’re American expats living in Singapore. It has been eight weeks since our host country detected its first COVID-19 case, and six weeks since officials elevated the nation’s emergency response system to orange (one level below the highest level of red). Our current wave of motion sickness gushes in from overseas as the world flails under a giant sneaker wave of sickness.

We watch in disbelief as fellow human beings in Europe and the Middle East drown in despair and death. Meanwhile, our family and friends in the United States hunker down, hoping to escape the deluge. My home state of California is under lockdown. The governor, Gavin Newsom, projects that 56% of Californians (25.5 million people) will be infected with the virus. Most of my family and close friends live there. In New York, my other adopted home and my husband Noel’s hometown, all nonessential workers are instructed to stay indoors. It’s hard not to feel concerned when loved ones who are health care workers confirm what we’ve read on the news: Hospital workers are overwhelmed and in dire need of vital equipment like masks, gloves, and ventilators.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, we are smacked with another swell of infections, mostly from residents returning from spring holidays or business trips abroad, carrying viral souvenirs. This city-state of 5.7 million people has had 432 cases of coronavirus, with about half of the numbers manifesting just the past seven days. Unfortunately, the nation’s first two deaths also happened today: a 75-year-old Singaporean woman, and a 64-year-old Indonesian man.

This sad news arrives as the country faces a fresh round of challenges after its initial successful management of the outbreak. Imported cases and growing complacency in the local community are contributing to the viral numbers. As a result, the government introduced more social distancing measures such as blocking off seats at hawker centers with red or blue tape to remind people to sit apart. Shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues are encouraged to keep a distance of at least one meter (about three feet) between customers.

It may shock people to know that Singapore, which has been touted as a role model for its coronavirus response, has largely remained business as usual these past few weeks. Yes, the main tourist attractions and shopping centers have been conspicuously sparse. And, yes, there are stories of empty movie theatres, and pictures of ghost-town-like amusement parks (namely Universal Studios). However, schools have not closed, businesses have not shuttered (except for the days when they’ve had to be deep-cleaned as a result of infection), and a good percentage of the population doesn’t wear masks. Here, we’re only encouraged to wear them when sick. This may seem surprising, but the fact that the Singapore government did remarkably well in round one of COVID-19 management gave everyone a sense of security.

Yet, the mood has changed a lot in the past week as we saw the number of cases increase both at home and abroad. In my children’s school community alone, a couple of parents tested positive for the virus, and several school staffers and students had close contact, or passing contact with someone afflicted with the disease.

Frankly, I was peeved that my girls’ theatre class decided to continue on with a scheduled dress rehearsal today. I spoke with the theatre school owner, trying to convince him to delay the production. He said the class size was already small (15 people), and the audience size would also be small , too (20 – 30 people). Plus, he said the center would offer a livestream option for audience members who preferred not to show up in person. After this show, he said, the school would not do any more shows for a while. He said they just wanted the current productions to be able to go on.

I was extremely disappointed with his decision, but I also did not want to play Russian roulette with my family’s health. So my daughters did not go to dress rehearsal. The girls were very angry with me. They cried foul. I explained the situation to them as best I could. I understood why they were upset. They had worked so hard in the last few weeks to learn their lines, songs, and dances. It was unfair, indeed, that they didn’t get to rehearse with the rest of the cast.

But, there were other issues to consider. If our family got coronavirus, we would be separated. Pediatric patients here go to the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, and adult patients are warded in various public hospitals, sometimes with the spouses separated at different institutions. If Noel and I became sick, then the children would be quarantined at home unless they got the virus. The Ministry of Health would then assign a guardian (a stranger) to watch them. We have friends who would be willing to watch them only after they clear quarantine (which is understandable). Some of my best friends in California and New York have offered to take care of my kids in an emergency, but everyone coming into Singapore has to now quarantine themselves for 14 days. Plus, transport options are severely limited with major airlines cancelling flights.

Yesterday, the U.S. State Department issued a Level 4 Global Health Advisory, discouraging Americans from international travel, and encouraging us to shelter in place where we are, or to come home. The advisory warned that anyone who stayed overseas could be stuck there for an indefinite period of time.

I took a big breath. The advisory was not surprising, but it did confirm a fear that it may be a while before we see our family and friends in the States. I was so glad that, at the last minute, my husband, daughters, and I had visited California during the winter holidays, even though we don’t usually go home for Christmas. This year, it looks like we won’t make it back for our usual weeks-long summer vacation. The thought of not seeing our loved ones for a long time makes me really sad, but if it means keeping everyone safe, then I’m willing to stay put.

Is this the point when we start to make deals with God? I pray that everyone does stay well, because options are limited if they don’t. If something happens to family in the U.S., then it could be difficult to find a flight home. If we did make it to the States, then we might not be able to return to Singapore, where my husband’s work and the children’s school are located. Already, in our expat community forums, I’ve heard of fellow expats who’ve traveled for work or holiday, and have been denied entry back into Singapore.

In fact, all of my travel and expat blogs are filled with anxious people — folks who are trying desperately to get safe passage for their children who have studied abroad, or for their spouses who have gone on business trips. I have never seen so much angst happening all around the world all at the same time. It reminds me of the September 11 terror attacks, except back then, I had no way of knowing that the whole world felt our terror and grief. Back then, not everyone was in the danger zone.

The whole thing is enough to make one nauseous. Yet, the truth is, at this very moment, we are still above water, still hoping that the worst is over even though when we know it isn’t. According to the experts, the virus will be around until there is a vaccine, a cure, or until it simply runs its course — whichever comes first. According to the timelines out there, we have anywhere from a few months to two years of this rocky coronavirus journey. After all, that is why so many of us are working to flatten the curve, right? We’d like to see infections happen over time instead of all at once.

Here at home, we’ve managed the ongoing anxiety and uncertainty with a lot of domestic activities, such as putting up shelves, assembling furniture, unpacking (from our move almost two years ago!), and decluttering. See also my last post on sewing away cabin fever (“A Stitch in Coronavirus Time Saves Mind“).

We’ve continued our brunch cooking sessions, in which the kids are in charge of the menu and meal prep every Saturday. They have made mostly the same thing. The repetition is great, because they become more efficient and more confident after every session. This means my job as sous chef has gotten easier, and we all get to practice a little mindfulness by concentrating on the task at hand instead of our worries.

Whenever we bake and cook, I remember my Ima, my maternal grandmother. She always made us yummy after-school treats. I can’t help but think she would be proud of us for whipping up such delicious meals and snacks. Ima was a pillar of strength for her family when the Japanese occupied the Philippines in World War II. She recognized that in order for her family to survive the occupation, she needed to adjust to the situation. She ended up selling rice to Japanese soldiers to earn money. This was a bold and courageous move, especially since she was a woman.

I can’t help but think that we can learn from my grandmother’s experience. Things may seem bad now, but we human beings have been through so many challenging times before. We can survive.

Right now, my family and I are riding out the storm by building our resilience muscles. With each meal we mindfully prepare, we practice inner strength, patience, and love. The waves of chaos may be coming in from all sides, but I’d like to think this time in is an opportunity to learn, and to fill our inner spiritual cup. We will need these reserves for the certain rough seas ahead.

© 2020 Windswept Wildflower

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