Wong Soak Koon reflects on what life is like for her and others during these times of isolation.
Living into my 72nd year in this still wonderfully amazing world, I did not expect to experience yet another major medical pandemic.
At two years of age, in 1950, the worldwide polio epidemic afflicted me, marking my life both in surprisingly rewarding ways and in a much less cheerful manner.
So far, praise God, I am fine but the Covid-19 virus knows no barriers of age, race, social class or gender – which is why I fully support the extension of the movement control order (MCO).
Nonetheless, human beings are sociable and connective beings, albeit to varying degrees; some need to party every day, others are quite happy with monthly gatherings or even yearly get-togethers. Not to be able to feel the physical presence of family and friends can be very trying to many of us. Even those odd, solipsistic characters in Kafka’s tales reveal glimpses of a need for the human voice, for a word or two of communication, a reassurance that we are not alone.
The key issue here is choice since no one likes to be ‘forced’ to live in a certain way. So I do understand what drives some people to break the rules of the MCO, but I certainly won’t encourage this kind of disregard for the safety of others.
Perhaps it will help to rethink what living under the MCO can mean. There will never be a one size fits all in any challenging moment of changes in daily living, so no one can prescribe what works. A lot depends on the individual’s psyche, on what he has been trained to do in his work and other variables.
Many of my friends are or were academics. They are, arguably, used to the ‘monastic’ life of reading, writing and reflection, so the MCO may inflict less pain? Speaking of my long-time friendship with his mother, a professor at a certain university, a young friend (himself now ensconced in academia) says, “Once an academic, always an academic, and so over the years your ties have lasted.”
I wonder though if our ties are not strengthened by those tempting dinners of delicious curries and stimulating conversations experienced in the flesh?
One does not need to be an academic to enjoy a good read during the MCO. How many books bought long ago have you left on your shelves to gather dust, not because you didn’t want to enjoy them? It was simply that life, with its many demands small or large, didn’t leave you with any time to enjoy a quiet read.
I just took down from my shelf a wonderful volume of essays, The Beacon Book Of Essays by Contemporary American Women, given to me by the editor way back in 1997 and am savouring the exquisite style of great essayists. When you read that long-neglected book, you are also giving yourself a ‘journey’ back in time because you remember how or why you acquired it.
Indeed, the MCO may allow you the respite to remember good times and draw delight from them. One of the blessings given to human beings is the ability to savour past joys once again in remembering, and you don’t have to be a Marcel Proust to do so – but a little dessert, maybe not a petit madeleine but a nonya kueh, can help? After all, we can still get these treats when we go out to buy our necessities.
Memories of conviviality shared with family and friends over delicious meals can rekindle hope, which is “ medicine” we all need to boost our immune system since the mind-body symbiosis is so vital to good health.
In this time of the MCO, some have also renewed their interests in hobbles once put aside. My cousin is growing hydroponic vegetables on his small balcony successfully, as his WhatsApps photos show. I have taken up sketching once again with child-like delight. Others, like a well-known political scientist friend, has tried his hand at making kimchi. Who knows what dormant talents we have? Now under MCO, it is time to explore.
“You senanglah (easy for you). People can’t even makan (eat). Got no money. You can baca (read), lukis (draw). People no electric even,” I hear someone protest.
How true, the MCO affects us differently according to social class. I read of how a family had to sustain themselves on crackers and sugar water until help came from the community. Food banks in the US and elsewhere are running out of essentials because of the exponential rise in the number of people needing help. Yes, I have been too cheery, too like a Hallmark card in narrowing my vision of living under the MCO to my own lifestyle and needs.
When I wrote about the joy of remembering, I had forgotten that memories can also come back as ungovernable will o’ the wisps, flitting in and out of the crannies of the mind, bringing dark thoughts and melancholic moods.
I know of a depressed person for whom the MCO may add to night terror as she feels all adrift with no relative or friend to call on for help since she had isolated herself for years. What dark thoughts come back to her now? Indeed, what dark thoughts may come back to each of us now under the MCO if we allow them to?
Another elderly lady, whose severe osteoporosis (even more serious than mine) makes it hard for her to walk much, depends on a kind neighbour to take the ordered lunches from the guardhouse of her condo complex. Food delivery personnel aren’t allowed to come up to our apartment doors under the MCO.
What about our guards, our cleaners who ensure that our surroundings are as safe and hygienic as humanly possible, even under the MCO? Fortunately, the management committee of our condo complex supplies guards, cleaners, gardeners and technicians with masks and sanitisers as well as soap for hand-washing.
Elsewhere, such essential service personnel may not be so fortunate. Just yesterday morning as I looked out of my window, I watch the garbage truck on its regular round to collect our garbage. Both the driver and the men picking up the waste of more affluent living had no masks on or gloves!
“Aiyoh, why they never protect their workers,” said a concerned neighbour.
“Ya lor,” I answered, “if they don’t work, how ah? We all die-lah. Not bad smell only, viruses and bacteria ah?”
We have decided to give hand soap in easy-to-use bottles, a few treats of Milo packets and biscuits to these valiant folk who are on the front line as much as doctors and medical personnel.
There should be legislation making it mandatory for all employers to provide protective gear. This should operate in other services than the medical.
Supermarkets, convenience stores and so on do expose their employees to the danger of Covid-19 since these employees serve many people in the course of a day. Some responsible outlets have seen to this, perhaps not entirely out of civic responsibility but because their customers feel safer with these preventive measures in place. We owe these brave people, who still serve us under the MCO, a genuine concern for their safety.
Living under the MCO strains nerves and muscles as we hunker down, trying to keep mental and physical health intact. Instead of complaining, let us accept that we need the MCO and other social distancing measures for our own safety and the safety of medical personnel who risk their lives for us.
A friend, whose daughter is a houseman in the UK, just sent me a link to the Guardian on a young NHS doctor just eight months into her work as a houseman, which made me cry. Dr Rosie Hughes has had to hold the hands of patients dying alone; she needed to inform relatives on deaths while trying to rein in her own emotions. Worse, she may have to decide on who qualifies for a ventilator. No one so young, indeed no one at any age, should have to face such excruciatingly painful decisions.
When she herself felt unwell, losing her sense of smell and taste, it was difficult, even though she is a doctor, to get tested. We simply do not know how hard it can be even for medical personnel to get these expensive tests. When she tested positive and was told to stay at home, there is the guilt of putting an extra burden on colleagues and a growing fear that she may infect her housemates. Above all, she has to call on fresh reserves of courage and dedication when she recovers and returns to work knowing that protective gear is in short supply.
When Covid-19 is tamed, there will be a generation of doctors and other frontliners who will need to deal mentally and emotionally with the horror they had experienced. Physicians, nurses and so on, will need psychological healing.
Living under the MCO gives us more time for prayer whichever faith we follow – or, if you are not religious, just think good thoughts of frontliners. Perhaps send these to them via WhatsApp or other recognised and legitimate links.
Before the Covid-19 invasion, some of us may have laughed off small gestures of kindness as sentimental and inconsequential. But today, are these small acts merely a kind of Hallmark card mawkishness?
Quite the contrary. Every bit of caring counts when we are faced with such a desperate and dire medical crisis. Kindness, empathy, patience, resilience and hope will see us through. Cynicism has no place when we see mass graves (normally associated with war) being dug in some parts of the world for many Covid-19 patients who died alone.