Before Europe (and I) realised COVID has hit

Just a month ago, I spoke to my mother about potentially cancelling my month-long holiday back in Singapore due to the coronavirus outbreak. Today, I am warded in the Singapore National Centre for Communicable and Infectious Diseases after testing positive for the coronavirus. I had just returned from the United Kingdom, shortening a two weeks visit to just one and abandoning my original plans of flying back from Germany where I live and work. And I am more than thankful to be back.

A month ago, Singapore had placed on the global ranking once again – for having the most number of COVID cases outside China. I remember speaking with my mother about staying put in Germany as the situation was not as bad as in Singapore or Asia. In fact, it was not a thing at all. Lives went on as usual, public transport was still populated with regular commuters reminding you of the cold season with their occasional coughs. Meanwhile, Singapore saw its supermarkets wiped out of essentials and mask-wearing became commonplace.

I showed photos of empty supermarket aisles and long queues at checkout counters with my friends and colleagues to give context to news of this novel virus. I checked in on friends and family members back in Singapore, telling them to stay healthy given the situation. “Nobody is wearing any mask anywhere here in Germany. There hasn’t really been cases here, I think it might be better to stay here instead of go back to Singapore,” I told my mother. She agreed. Of course it has to be safer – Europe is farther from China, and Germany knows what she’s doing (Merkel must).

I continued my regular travels between Germany and the UK during the month of February and early March – no additional measures for temperature screening or travel history declaration. No notices out regarding the outbreak of a novel and highly contagious virus. No mask-wearers. No hand sanitizers. I curbed my inner paranoia and decided against wearing a mask. After all, I did not need to stick out as the Asian mask-face. The London tubes were more crowded than trains in Berlin but there was also open coughing, sneezing and close physical proximity between commuters. Maybe there really is nothing that serious on the ground. Maybe Asians are really a little bit too kiasu.

And then, it happened almost overnight. I happened to be in the UK when it all happened. It started with Italy reporting hundreds of deaths and hospitals crumbling under the resource strain. My boyfriend started giving me rolling updates on all lockdown measures and closed borders in different countries. Singapore banned flights entering from Italy, France, Spain and Germany. The situation in Europe had escalated from spectatorship to pretty much a meltdown. All the visual cues and information sources I had relied on for reassurance that Europe had it under control turned out to be misguided. I jumped on my SQ app and booked myself a flight back from London in three days’ time, despite a guaranteed 14-day stay home notice and was lucky to get a seat. Singapore is the safest place now.

I now know that was one of the smartest decisions that my boyfriend influenced me to make. Contrasted with the decision to attend the Cheltenham Gold Cup whilst the meltdown was happening. (I believe it was the last of mass gatherings allowed in across the UK before they were banned – lots of money involved in that one and a massive loss, we believe, if it was cancelled.) The event was crowded and festive, amidst much drinking and cheering. But cash was floating around as the main mode of transaction. Post event, we boarded crammed buses taking us back to the city centre and hoards of locals celebrated their annual flagship event drinking and singing football songs adapted for the coronavirus theme. Lads joked about having the virus and passing it on right that moment.

And it could well be one of those very moments that I caught the virus. I had resigned myself to that fate when I chose to turn up at the event. I chose herd mentality and did what everyone else did – if everyone else jumped off the cliff, would I jump to? My answer was yes. It was fun. And I didn’t see the dead bodies at the bottom of the cliff. Not yet.

A few days later, I boarded my SQ flight from London Heathrow airport back to Singapore. I wore a mask and immediately felt at home as I approached the gate with other Asian mask-faces. My parents picked me up upon arrival and there was relief despite the forbidden hugs.

I was starting to get past my jetlag and crafting an exercise routine for my stay home notice on day three when the fever came on. I tried to shake it off by doing HIIT, thinking that the house was too warm. But I was still feeling hot on the inside. I got my brother to buy me a thermometer and he bought one for every person in the household.

37.8 degrees Celsius. No, it can’t be. Measure again. Mum got worried. I said give it till tomorrow. Should I call the hotline? No, don’t want to over worry. But feels strange. Called them. Clinics closed. OK, I will wait until tomorrow. Mum anxious. Better get it checked. 995? …. Ok, dial.

“I came back from the UK and am serving my stay home notice but have a slight fever – 37.8 degrees. Is this an emergency?”

“Ok, we will send you an ambulance to get tested.”

“Really?”

They arrived in less than ten minutes and I had only managed to get changed and pack a book in my bag. I didn’t know then that I was to be case 429, one of Singapore’s disproportionately high number of imported cases from the UK. And be genuinely touched by how Singapore is still trying to fly Singaporeans home…

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