Singapore Dispatch: Someone Will Notice if I Die in This Room

Columbia Journalism
Apr 7, 2020 · 7 min read
The Immigration Authority of Singapore conducts checks on Singaporean residents under home quarantine by requesting them to verify their locations every day. This involves pulling out smartphone location data, and occasionally requesting for photos of faces and their surroundings.

By Minmin Low

It was 12.30 a.m. My plane from Tokyo Narita Airport landed at Singapore Changi Airport. I had just flown 24 hours from New York to Singapore, transiting in Japan. I was coming home.

For the past seven months, I had been pursuing my graduate studies in New York. As the city became the global epicenter of the virus, I began to receive increasingly frantic messages from friends and family begging me to come home. The messages ranged from emotional threats to anxious pleas.

“Don’t be stubborn. Please come home now.”

“You have a 1 in 10 chance of needing a ventilator in the ICU when you are hit. Please come home immediately where you will be safest.”

“If you die, nobody can even see you off.”

“Wisen up, Min. I hope you can tell me that your ticket is booked when I wake up tomorrow.”

“Nobody shares food in a famine, that’s why countries all over the world are calling their people home.”

I felt harassed. The barrage of messages did not stop, showing me statistics, terrorizing headlines, and doomsday scenarios. I started ignoring them for the sake of my mental health. If the coronavirus didn’t kill me, these messages would.

Then my Whatsapp and Telegram feeds exploded with alerts from the Singapore embassy in New York and the Singapore Global Network, a government agency whose mission is to maintain ties with overseas Singaporeans, urging me to return home. They warned us, before the news broke, that the Singapore Airlines was about to ground nearly all of its flights. In case we had trouble booking flights, they gave us direct contact with airline personnel dedicated to helping Singaporean students secure flights home. They added that the government might not be able evacuate us quickly, especially if there were not enough numbers to make the solution cost effective. The message was clear: Do not wait. The situation in the U.S. is dire. The window for leaving the country is closing very soon. Please take the next commercial flight out, or be prepared to stay for the long haul. One of the messages added: “This is serious. Please take this seriously.”

I wanted to stay, because I had built a community and a new life in a place that was beginning to feel like home. I was learning a lot, happy in my apartment, attending classes online, doing occasional grocery runs, spending time cooking, and generally going about life as per usual. I felt peaceful. The streets were silent. The air was fresh. The smell of spring has arrived. Flowers were blossoming outside my window. I was young. I was healthy. I had no underlying conditions. My friends were staying. My family could not understand why I wanted to stay.

My plan was to monitor the situation and wait it out. But then the news broke: Someone had died in student housing on the Upper West Side, a few blocks away from my apartment. A Facebook message: A young colleague of mine is in critical condition in the ICU now. On Telegram: A Singaporean had caught the virus in a 20-minute grocery run. Nearly 40 percent of hospitalized patients in New York were aged 20 to 54. I imagined the worst-case scenario. What if I have the virus? What if I am the 1 in 10 who needs a ventilator to survive? What if? I decided, finally, it was time to go home. I told my family. They cried tears of joy and relief. I cried tears of sadness.

I packed my bags, canceled my apartment, closed my bank account, called an Uber and lugged two giant suitcases into the eerily empty JFK Airport. My flight was less than half full. I had a whole row of seats to myself. The stewardess handed me a sealed mask. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.

Twenty-four hours later, I landed in Singapore. Thanks to the embassy alerts, I already knew what to expect. No one was allowed to meet me at the airport. All Singaporeans returning from the U.S. and the UK were being quarantined in designated facilities for 14 days, as they made up the bulk of imported coronavirus cases in Singapore. Government transport was ready to whisk us there immediately. Accommodation and food would be provided during the quarantine period at no cost.

I disembarked. Masked airport staff scanned our temperatures individually. Then we walked through a second thermal imaging scanning system monitored by a couple of officers. As we approached the border control gates, a team of immigration officers checked that we had filled out an online health declaration form. Those coming from the U.S. were asked to sit and wait. We were given a handout. Step-by-step instructions showed us how to turn on the Location Services on our smartphones, because the authorities would be sending us text alerts twice a day, and we were to report our locations immediately by clicking on a link. Meanwhile, the Singapore Tourism Board was counting the number of arrivals and coordinating with hotels to arrange our accommodation. The entire process was orderly and efficient.

After an hour, we were told everything was lined up. At the baggage collection line, our suitcases already had been taken off the conveyor belt and placed in a perfect row. A line of Maxi Cabs waited for us outside the airport. Breaking us up into groups of three or four, an officer escorted each group into cabs and to our designated hotel. There, my temperature was checked again — the third time now. At the front desk, the hotel receptionist gave me a key card. It was valid for 20 minutes starting now, she advised me. I was to go to my room right away, within the 20 minutes, and not come out for 14 days. If I did, I would not be able to re-enter my room; the key would be deactivated after that.

So began my quarantine. I entered my room. It is a beautiful loft-inspired room with tall windows and a breathtaking view of downtown Singapore. I am getting a 4-star treatment. Three box meals are placed outside my door each day. Nobody is allowed to enter my room, which means no room service. If I need fresh linens, housekeeping will leave them outside my door. The government has booked scores of hotels across the country and used them to quarantine returning Singaporeans. It is a win-win solution. Save the tanking hotel industry, keep workers gainfully employed, while keeping a close watch on those who were quarantined and prevent them from complaining by picking up the tab.

Since the SARS outbreak in 2002, Singapore has meticulously planned a system of crisis management to handle the next contagion, by building more isolation rooms in hospitals, amassing large enough stockpiles of masks and protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers to last up to six months, and simulating response plans for different scenarios. A Ministry of Health Pandemic Readiness and Response Plan, first created in 2005 after the SARS outbreak, then revised in 2009 in the wake of the H1N1 swine flu, and last updated again in 2014, outlines a whole-of-government response for detecting, containing, and mitigating a pandemic, including specific measures for contact tracing and quarantine, social distancing, temperature screenings, medical treatment, infection control in healthcare settings, isolation and discharge criteria, handling of deceased persons, and border control.

Over the past weeks, Singapore stepped up containment measures, introducing social distancing rules in malls and food courts. Failure to comply could lead to jail sentences and fines. On Feb. 1, Singapore became one of the first territories to implement travel restrictions on passengers from China, two days before the World Health Organization announced that travel restrictions were unnecessary. All suspected cases undergo coronavirus tests for free, and an army of contact tracers then methodically tracks down all persons exposed to the virus to impose self-quarantine rules that are strictly policed. Singapore government agencies may contact these people through multiple platforms including phone calls, WhatsApp or SMS. When contacted, they must respond within an hour to verify their location or report any symptoms. Sometimes, this involves taking a picture of themselves and their surroundings to verify their whereabouts.

The Immigration Authority of Singapore conducts checks on Singaporean residents under home quarantine by requesting them to verify their locations every day. This involves pulling out smartphone location data, and occasionally requesting for photos of faces and their surroundings.

Most Singaporean residents I know are relieved at the swift and decisive measures to contain the pandemic. The mood is one of trust and gratitude. There is an understanding that this is a difficult time, but we will get through it together. To help freelancers, the self-employed, and hard-hit sectors of the economy tide through a rough patch, the government announced a S$55 billion “Resilience Budget” to provide a range of financial support.

There is little sense of collective hysteria or terror and helplessness, which was not the vibe I was hearing from the friends I left behind in New York. Yet, my foreign friends are appalled at the extreme measures the Singapore government has taken, and questioned the breach of privacy.

Ultimately, human lives are saved, I tell them. And the privacy we willingly surrender to social media apps and technology companies for far too long have been measured by much more liberal yardsticks than that we apply to government institutions. At the end of the day, it boils down to trust. I often feel powerless against Facebook’s ability to use my data at its discretion, but I am assured that there are available avenues for appeal, dialogues, and questioning how my data might be used by my government. Do I feel trapped in an Orwellian police state? No. Do I feel safe and have peace of mind in a global pandemic? Yes.

Each day, the front desk calls to ask me how I am feeling. “Do you have a fever? Do you feel out of breath?” No, I’m fine, I tell the voice over the phone. I feel oddly relieved. A stranger is checking in on me. Someone will know if I die in this room.

Minmin Low is an award-winning journalist and documentary producer based in Singapore. She is currently pursuing her M.A. at Columbia Journalism School. She’s due to be released from quarantine on Tuesday, April 14.

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