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Cobbler Yeong Miow Hor, 81, a street vendor who operates in Marine Parade housing estate. — TODAY pic
Cobbler Yeong Miow Hor, 81, a street vendor who operates in Marine Parade housing estate. — TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, April 8 — This day last year, when Singapore came under partial lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, or what the Government termed “circuit breaker”, 63-year-old Sim Chin Chye suddenly had to grapple with something he was not prepared for: Loneliness.

The divorcee who is a taxi driver of 25 years and lives alone in a rented flat in Tampines felt it most acutely at work. He could barely find one or two passengers to pick up, earning at most just S$15 (RM46.23) a day.

The circuit breaker was imposed from April 7 to May 4 soon after the number of new Covid-19 cases reported in a day surpassed 100. Later, it was extended to June 1.

Away from work, Sim had already stopped attending church services after the Government suspended all religious activities to stem the spread of Covid-19 in March.

“There were no programmes. Nothing. It was very boring. (So I turned into) a short, fat, ugly, lonely, boring, old man,” he said.

As soon as the circuit breaker ended in June, he went all out to make up for the lack of social interaction and sense of isolation he had felt. 

He joined a senior activity centre near home — one operated by social service agency Lion Befrienders — and took part in many of its programmes, including virtual bowling or arts-and-craft activities.

Sim Chin Chye, 63, is an active member of a senior activity centre. — TODAY pic
Sim Chin Chye, 63, is an active member of a senior activity centre. — TODAY pic

Now considered a regular there, Sim also received help from community nurses based at Changi General Hospital who were deployed to the centre once a week. They gave him advice on how he could better manage his diabetes.

Nine months on, he now has the disease under control, he said.

Sim’s experience is one among many people who were tested physically, emotionally and psychologically when their daily activities as well as community and support networks were severely disrupted or cut.

Some of these disruptions and the distress continue to be keenly felt exactly a year later yesterday, even though most businesses have largely returned to normal.

The lingering effects

The mental anguish brought on by business closures could perhaps be best told by Jean Teo, the 54-year-old director of homegrown karaoke chain Teo Heng KTV. 

At the start of the circuit breaker, she was facing a lot of pressure while handling monthly overhead costs of S$600,000 that include the salary for more than 100 workers. As a result, she experienced heart palpitations, insomnia, anxiety, depression and panic attacks.

Jean Teo, the 54-year-old director of homegrown karaoke chain Teo Heng KTV. — TODAY pic
Jean Teo, the 54-year-old director of homegrown karaoke chain Teo Heng KTV. — TODAY pic

Today, singing is still not allowed in karaoke outlets and she is still finding ways to pivot the business to cover the reduced S$300,000 in monthly overhead costs. She said that she had to recently increase her dosage for the antidepressant pills she is taking. 

Last Saturday, she also got a tranquiliser jab because of a panic attack. This came after she had been studying how much Teo Heng KTV might have to compensate landlords to terminate leases without any further liabilities and for whatever money is owed to be paid by instalments.

Teo Heng KTV is hanging onto 10 outlets after closing four. Two more branches — the ones at Ci Yuan Community Club and Tampines West Community Club — are at the brink of closure, but the deals are not finalised.

“This has been dragging for one year. Even sharp edges would have turned blunt,” she told TODAY. “The uncertainties are killing us and the waiting game is no fun as we are burning money every day. It’d been worse than a rollercoaster ride.”

However, she has reasons to hope because the firm just started getting fresh streams of revenue after opening their rooms to be used as co-working spaces or function rooms two weeks ago.

In the meantime, Teo would like to continue appealing to the authorities to give her business a chance to prove that singing can be a safe activity even during the pandemic. 

For one family-owned business, which declined to be identified as emotions remained raw, there has been mounting pressure to stem escalating losses and this has strained family ties.

One of its co-owners said: “The tension at home was just terrible. The morale hit rock bottom.”

He could not hold back tears as he recalled the mess that the circuit breaker had caused, including pushing a family member to contemplate suicide. 

Another business, three-year-old hotdog outlet Hafudog, is still trying to emerge from the effects of the circuit breaker as well.

Its stall, located in research and business park One-north, struggled to launch food delivery services. Even when dining in was allowed from June 19 last year, there was almost no human traffic or takeaways because many employees working nearby were still working from home, it noted.

Cobbler Yeong Miow Hor, 81, said that his shoe-mending business has still not recovered as well to the level it was before the restrictions forced many to work from home. 

“Business is very bad. When people work from home, their shoes don’t wear out and spoil,” the street vendor said. He had been operating in Marine Parade for more than 30 years.

Yeong Miow Hor who mends shoes is now earning about half of what he used to pre-pandemic. — TODAY pic
Yeong Miow Hor who mends shoes is now earning about half of what he used to pre-pandemic. — TODAY pic

Before Covid-19 hit, Yeong used to earn more than S$1,000 a month, serving mostly regulars in the neighbourhood. Now, he gets S$500 to S$600 a month, but said that he cannot complain. 

Things are much better than it was during the circuit breaker, when he had to dig into his savings and rely on the Government’s special Covid-19 payouts.

Breakfast gatherings interrupted

Other people who felt the impact of lockdown keenly included digitally estranged seniors who had to struggle with a sense of displacement as social gatherings of any size were no longer allowed in homes or public spaces.

The rule came as a shock for an informal group of eight older women who had, for years, never failed to show up at Table 3 of Marine Terrace Market and Food Centre every morning to chat and eat together.

Retiree Doris Goh, 64, who lives in a rental flat nearby, said that the group included Yee Chiu Chiau, 86, who lives alone. The women had relied on each other to catch up on the latest Covid-19-related news when the outbreak first broke and felt a little lost on the first day of the lockdown.

They had to call each other on the phone or, at most, wave to each other from afar when they spot one another as they make brief trips downstairs to buy food or groceries. 

When small-group gatherings of up to five people were allowed from June 19, the women got so excited that they turned up in full strength near Table 3 first thing in the morning, Goh said.

She recalled that while she was at the food centre, she had called some of the women to excitedly say in Hokkien, “eh sai lai liao”, which means “come, it’s allowed now”.

That morning, they organised themselves into three separate groups, taking the tables or areas near Table 3 to maintain a safe distance.

These days, they have resumed their daily routine and things have returned to normal. 

(Left) Westgate mall at Jurong East on April 7, 2020. Retail shops were shut and only essential services were allowed to operate during the circuit breaker. (Right) Footfall at Westgate mall on April 7, 2021. — TODAY pic
(Left) Westgate mall at Jurong East on April 7, 2020. Retail shops were shut and only essential services were allowed to operate during the circuit breaker. (Right) Footfall at Westgate mall on April 7, 2021. — TODAY pic

Difficult days in the dorm

Within the community though, it was the migrant workers who arguably had the toughest time as they put up with extended periods of lockdown.

Early outbreaks at foreign worker dormitories have led the Government to err on the side of caution and these workers continue to face movement restrictions today.

Mynul Islam, a 29-year-old Bangladeshi construction worker, could vividly remember that fateful day in early April when he was told by a security guard at his dormitory, Kranji Lodge 1, that he had just two hours left before the quarters would go on lockdown. 

Without knowing the terms of the lockdown — how long it would last and whether they would be restricted to their rooms only — he rushed to a nearby supermarket with two of his dormitory mates to get S$150 worth of groceries. 

They assumed that they would be allowed to cook, so many of the items they picked up were perishables such as potatoes, tomatoes, onions and garlic. 

They ended up throwing away the vegetables because communal cooking was banned. The dormitory had 41 confirmed Covid-19 cases by April 17 last year when the Government gazetted it as an isolation area.

Days turned to months and Mynul, who works as a site supervisor, was quarantined for more than four months in all, until last August.

Those days were difficult and, at many points in time, confusing, Mynul said.

“I could not see the sky. I could not breathe very well. I could not walk about. I could not work I could hear the ambulance come and take patients.”

But looking back, he said that there was a silver lining: Despite the physical isolation, he felt much closer to the community at large because many Singaporean volunteers reached out online to offer help. 

Through the link-ups with non-profit groups such as the Covid Migrant Support Coalition and Transient Workers Count Too, Mynul said that he learnt many things, including what impactful social work is all about. 

“I learnt how to be a good human being. The people I met are really very kind. Every sentence they spoke, I learnt from them. They are supportive of us. They always listen to our problems. They try to find a solution each time,” he told TODAY.

He made many friends through interacting with these volunteers, too.

Mynul said that last month, for the first time in the nine years that he had worked in Singapore, he could feel that his birthday was special and not just another insignificant day.

The volunteer-turned-friends collated a video made of pre-recorded birthday messages to wish him a happy birthday. “This makes me feel that Covid was not too bad for me.” — TODAY


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