Things we hope will become the new normal in S'pore, thanks to the Covid-19 outbreak

The adjustments we made in response to Covid-19 might become part of our lives in future. We take a look at what this brave new world might look like.

Joshua Lee| March 22, 09:35 AM

It's been almost two months since Singapore reported its first case of Covid-19.

And while it has been quite the roller coaster ride with plenty of ups (No need to work from the office!) and downs (DORSCON Orange, panic-buying, people in the ICU and most recently, the first two lives lost here), our populace is slowly setting into a new rhythm of life and work.

And while we are hunkering down for what appears to be a protracted outbreak here amid an escalating global pandemic, there is an expectation (or hope) that things will return to normal once we're in the clear — but will it really?

In his Financial Times article, "The World After Coronavirus", historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari writes that "many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life".

And certainly, how we tackle Covid-19 today will shape our economy, healthcare, and politics in the years to come. Similarly, the adjustments we make to our lives now, in response to the ongoing outbreak, may for better or for worse become a permanent part of the way we live in the future.

Especially because there's a real possibility that eventually, all countries will have to move beyond containment to mitigation:

If epidemics are becoming increasingly common, then surely we cannot return to the way we were. The way we live and work today might just be an indicator of what's to come, a new normal if you will.

How so? Here are some things we hope will become the new normal:

1. Cultivating the habit of wearing a mask when you're sick

Do you know why so many Japanese and Taiwanese wear face masks in public?

According to Quartz, the Japanese started the custom of wearing face masks in the early 20th century after a flu pandemic which wiped out up to 40 million people around the world.

Face masks became a more regular accessory in Japan — worn especially by those who were sick — after another global flu epidemic in 1934.

Similarly, the 2003 SARS outbreak was a turning point for Taiwan, said Chen Yih-chun, director of the National Taiwan University Hospital Center for Infection Control to VOA, because the Taiwanese started paying more attention to face mask-wearing.

Image by Andrew Koay.

Singaporeans, on the other hand, never quite cultivated this habit — even though we went through the same epidemic that year.

These days, however, everywhere you turn, there's someone wearing a face mask.

Will Singaporeans ever embrace the face mask in the way our counterparts in Japan and Taiwan do? Maybe, maybe not, but hopefully, we'll start developing the considerate habit of wearing masks outside when we're sick.

2. Being conscious of contamination, & adopting better hygiene habits

If the Covid-19 outbreak has taught us anything, it is that almost every single thing we touch is a potential host for a veritable soup of pathogens.

Gripped the handle bar on the bus? Better sanitise your hands afterward.

Handled cash? Quick, wash your hands with soap (then got hope!).

Everywhere corner we turn, we are assaulted by videos, articles and posters reminding us to "Wash yo' hands!"

Like this particularly great one:

Many shopping centres have also taken to doling out complimentary hand sanitiser for their shoppers.

Image by Joshua Lee.

Some HDB lifts are now even equipped with cotton buds (thanks to socially-minded volunteers) so you don't have to press buttons with your bare fingers.

These may seem like little quirks at the moment, but there's a possibility that more of these features will appear in our daily lives from now on — just think about how prevalent motion sensor taps and flushing systems have become in recent years.

Professor Lawrence J. Lau from the Chinese University of Hong Kong suggested in his article for the South China Morning Post (SCMP) that future lifts and doors can be activated by one's voice or motion.

Why stop there? We can have car doors that open and close automatically, robots that deliver food, and other technologies that serve to minimise contact between infected persons and others.

3. Becoming more open to working from home & adopting more flexible hours

Perhaps the biggest change moving forward might be in the way we live, work, and play in a world where outside contact is discouraged.

For most of us, this Covid-19 season is showing us that this is possible and viable, especially in the realm of work.

For starters, we now know that working from home for an extended period is not impossible.

There are bits and pieces online about the benefits of telecommuting — improved morale, increased productivity — but also disadvantages like a lack of motivation and unclear working hours.

Regardless of how you feel about telecommuting, the fact that most companies have not collapsed just because we were sent home to work is proof that you don't necessarily always need to be in an office to work.

Meetings can be held over Skype/Google Meet/Zoom, reports can be submitted online, collaborations can be done on a Google document — heck, we've known for a long time that lectures can be watched online too.

So the hope is this will be able to change more traditional employers' mindsets about letting their employees work from home, start work at staggered hours so they don't have to join peak hour crowds or traffic, and perhaps, hopefully, move in the direction of better work-life balance for all.

Who knows? This may even see smaller companies doing away with renting office spaces in favour of remote working arrangements.

4. Shopping online — even for groceries & fresh produce

Grocery delivery services are well-suited to help us cope in an epidemic.

They've so far proved extremely useful in this outbreak season, which definitely has seen more people shopping for groceries online.

Demand for grocery delivery on RedMart increased threefold in February 2020, for instance, overwhelming its delivery operations in the process.

To be fair, this was at the height of DORSCON Orange panic-buying and hoarding, but demand for NTUC FairPrice's online orders in February 2020 also reached "unprecedented levels", even higher than December 2019, their busiest month last year.

Cooked food delivery services here are also adapting to this new way of life, with Deliveroo, GrabFood and McDonald's launching contact-free delivery procedures too. 

Perhaps in a future where we try to abstain from unnecessary contact, features like this might become a permanent one.

Telemedicine has also come to the fore in this outbreak season.

According to Rice Media, Doctor World, a 24/7 video tele-consultation service, saw a 60 per cent increase in tele-consultations since DORSCON Orange.

Another service, Doctor Anywhere, saw usage surge by 70 per cent.

These are medical services for non-emergencies (such as the common cold, cough, diarrhoea and fever) and they are great alternatives to visiting an actual GP clinic.

After all, why sit in a clinic and stew with other sick patients when you can consult a doctor from your home? Plus, tele-consultation services provide medication and MCs too.

5. Bringing the world's sights, arts & entertainment to our homes

But what to do for entertainment, you might ask.

There is an increasing amount of activities you can do from the comfort of your room.

Want to catch "Crash Landing On You" with your friends? There's a Chrome app that allows you to host a long-distance movie night.

Dying to visit the Louvre but can't bear the thought of receiving a 14-day Stay-Home Notice when you return? Well, join its virtual tour.

In fact, there are 2,500 museums and galleries worldwide that you can visit without stepping out of your house.

It looks like movies could even be streamed straight to viewers, too.

Earlier this week, Universal Pictures announced that its upcoming films scheduled for release will be put out for rent on digital platforms like iTunes, Google Play and Amazon Prime.

“We hope and believe that people will still go to the movies in theatres where available," said NBCUniversal Chief Executive Jeff Shell, "but we understand that for people in different areas of the world that is increasingly becoming less possible.”

6. Discovering new ways of practising one's faith

The more religiously-inclined can also transfer their religious practices online.

In recent weeks, many churches have turned to live-streaming their services — arguably a reasonably viable option.

“Too often we have taken the Mass for granted, until we are deprived of it," said Catholic archbishop William Goh in a letter to his flock.

"But again, we thank God that through the use of technology, we can transmit the Mass into the homes of our people.”

The Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery also recently launched an "Online Ancestral Memorial" package service.

For S$48, devotees can buy the package consisting of LED lights, one huat cake, one prosperity bag, two oranges, two apples, and a sheaf of flowers.

A representative from the monastery will then pay respects to the devotees' ancestors, on their behalf.

These efforts by the monastery and church will be very useful come April, when devotees commemorate Qing Ming Festival and celebrate Easter.

The Covid-19 outbreak has shown us that we have the ability and capacity to adapt and in some cases, thrive. More importantly, it shows us what life might be like post-Covid-19, in a world where we are more conscious of contamination and epidemics.

And as we embrace this brave new world, we also risk losing things like physical human connection. Perhaps the more pertinent question to ask ourselves is whether we can truly thrive like this.

Top image by Joshua Lee and Volunteer Community Patrol / FB