S'porean who caught Covid-19 in UK: People were still partying even as cases continued to spike

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | March 31, 2020, 12:06 PM

The author is a 24-year-old Singapore citizen who had returned from the UK, where he had been studying, before testing positive for Covid-19.

He shares what it was like in the UK when the outbreak first happened, and his reflections after being warded in Singapore.

By Daviest Ong

It was still ‘life as per normal’ in the UK when the outbreak of the coronavirus took place in parts of Asia such as China and Singapore.

I still remember having Chinese New Year gatherings with my Singaporean mates in Newcastle Upon Tyne (where I study), talking about how badly Singapore was hit by the virus and that it was quite a surprise that UK had not seen any cases yet.

Coronavirus outbreak in the UK

However, by early February, the first few coronavirus cases were reported in the UK. Although it happened in York, the patients were brought to Newcastle for treatment. And perhaps unsurprisingly, Newcastle soon reported its first case afterwards.

From what I observed, the Asians were mostly the first to react – for instance, we were the ones who started wearing masks to school.

I believe this was also due to the added pressure from parents back in various Asian countries such as Hong Kong and Singapore which were badly hit by the virus in the month of January. Our parents would advise us to be careful and start taking necessary precautions.

I confess that at that time, I had asked myself: “Why Newcastle of all the places in the UK?”.

The annual Chinese New Year Asian party was the first major event that we decided to miss as a whole. Due to uncertainties and expectations of a low turnout, the organiser eventually decided to postpone the event to a later date.

UK's response was, in my opinion, far from reassuring

But as cases continued to spike in the UK in March, I felt that people were still living their life as per normal.

They still went out to parties (including myself) and pubs with no social distancing measures being imposed to prevent the spread of the virus (this was also probably how I caught the coronavirus).

In fact, these places were as crowded as any time of the year, with many in close contact with one another without knowing who was already carrying the virus.

In my opinion, UK’s response was indeed a very unconventional way of combating this virus and many of my friends, including myself, did not agree with it.

I think the lack of stringent social distancing measures is what resulted in people being complacent and nonchalant. On top of that, the British government spoke about "herd immunity", that is, allowing the virus to pass through at least 60 per cent of the population so that everyone can eventually be “immune” to the virus.

British PM Boris Johnson also said that we had to be prepared to lose our loved ones – certainly not the most reassuring of statements.

Avoiding London while returning home

MFA advised us to return on March 17, just two days after Boris Johnson’s "herd immunity" approach was announced.

At that point, universities had not yet confirmed that they will close all schools and cancel all face-to-face examinations. But some Singaporeans chose to heed MFA’s advice anyway and bought air tickets right away.

Eventually, students received an email from Newcastle University telling us to “Go back if you can”.

The fear of not being able to get adequate treatment if we stayed was a major consideration to fly back home. Besides, the whole situation in the UK seemed like a mess.

And so, I flew home.

I chose to fly KLM instead of British Airways because I did not want to take the risk of going through London, which was the epicentre of the spread of the virus in the UK.

I had a very smooth stopover in Amsterdam and an extremely empty flight back to Singapore. While Amsterdam is known to be a busy transfer hub, shops and restaurants were shut, flights were cancelled and there was barely any human traffic around the airport when I was there.

Serving my SHN alone seemed like the best thing to do

Upon arrival in Singapore, the customs were not packed, but the queue to take the test was still relatively long. At that point, I did not feel sick, and did not see the need to take the test.

But as I began to get a sore throat while flying back, I told my family that I would prefer to serve my SHN away from them and thankfully, my aunt was kind enough to offer up her place where I could be isolated alone.

With my pregnant sister and ageing parents back at home, plus the fact that many confirmed cases in Singapore were imported ones, it seemed like the best thing to do.

And it was one of the best decisions I made as I could have infected my whole family if I actually went home.

On Day 2 of my SHN, I found out that I had a fever.

I suspected that I got this virus from two of my friends back in the UK (they had gone to London and returned to Newcastle), because they were also falling sick.

After my fever went up to 39.7 on Day 3, I was transported to NCID to take an X-ray and swab test.

That was when I tested positive for the coronavirus.

Sharing my experience with my friends and family to reduce panic

And as I write this while in the hospital, I admit it has been an emotional roller coaster ride.

As a relatively healthy young person, I'm fortunate that my symptoms are relatively mild compared to some of the other cases that suffered from complications.

The worst was when I lost my sense of taste and smell. I could not appreciate any food or drinks that I consumed, and I thought to myself: “What a thing to happen after not being able to taste authentic Singapore food in the past six months!”

Apart from that, I also had other symptoms – such as having a cough, fever, feeling tightness in the chest while breathing, and even not being able to take a dump for a few days.

I decided to start sharing my experience with the virus to friends and family to help them identify symptoms in case they felt sick. I also wanted to be able to reduce panic as I know people can start being paranoid and think that they might have the virus.

To stay positive, I constantly tried to find things to be happy about and do things (like exercising and doing silly TikTok videos) that will keep my spirits up. I told myself that I must stay strong and recover quickly so as not to let anyone close to me worry.

But thankfully, my family and friends were extremely supportive right from the first day I returned from the UK. In fact, the care and love I received left me speechless.

I’m also glad that many have thanked me for sharing this information to try to help others even though I was sick.

Disappointed to see people standing divided

As I was reflecting, what really hit me was how people were responding to an epidemic like this: In tough times, people should stand united, but I was disappointed to see that some were choosing to stand divided.

How some people responded were simply appalling.

Racism and hoarding

For instance, racism spread faster than the virus. In London, a Singaporean was beaten up, supposedly due to a coronavirus-related incident of racism.

I’m thankful that nothing of that sort happened to me, but we did encounter some pretty nasty incidents of people telling us to “f**k off” when they saw us wearing masks and walking past pubs. A friend of mine was also shouted at for causing the spread of coronavirus in UK.

All over the world, people also started panic buying. And in supermarkets such as Tesco, we noticed that items such as toilet paper, meat, pasta, medicine and even alcohol were either low or out of stock.

This has resulted in some pretty ugly behaviour in their rush to hoard supplies.

Imported cases

Personally, I was also disappointed to hear people ask why Singaporean overseas students are coming back and "spreading the virus".

As Singaporeans, with homes and family members here, of course we would want to come back home when such a crisis occurs.

Perhaps some have the misconception that everyone on a SHN is ill. This is of course untrue.

In fact, the purpose of a SHN is to isolate people who may potentially be infected by the virus, and to curb the spread of the virus locally.

Even though the number of imported cases will see an increase as more Singaporeans return from overseas, these cases will be effectively isolated.

But there are also reasons to be optimistic

However, I believe that there is a reason for everything people do, especially during such times of fear and uncertainty. I prefer to give the benefit of doubt and choose to see the positive side of things.

The best example would be seeing citizens sharing hand sanitisers and wet tissues, and also seeing how the Singapore government responded to the crisis.

Our government was able to give Singaporean students in UK assurance by providing timely assistance and clear communication.

Containment measures such as the SHN, safe distancing measures and even travel restrictions were also implemented in a timely and effective manner.

Emphasising the importance of social responsibility

When it was announced that bars and entertainment venues were to be shut in Singapore, I had hoped that people would stay at home and be responsible instead of going out for a 'last party’.

Sure, you may think you are healthy and can handle the virus. But what about your loved ones around you? They may not be as healthy as you are.

We need to be mindful that everyone has a crucial role to play in curbing the spread of the virus -- all we need is one person who spreads the virus unknowingly.

What’s worse is when it is spread to vulnerable sectors of population, such as the elderly and people with pre-existing medical conditions.

Sometimes, I think to myself: If only I had put extra effort in washing my hands and practicing proper hygiene, I might not have gotten infected.

Thus, I hope Singaporeans will be extra careful, especially when they go out.

And if there’s anything I would like to emphasise, it would be to help one another in times of adversity, instead of being irresponsible and making irrational decisions that might further spread the virus or even negativity amongst people.

Top photo courtesy of Daviest Ong.