SINGAPORE: My family has been planning a party for my almost two-year old daughter, Lily.

Sadly, with the exponential rise in COVID-19 cases, my husband uninvited all his friends to the party two weeks ago. Yesterday, he uninvited his own mother.

Like a bad breakup, these un-invites were impersonally conveyed over the phone or WhatsApp. After my husband delivered the message to his mother, there was a long pause on the other end of the line during which you could almost hear her face fall. Then she quietly replied: “Ok. If that’s what you want.”

THE HUMAN IMPACT OF SOCIAL DISTANCING

Such disengagement efforts are about to increase as on Friday (Apr 3) Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced stepped up measures with effect from Apr 7 to get people to stay at home more and to minimise social engagements.

Already, over the past few weeks, many Singaporeans have cancelled birthdays, weddings and engagement parties. Couples exchange vows in quiet ceremonies like forbidden lovers about to elope.

New born babies are delivered into silent wards. Since only one visitor is allowed into hospitals at any one time, there are no longer boisterous “viewing parties” or over-doting grandparents fussing over their every yawn.

Even much-cherished coming-of-age rituals such as National Service enlistments have been disrupted. While parents could previously join their sons for a tour of their camp at the Basic Military Training Centre in Pulau Tekong, and enjoy a farewell meal, now they have to make do with quick goodbyes at designated drop-off points.

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Inter-generation bonding has also been interrupted, perhaps at a time when seniors need family support the most. In response to a COVID-19 cluster at the Lee Ah Mooi Old Age Home, visitors are no longer allowed at all nursing homes.

This took effect on Thursday (Apr 2) and will last until the end of the month.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his message on the COVID-19 situation. (Photo: Ministry of Communications and Information)

Among the many things that COVID-19 has upended, it has changed the way we express and experience love. When each person and family becomes a possible “transmission unit”, celebrations, communal rituals and gatherings increasingly seem like a careless way of putting those you love most at risk.

Instead of celebrating milestones with the people we love, today, it almost seems like the best thing we can do for loved ones is to simply cancel all meet-ups.   

When we do meet, we cautiously tiptoe around one another, parking ourselves on carefully marked out boxes like expensive cars we are too afraid to scratch. When we date, we connect with more emojis than actual hugs and kisses

The pandemic has even changed how we interact with our closest family members. 

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Having suffered from sinus since I was a child, I have never been more conscious of my blocked nose. Some days, on the off chance that I might be ill, I find myself increasingly reluctant to get close to family members. Despite our “in sickness and health” vows, illness during a pandemic is a solitary experience, and some aspects of intimate relationships will have to be sacrificed for the greater good.

The challenge today is how to maintain physical distance without compromising social connection and emotional closeness.

A DEEPER WAY TO CONNECT WITH TECHNOLOGY

Interestingly, for the first time in many years, technology is no longer painted as a poor imitator of, and powerful distraction from, “real life”. As we read about tearful video farewells between families and COVID-19 victims in Italy, technology has never felt more vital and pertinent.

Here in Singapore, thanks to well-placed measures, we have not seen so many fatalities. That said, many elderly I know are also embracing technology like never before. At the age of 73, my mother-in-law has learnt how to make WhatsApp video calls with my daughter Lily.

And now that we can no longer celebrate Lily’s birthday with her, we have promised to do it over a video call.

Technology has not only helped to bridge physical distances, and disruptions in our social relationships; it also feels more personal and intimate than before.

Spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Singapore

People queue to enter a mall, as mall capacity is regulated in a series of safe distancing measures to curb the outbreak of COVID-19 in Singapore Mar 27, 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su)

Today, my social media feed is no longer saturated with heavily edited images of aspirational hotels, digitally enhanced sunsets, beautifully plated omakase meals, product flat lays and airbrushed outfits-of-the-day shots (#OOTDs).

Instead, more people I know are posting warm and sometimes hilarious family videos in home-wear, as well as intimate pictures of home cooked dinners and family recipes. Instead of generic one-line captions, more are penning heartfelt and emotionally vulnerable posts, and these are opening up new conversations, even if they simply begin with “How are you?”

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Perhaps a positive offshoot of this pandemic is that we are no longer seeing mobile devices as a great chasm of lost time, but simply as a medium for greater connectivity. After all, whatever platform we choose to communicate with, it is the intention, emotion and affection behind each message that really matters.

Speaking of connection, amidst the isolating pandemic, my secondary school classmates have also suddenly reunited on WhatsApp. What started as a single message from one enthusiastic guy grew into a chat group of 28 people almost overnight. This well-populated chat group beeps incessantly now with memes and words of encouragement.

It may seem odd that after being separated for more than two decades, 28 people would initiate a virtual secondary school reunion in the thick of a global pandemic. 

In fact, these virtual communities are sprouting out everywhere, among cell group members, colleagues and yoga enthusiasts. As religious institutes, fitness studios and even children’s pools shut down, these virtual meeting spaces have risen to fill the void.

RICHER EMOTIONAL BONDING

We are also finding new ways to reach across the gulf and make a meaningful connection. Just yesterday, two of my friends – one based in Singapore and the other, Hong Kong – arranged to take the same online yoga class at the same time.

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Post-yoga, they shared a similar screen grab of the instructor Patrick Creelman’s cat giving him the side eye via our three-way group chat. This little moment bonded them in a shared experience.

Perhaps in times of social distancing, isolation and quarantine, these virtual support groups will give us the emotional and physical resilience to weather the great emotional and economic stress. And perhaps when faced with mortality and mass anxiety, milestones and celebrations feel all the more precious.

Indeed, it is comforting to know that around the world, people are still celebrating and sharing the arrival of a new born baby. In Singapore for example, the media reported that an elderly couple Tom Iljas, 81, and Liong May Swan, 78 – in a relationship for a decade – committed themselves to each other in a clinic in Alexandra Hospital on Mar 28 in the face of an uncertain future.

And perhaps that is precisely the point of these celebrations – that despite the uncertainty of the future, these represent our hope that we will indeed come out on the other side of the pandemic. 

And when we do, we will have newfound appreciation for our important support groups, and continue to make important emotional investments in them.

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Annie Tan is a freelance writer.

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