June 17, 2024


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Travel bans and COVID-19: What happens when a deadly new virus keeps loved ones apart

SINGAPORE: Clément Nedelcu and his wife have not seen their youngest son Daniel for months. 

The last time they were together was the December holidays, and the whole family had gone to China to visit relatives. 

The couple and their older son Leo flew back home to Singapore on Jan 2 for work and school, but thought it would be nice for toddler Daniel to spend more time with his maternal grandparents over the upcoming Chinese New Year period.

The original plan was for his grandmother to bring the boy back on Feb 8. 

But just eight days before they were due to fly, Singapore announced new restrictions on travellers who had recently been to mainland China, effectively barring Daniel’s grandmother (who would be on a social visit pass) from entering – and leaving the two-year-old stranded.

The toddler is still in China, effectively unable to come back to Singapore as global borders tighten in response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

READ: Novel coronavirus: Singapore to widen travel restrictions to all new visitors who recently travelled to mainland China

As countries around the world struggle to tackle the deadly new coronavirus, they have enacted a rapid succession of measures including border restrictions, physical distancing and full-blown lockdowns to fight the disease.

These controls have been put in place to preserve the well-being of the general public, especially vulnerable populations. 

But for those who have loved ones thousands of miles away, safe distancing can quickly take on a whole new meaning.

And for Daniel, what was meant to be about a month-long visit to grandma and grandpa has now turned into an extended trip with no end in sight.


As it happened, Mr Nedelcu and his wife had grown increasingly worried after coming back to Singapore in January, as the coronavirus began spreading rapidly through China and beyond.

“When the epidemic began spreading and measures were taken, we thought it would be best to reschedule the flight as early as possible,” said the French national, who runs an IT company in Singapore.

After calling the airline “repeatedly for several days”, he eventually managed to change Daniel and his grandmother’s flight to the earliest date available, Feb 2. 

But just a few hours after his booking was confirmed, Singapore announced its ban on visitors who had been in mainland China – to take effect at 11.59pm, Feb 1.

“I had anticipated that restrictions would start applying sooner or later, hence why I changed the flight as soon as I could,” said the 32-year-old. “But we were just a single day too late.”

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Clément Nedelcu and his family. (Photo: Clément Nedelcu)

At the time, the couple had also considered having one of them fly back to China and bring Daniel home, but they were worried that quarantine measures in both Suzhou (where Daniel is) and Singapore could potentially mean taking a leave of absence for nearly a month.

They also did not want to risk bringing the disease back home.

“The risk of contracting the disease and bringing it back to Singapore was already a show-stopper,” said Mr Nedelcu. “So on top of that, the idea of having one of us stop our job for a whole month was not feasible.”

READ: No entry or transit through Singapore for all short-term visitors amid heightened risk of imported COVID-19 cases: MOH

And now that Singapore has restricted entry for work pass holders to those providing “essential services”, Mr Nedelcu, who is here on an Employment Pass, is not even sure he would be allowed back in.

“Now it’s not even possible anymore, even if we wanted to: Even though China seems mostly back to normal and safe again, if we leave Singapore we won’t be allowed to come back, since both my wife and I work in non-essential businesses,” he said.

On the plus side, the situation in China seems to be getting better, and Suzhou has seen relatively fewer cases compared with the rest of the country, he added.

“It’s probably safer to leave personal considerations aside for the moment, no matter how difficult, and to make sure not to become a potential carrier of the disease from one country to another.”

Now, the couple stay connected to their son through video calls – but this can be tough given the average attention span of a toddler.

“At his age, it’s hard to maintain a conversation. If you add the bad quality of the video calls where we can barely hear and see each other, these moments are almost painful to us,” said Mr Nedelcu. 

“We see him grow up and learn new skills and new words, thanks to his grandparents who are doing a great job taking care of him,” he said. “But we can’t help feeling sad for all those lost moments.”

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Toddler Daniel will be turning three in May. (Photo: Clément Nedelcu)

Daniel will be turning three in May, and his parents are unsure if he will be home before then.

“The most difficult part right now is that we have no idea when we will see him again,” said his father. “We are horrified at the thought that we may miss his third birthday. It may not seem like a big deal, but if you have kids you will understand how much this means to us.”


For Christina Lee, an American who moved to Singapore two years ago for work, uncertainty about the future is one of the hardest parts about sustaining a long-distance relationship during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Ms Lee and her boyfriend Andy have been together since 2013. While the 27-year-old is stationed here the two have been doing long distance between Singapore and Wisconsin in the United States – thousands of miles and at least 20 hours of travel time apart.

They last saw each other about a month ago and had been planning another visit soon, but that was before Singapore announced a ban on short-term visitors.

“He was here from mid-January to mid-February for an extended visit, and we were planning to see each other again in a couple of months, but now it’s kind of on hold given the circumstances,” said Ms Lee.

Not knowing when travel restrictions will be lifted makes planning for the future tough.

“The saddest part is that we had all these really good plans when he was going to come out here, what our next steps together would look like, how we would actualise that; but it’s just, we literally don’t know when we’ll see each other again,” said Ms Lee.

“You can’t backwards plan, or count down to something fun, or look forward to when you’re going to see each other.”

READ: COVID-19: Entry approval required for all long-term pass holders entering Singapore

Singaporean Jasper Ku faces a similar situation. He last saw his girlfriend Jihee in South Korea in the middle of January and was going to see her again in March, but tightening travel measures meant he scrapped his plans.

The 24-year-old Singapore University of Social Sciences student has been going out with his partner for more than a year. They are used to going for periods of time without meeting in person, but not knowing when they will next see each other can take a toll.

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Jasper Ku (left) and his girlfriend An Jihee Rachel. (Photo: Jasper Ku)

“Long-distance has never been easy, but what always kept the both of us positive was a date set for us to meet,” said Mr Ku. “It kept me studying, working hard and her as well.”

“Now without it we’re both pretty depressed.”

Both Ms Lee and Mr Ku have their own ways of staying connected with their loved ones. 

For Ms Lee, the 13-hour time difference means making time for phone conversations when they can, talking for a couple of minutes when she first wakes up, and staying up late to say hi before going to bed. 

Watching movies together, doing virtual work-outs and challenging each other to online games are other options.

Meanwhile Mr Ku, who is also a part-time piano teacher, has tried to teach his girlfriend Studio Ghibli songs on the piano over video calls.

“Most importantly, we keep each other’s spirits high and positive,” he said. “We know we’re not the only ones affected by this situation and that there are many people much more heavily affected.”

He hopes, optimistically, that the situation will improve in June, so that “I can be with her on her birthday”.


However, even though maintaining a relationship is hard when all you have is a virtual presence, couples agree the travel restrictions are understandable and necessary to tackle COVID-19.

“I think these restrictions are necessary under a worldwide pandemic, so we are supportive,” said Singaporean Alison Loh.

The 34-year-old VP in the banking industry last saw her Philippines-based husband in early March. As a Singaporean he can technically come back (although he will have to serve a 14-day stay-home notice), but being in Manila he is living under a lockdown imposed by President Rodrigo Duterte earlier this month.

“It’s going to take a while before we see each other again, but we are both quite positive about things,” said 34-year-old Ms Loh. 

“In fact, this pandemic actually made me think a bit more about re-locating and joining him eventually, as he will be based there for some time.”

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Alison Loh and her husband are doing long-distance between Singapore and Manila. (Photo: Alison Loh)

The circumstances have also had a a positive effect for Mr Ku.

“I think it has made our intentions for maintaining the relationship very clear to one another, which is to get married in the future,” he said.

“Our statements went from, ‘I really miss being able to just have a meal with you like other couples do,’ to ‘I know what we have between each other is something special we can’t find in others. We’ll get through this because I want to spend my life with you’.”

“We’ve been doing a really good job of supporting each other, being there to lean on each other,” said Ms Lee, the American in Singapore. “So I think that if anything, I am thankful that it shows that our relationship is strong.”

Mr Nedelcu too is staying optimistic. 

“There are people handling the crisis who know what’s best, they are in the position to make rational decisions based on scientific evidence, so we should accept to go through hard times for the best of the community,” he said. 

“Once this is all over, the joy of being reunited will be incredible.”

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