Love in the Time of the Coronavirus: A Singaporean’s dispatch from Shanghai

Tan Kok Kuan is a Singaporean PR professional working and living in Shanghai, China. He headed back to Shanghai earlier this year at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak to be reunited with his wife. Here is his story from the ground.


I came back to Shanghai the last day there were direct flights from Singapore. It was a frantic rush that saw my wife and I heading to Changi Airport still in limbo on whether we could change our flight. We eventually managed to. Called my mom to tell her – I guess it would be many months later that I would be able to return again.

The Shanghai that greeted us was a drastic change from the one I had left before Chinese New Year. When we reached my rental apartment, the security guards (in masks), seeing our luggage, were rather nervous. We gave them our particulars and headed to our apartment. In perhaps less than an hour we received a knock on the door – the local resident’s committee had come to check on us. We were told to observe a 14-day quarantine period (which we were aware of when we made the decision to come back). Pretty impressive grassroots coordination.

The restrictions in Shanghai weren’t as tight as some other cities where the situation was more severe. We still managed to head out to buy food and groceries, and we have been doing so once every couple of days, but we mostly stay at home. I have a colleague who returned to Wuhan on the day of the lockdown (Jan 23). Close to two months later, she’s still there, and she and her parents are still in lockdown mode. There are people there who haven’t stepped outside their homes for more than a month. Thankfully things have vastly improved and I am hopeful the lockdown will end soon.

By and large, the people here have been very understanding and cooperative. A WHO official described it well by saying that people were in ‘war mode’.

Indeed, the sentiment here is that we are fighting a war given the scale of the crisis, we must just swallow the bitter pill and hope to recover as soon as possible. As the Chinese saying goes – 良药苦口 (effective medicine is bitter). I don’t know if this is a psyche specific to the Chinese and historically embedded in the culture, but I have nothing but respect for it.

While there are many people outraged at the initial handling of the crisis by the Hubei and Wuhan authorities, Chinese people are a sensible lot. The focus is on getting through the crisis first – the rest can come later. That’s maturity (perhaps something for some folks in Hong Kong to learn from?).

Overall, I have been blown away by the strong competence of the Chinese government, as well as the stoicism and courage shown by the Chinese people in the face of this invisible and elusive enemy.

The measures to contain the virus in Wuhan were drastic, but it did effectively limit its spread.  The virus was mostly contained at the epi-center, and tens of thousands of medical workers from other provinces were sent there instead. Many of them were volunteers – it’s quite a show of national unity.

I am sure there were people suffering and not everyone was happy (probably an understatement), but people do see the bigger picture and recognize the severity of the situation. Everyone is doing his or her part, even if it’s just staying at home. It’s not like you have soldiers holding rifles shooting people who dare to venture outside.

Instead of any recriminations against the government for restricting people’s freedom, there’s anger at the selfish behaviors of people who had tried to escape from Wuhan before the lockdown, and towards those who are not taking adequate protective measures.

So it is quite tiring and irritating to see a lot of the China bashing in many western media (HK, Xinjiang and now Covid-19), for someone living in China who has a keen interest in Chinese history and culture. Those disparaging reports on China are an oversimplification of the world, prejudiced by ideological differences, and often based on an unfounded sense of cultural and moral superiority.

There are definitely many things that can be improved on in China, but I would say let’s look at where it has come from, rather than what is missing. I do hope for less censorship and more transparency, but these shouldn’t distract us from the achievements of this government in pulling hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

It’s just like my attitude towards the Singapore People’s Action Party – I don’t agree with some of its political tactics, but I recognise and appreciate the strong competence of the government, and the basic integrity of its leaders even if there are any ideological differences or personality traits that I don’t agree with.

The world isn’t black and white.

There was a period of time when it was quite demoralising seeing thousands of new cases being reported every day. No one could tell how long it would take to control the virus. But it looks like spring is coming soon.

My flat is near Jing An Temple right in the downtown (probably the equivalent of Bugis in Singapore?). The day we were back (Feb 4), it was as close to a ghost town as you could ever get – which was pretty surreal. People are beginning to return to the streets now, although we are still a long way from full recovery, looking at the state of retail business.

Shanghai in the current Covid-19 situation:

As the country enters ‘recovery mode’, business and work resumption are being carried out in a phased, well-planned way. Tourist attractions are reopening with crowd control measures in place. Everywhere you go, masks and temperature checks are mandatory. Some companies have resumed while others like mine are still implementing work from home for part of the week. Every step of recovery has been well planned and thought through.

Comparing what we are seeing in many countries now (who are coping with the crisis on a level of severity that’s only a fraction of what China’s facing) with what I have experienced here in Shanghai, it leaves no doubt in my mind that apart from potential systemic faults at the outset of the crisis that need to be revisited and corrected, the Chinese government has handled this extremely well.

The clarity and boldness of its strategy, the decisiveness of its actions, and the effective implementation of its measures have been pretty breathtaking. The people in China have also passed this test with full marks. I stand in awe of the stoicism, resilience and national unity they have shown. This episode has only strengthened my confidence in China’s future.

To all the racism, hate and xenophobia that the virus has unleashed, the WHO dude said it best – ‘this is the time for solidarity, not stigma’. Crises bring out the best and worst in people. It is up to each of us to decide whether it’s the former or the latter.

Let us choose love over hate, unity over division, and empathy over blame. And let us all show our gratitude to the medical personnel and other public service workers serving at the frontlines, in China and around the world.

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