The Changi goodbyes are never easy.
The parents sniffle, thinking about the months they would have to spend alone and away from their children. The barely-adult students put on a strong front in a last-ditch attempt to comfort their parents.
Everything is going to be okay ma.
Deep down, they too are scared – after all, Britain and America isn’t home. They are just there to get their degrees and education sorted. Eventually, many will come back as lawyers, doctors, architects, engineers, artists and scientists, hoping to contribute to their country.
This implicit understanding doesn’t soften the blow though; the parents still worry about their children’s safety while they are away. As Baby Boomers, they’ve seen the steady decline of Europe and the West. Great Britain, which was once a colonial superpower, now struggles to fill about 100,000 staff vacancies in its National Health Service and has high knife crime rates in many of its cities. A post-Brexit, Trump world also poses questions of racism and tolerance. These questions are legitimate ones, considering that the COVID-19 outbreak has fuelled xenophobia in many parts of the world. Herein lies the scary reality for many overseas students and their parents. Every time they part, there is an underlying uncertainty in the air. One that has been exacerbated by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus this year.
Being friends with many of these students, I could see how last week was a particularly testing time. Confirmed cases were rising rapidly, even while testing seemed to be relatively low. Healthcare systems also started showing signs of strain. New York City was hospitalising less than 20% of confirmed cases, while Britain’s National Health Service looked to be in a dire state. Even before the epidemic, years of budget pressures had left the N.H.S. understaffed and underfunded. Now, doctors were publicly expressing their fears about the lack of ventilators and personal protective equipment. “There’s a sense of just waiting for it to hit,” said an E.R. doctor to the New York Times. The signs weren’t looking good, and if things really went north, these countries were obliged to take care of their citizens first. Our students risked being neglected and stranded alone, with no family or friends to take care of them.
Singapore’s response to these developments abroad was rather compassionate. On 17 March, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an advisory urging all Singaporean students to come back home. In a Ministry of Education page, questions about academic issues and Stay-At-Home notices were answered with ”… don’t worry about it, it is more important that you come home safe.” The rhetoric was almost familial: as if it was a concerned family member urging you to drop everything and fly back. These calls were heeded by students who then started to book plane tickets back. The Singapore High Commission in London also worked with Singapore Airlines to help book last minute tickets for its students. The tickets were subsidised due to the “extraordinary circumstances,” and most got their flights scheduled within 24 hours.
This brings us to the current situation. The mass exodus of students has led to 1,200 Singapore residents returning from the United Kingdom and United States every day. With such high numbers coming from hotspots, we are seeing a spike in COVID-19 imported cases. Young adults now make up the largest group of coronavirus patients in Singapore, with over 78 percent of them being classified as imported cases. In recent days, about 40 new cases are being confirmed daily, leading to perceptions that the situation is spiralling out of control. On Facebook, some have argued that we should ban overseas Singaporeans from coming back. According to these people, it was the students’ fault for not taking due precaution and flying back earlier. They were being reckless and hence deserve to be punished. Others talk about how this influx of Singaporeans would tax our healthcare system and might lead to sustained community spread.
There are a few issues with these arguments. Firstly, the lack of testing and confusing government signalling (with the UK advocating “herd immunity” originally) had made it hard for students to gauge the extent of danger before it was too late. Universities contributed to the confusion by assuring students that lectures would continue, just before cancelling them and moving to remote classes. Even after they shut their doors, some universities conceded that they didn’t know when in-person classes will resume. If classes did indeed resume in a week or two, flying back home would have been an unfeasible option. These considerations are obviously important ones, since students owe it to their parents and their financial sponsors to be responsible. They can’t just pack up and leave, and them staying for as long as they did was the right thing to do.
There is also a question of morality and principles. These students are our sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. To turn our back on them and let them be at the mercy of barely-coping healthcare systems (like the N.H.S.) is inherently wrong. The state has a responsibility to take care of all its citizens, regardless of who they are, or where they live. In fact, many of these Singaporean students grew up in the same HDB blocks as you, went to the same schools as you, and are just like you. Imagine if you were banned from entering your own country. Your friends and family would be so worried for you. In times of crises, there is always a tendency to compete and revert to this ‘us against them’ mind-set. Painting a common enemy helps us deal with uncertainty by pigeonholing the problem and assigning blame. These are true tests of our character and if we continue to try and segregate our population, we would have failed. While disagreeing with the government is part and parcel of politics, turning our backs on fellow Singaporeans definitely shouldn’t be.
Winning the battle against COVID-19 doesn’t have to come at the cost of our soul.
The writer is a first year university student in Singapore. Kopi is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here’s our email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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