Student Life

How one university student traveled Southeast Asia in the midst of a pandemic

My coronavirus experience, live from my Singapore dorm

Stuck inside drawing rainbows and perfecting the way I’m going to write “Ça va bien aller” for my neighbours to see, I have to admit I’m quite envious of how most East Asian governments handled the COVID-19 crisis and kept the number of cases to fractions of those in Canada, despite dealing with it for over four months.

As early as the first week of January, when I first landed in Singapore with a passport in one hand and a flyer about the “Wuhan pneumonia” in the other, the country where I would be spending my exchange semester was preparing for the worst. Upon receiving my student ID on my second day here, I was also given a card with important phone numbers on it and a digital thermometer. “Use this thermometer to monitor your health status,” the note in our welcome pack read, along with an invitation to visit the campus clinic if we felt unwell.

At the time, I think it’s safe to say most of us brushed it off. Most exchangers I met were still giddy about arriving and making new friends. My paranoid roommate was the only person who seemed genuinely worried about crossing paths with anyone who had come from Wuhan or Hubei (it seems you were right, Sarah).

The news of the first four cases of the virus in Singapore scared everyone: on January 27, my school announced that they were turning one of the residence halls into a Government Quarantine Facility. An estimated 400 students—neither the school nor the media gave an accurate number—were given less than 10 hours to pack up their stuff and apply for housing elsewhere.

Around 80 per cent of Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese, so it wasn’t much of a surprise when the Chinese New Year period rolled around and people started traveling in and out of China to visit family, quickly making Singapore the country with the second highest number of cases recorded. About a week later, on February 7, the government announced it was raising the risk level of the disease to DORSCON Orange; that’s the way Singapore assesses diseases and how dangerous they are. Created as a preventive measure after the devastating SARS outbreak in 2003, DORSCON literally just stands for Disease Outbreak Response System Condition.

By this point, with 29 recorded cases, three of the four classes I was taking moved online because they had more than 50 students. My professors were quick to announce changes in the syllabus to accommodate for online midterms and final exams. We were asked to check our temperature twice a day and to register it in the university’s online system; temperature-checking stations were set up in each dining hall, and faculties handed out free thermometers to students who didn’t own any. We were also asked to declare all recent travel online, including the flight numbers and arrival times.

At this point, it became impossible to find hand sanitizer and surgical masks anywhere. Contrary to Canada, though, supermarkets ran out of ramen packets before they did toilet paper.

Outside of school, temperature-checking and contact tracing became more and more rigorous: I couldn’t enter a mall or library unless it was confirmed I didn’t have a fever. Everywhere I went, I had to scan a QR code and enter my information in case I came into contact with someone who was infected and needed to be tested.

Despite—or rather because of—all these new regulations, I never felt unsafe going about my days in Singapore. I didn’t become weary of anyone who coughed (most people were wearing masks anyway), I didn’t feel the need to use hand sanitizer every minute (though it was distributed absolutely everywhere), and I wasn’t anxious about entering crowded stores or restaurants. The most ludicrous measure I encountered was the routine temperature checks they started performing before I entered a bar or club, right after they had checked my ID.

To any diehard Westerner, these seem like incredibly intrusive procedures. But they were implemented so seamlessly that it really felt, and still feels, like they were necessary in order to maintain a relatively normal life. I think they were necessary to preserve everyone’s freedom and to keep the country running.

Singapore’s economy never tanked as a result of these measures: their currency, which used to almost be up to par with the Canadian dollar, even surpassed it for a little while.

It pains me to see how fast the virus has spread in the West, and how quickly the cases add up every day. I’m thankful for everything the federal and provincial governments in Canada are doing to contain it, but there have been so many unnecessary deaths as a result of careless preventive measures. After one of my friends came to visit me during spring break, no one in Canada checked her symptoms or her travels. She could have walked in with a fever and customs still would have greeted her with a simple “welcome home, Lorenza.”

I wrote this piece on my last day in quarantine. I had gone on a weekend trip to Ho Chi Minh City in mid-March, right as my university and the government announced stricter quarantine rules for those coming back into the country. The virus was thought to have reached its peak in Singapore a long time ago, but it’s fair that they wanted to prevent it from coming back into the country. I could complain as much as I want about having to be stuck in my room for 14 days, and about the terribly bland food they brought me twice a day to keep me inside. But at the end of the day, I understand why I’m the one who had to quarantine: it’s so that everyone else doesn’t.

Update: About two and a half weeks after I got out of quarantine in early April, the government finally put a “circuit breaker” into place. Short of calling it a full lockdown, it’s been a shutdown of non-essential businesses and a ban on public social gatherings with advice (read: threat of heavy fines and jail time) to stay home. Though it was set to last until May 4, an extension until June 1 was approved shortly after I left Singapore. The reason for this sudden change? A surge in unlinked cases after weeks of having the outbreak under control. To Singapore, these cases are the most dangerous because they make it difficult to track the disease and keep it under control. I guess this really is a new normal for everyone in the world, so stay safe and healthy!






Feature graphic and doodles by Rose-Marie Dion.

Footer graphic by Taylor Reddam.


Breaking down the coronavirus

The spread of a human coronavirus, which started in China, has prompted universal fear in the span of weeks.

While there is still a lot of uncertainty about the virus, it was declared a global health emergency on Jan. 30 by the World Health Organization (WHO). Panic has settled in as the death toll continues to climb, with 300 so far and more than 14,000 confirmed cases in primarily Asian countries, according to the New York Times.

The coronavirus originated in Wuhan, which is one of China’s main transportation hubs. It is home to over 11 million people, making it a difficult place to contain an outbreak. Amid the circumstances, many international airlines such as KLM, British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Air Canada suspended their flights to China, prolonging the process for nationals seeking a way home.

Given that this is a respiratory virus, MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis experts advise those who are in the vicinity of the virus to practice flu-prevention methods, such as washing your hands frequently and staying home from school or work if you’re sick.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of the coronavirus include runny nose, headache, cough, fever, and a sore throat. Human coronaviruses can also trigger respiratory illness causing pneumonia for those infected. For this reason, people are being warned to be wary of flu-like symptoms, much like the common cold.

People have demonstrated a great deal of concern given that the virus is highly contagious. According to an early SSRN study, an infected person could transmit the disease from 2.0 to 3.1 people, if the necessary preventative measures aren’t taken seriously.

The virus has been compared to SARS, another form of coronavirus that killed 774 people in China back in 2003. The coronavirus can travel through the air, increasing the risk of contamination when a sick person breathes, coughs, sneezes or talks. Although the statistics of the virus raise concern for people worldwide, there are ways to reduce transmission numbers. This is done by using effective public health measures such as keeping those who are sick isolated while monitoring people who might have been in contact with them.

As of Jan. 31, there are four confirmed cases in Canada as reported by Global News: two in Toronto, one in London, Ontario and one in Vancouver. In Ottawa, fears surrounding the spread of the virus happened to coincide with the Chinese Lunar New Year. This led to the cancellation of several Lunar New Year events, despite the fact that there are no confirmed cases in Ottawa.

With the virus having made its way to Canada, the National Post reports that the Chinese-Canadian community is facing discrimination in light of these events. The article also recalls the role media played in propagating misinformation and hurtful stigma against the Chinese Canadian community. On Feb. 1, at a Lunar New Year celebration in Scarborough, Ontario, Justin Trudeau called for all Canadians to stay united against discrimination.

The outbreak has sparked a shared sense of fear in various countries where the coronavirus is present. This became evident when a cruise ship in Italy containing 6,000 tourists was placed in total lockdown, according to The BBC. The two passengers suspected of being contaminated remained in isolation units until deemed safe.

As for the Concordia community, Concordia International has stated that they currently do not have any students abroad in China. University spokesperson Vannina Maestracci explains the University’s approach to keeping the situation under control for students who are worried about the outbreak.

“The University is taking its guidance from public health agencies at the local, provincial and federal levels, who are closely monitoring the outbreak, and providing public health and infection control guidance,” said Maestracci. “Canadian public health authorities advise that the overall risk to Canadians remains low.”

She confirmed that the University has communicated with “students, staff and faculty on the risk, symptoms and best behaviours for flu-like symptoms such as handwashing.”

Maestracci also made a comment pertaining to discrimination on campus geared at Chinese students, saying “our Code of Rights and Responsibilities, which governs the entire Concordia community has, as its grounding principles, the values of civility, equity, respect, non-discrimination and an appreciation of diversity as manifested within Concordia University and within society.”


Graphic by @sundaeghost

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