In February 2020, I hopped three flights as I headed back to Bangalore after a blissful week spent with my husband in Bhutan. The kids stayed put in Bangalore with family – a given routine for us for over a decade now.
Our children spend all their holidays either back in India with family or with the family visiting us in Singapore. Over the years, this time has truly shaped them to become who they are. The lessons shared by grandparents, the adjustments made during visits to their home, the support system I had in place that enabled me to go back into the workforce, it has all slowly gone from our lives. What started off as a few weeks for us to buckle down, has now become more than a year.
I have lived in Singapore for over 13 years now. This has been ‘home’ for both our girls. The country has given me a chance to hone my entrepreneurial skills once again when I hit my 40s. Over the years, this tiny island-state has shaped me in several ways – it has allowed me to reset my life, adapt very easily to the Singaporean way of thinking (which only someone living here will understand the meaning of), accepted me wholeheartedly and given me the fairest opportunities as a mother, professional and entrepreneur.
Trips back to India over the years used to happen in the blink of an eye. We would even head off to see family over weekend trips. For our girls, this was the biggest experience of adaptability we could offer them. They would eagerly wait for these trips and they weren’t alone – these trips were the biggest highs of our lives.
But this pandemic has changed it all.
For many of us based here, visits to our families have been a challenge. As this pandemic has evolved, we have been left with no choice but to build a support system here – friends are now becoming family, and colleagues are becoming dear friends. The few nudges in the day, asking how things are with family, or how we doing, give strength.
We have all had to step up and stand by for friends and colleagues. For instance, a colleague had to take time off from work and step in to play the role of a family member when her friend was about to give birth. Separately, many of us have had to be with our friends who have unexpectedly lost a family member back home and haven’t been able to get there in time.
My girls—aged nine and fourteen—had subtly assumed the role of family for friends of my nephew who were finishing high school as boarding students here in Singapore, and never got a chance to go back home for over a year. Many weekends and holidays were spent hosting these children at our home – fighting over the menu for meals; which Nintendo games to play; the older ones looking out for the younger ones; and the younger ones being ‘goofy’ and keeping everyone merry and cheerful. I’m glad to see the lessons they have learnt from family have not been forgotten and were being put to practice. Those kids have all finally had the chance to go back home. But in doing so, they’ve left a void in our lives.
In the midst of all this, work hasn’t stopped or paused. It has demanded us to keep our chins up, give it our best, put a straight face in front of clients or business associates and not let anything happening in our lives impact us professionally. In the process, some of us have not given ourselves enough time to process all that is happening with our loved ones or of those we love.
As a business owner, I haven’t had the option to slacken or step back. I have clients waiting and team members dependent on me. This has been a time to put to the test all the lessons I had pretty much only read about when growing up – of resilience, determination, empathy, positivity and so much else. And to top it all off, to learn to adapt and work in new ways, with various challenges coming our way every day. At times, I’ve failed and at others, I’ve done okay.
And I’m not alone. Thousands of us living here have faced this day after day for the better part of the past 18 months.
According to a recent study conducted by the Health Services and Systems Research Programme at Duke-NUS, one in three adults in Singapore are anxious and depressed. COVID-19 poses a serious threat to public health globally, and steps to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic, such as lockdowns and forced isolation are adversely impacting mental health. According to the study, it is clear COVID-19 has made problems such as anxiety, depression and insomnia more acute. It is, of course, far too soon to estimate the full extent of the impacts of the pandemic on us.
As employers, we are hopefully preparing ourselves to face this for a good part of the future. I don’t think any business continuity planning guide—a term I heard for the first time in January 2020—will come handy. There is not a single person or firm that hasn’t been affected in some way or another. There are many lessons for us to learn. How to show empathy to a colleague? When to make that extra phone call to a friend? When to call upon that contact you have who could help a friend get home faster in an emergency? None of this is laid out in any playbook. This is our biggest test of empathy and kindness.
Early last year, when the pandemic entered our lives in Singapore, we were required to react quickly as businesses, adapt to new ways and deal with the crisis. There is no doubt that this resulted in a lot of anxiety among all of us, for we’re spoilt by processes and routine.
What we see now, more than a year into this pandemic, is a host of behavioural changes. We are all continuing to adapt by learning to deal with these new anxieties, something beautifully captured in this piece by Kishore Mahbubani recently.
As we face another phase of ‘Heightened Alert’ here in Singapore, we are hopefully prepared to cope better, to be kinder to ourselves and others, to accept that it is absolutely okay to pause, and to find ways to stay positive. It’s clear now that it is going to be a long road to normalcy – whatever that will look like. And there is no better way for us to deal with all of it than to live one day at a time. Hopefully, this pandemic will bring out the best in all of us in some way.