SINGAPORE — An expenses-paid fortnight’s stay in a four- or five-star hotel in downtown Singapore sounds like an extravagance in the midst of a global-health emergency. But that was the situation I found myself in last week after returning to Singapore, the country where I grew up.
The Southeast Asian city-state, long a paragon of globalization, had started restricting entry to citizens and a select group of foreign residents. By late March, it was also ordering people with a recent history of travel to the U.K. and the U.S., which have significant Singaporean diaspora, into 14-day stays at designated hotels.
The Southeast Asian city-state, long a paragon of globalization, had started restricting entry to citizens and a select group of foreign residents.
The country’s government reportedly booked out about 7,500 rooms, many of which typically go for upwards of $150 a night. Local newspapers were interviewing new residents of hotels like Swissotel the Stamford, where rooms have views of the Marina Bay Sands, a Sheldon Adelson-controlled casino-resort that served as part of the backdrop to the 2018 Hollywood hit “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Hotel isolation “is not an indulgence,” Lawrence Wong, a senior politician leading Singapore’s COVID-19 response, said during a recent press conference. “It is an important and extremely critical public-health measure,” he added. (Tourism contributes about 4% to the country’s gross domestic product, government data show, and hotel-occupancy rates have plummeted in recent months.)
I hadn’t planned on making a trip to Singapore until later in the year. But then flights between Singapore and London, where I worked as an editor, were quickly getting canceled. Senior British policy makers — most prominently Boris Johnson — went into self-isolation after displaying symptoms of the coronavirus. (Johnson was later hospitalized; as of Tuesday, he was in intensive care.) A leading health-care administrator warned of London hospitals being overwhelmed and the Singapore high commission, as the embassy is termed, started advising some citizens to return.
After I disembarked from a quarter-full, 13-hour flight from Heathrow, two face mask-wearing guides sped me through immigration and customs.
After I disembarked from a quarter-full, 13-hour flight from Heathrow, two face mask-wearing guides sped me through immigration and customs. One chartered a bus ride through largely empty streets, and I eventually found myself at a loft-style hotel in the city’s nightlife district.
It quickly became clear that this wasn’t a vacation. A receptionist clad in personal protective equipment told me that I couldn’t leave my roughly 220-square-foot hotel room for the duration of my stay, and that the key card to my room would be disabled after one use. Housekeeping services would be nonexistent, though meals and fresh linens would be regularly dropped off at the door.
One big plus is the roughly 20-foot-high floor-to-ceiling windows, though they don’t open. Singapore is famous for its oppressive humidity but my lack of exposure to the tropical heat, save for a quick dash into the hotel, makes this stay even more surreal.
My existence in this huis clos is a placid one interspersed with taking Zoom
barre classes, FaceTiming
with a date, writing and watching nightly streams of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s therapeutic press conferences. I reconnected with a high-school classmate I hadn’t spoken to in over a decade when I found out she was also in hotel isolation. So far, the only interruptions to my quasi-quarantine have been an afternoon-long internet outage and a visit by Singapore border-control agents to ensure I was staying in.
The only interruptions to my quasi-quarantine have been an afternoon-long internet outage and a visit by Singapore border-control agents to ensure I was staying in.
But even in isolation, I can’t escape from a world that is rapidly changing. Just weeks ago, Singapore’s anti-coronavirus efforts were heralded as a model for the world. Despite tight trade and flight links with China, it had managed the spread of the virus in the first quarter of the year through efficient contact-tracing and selective use of quarantine orders. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, even suggested that the city had borrowed its public-health guidelines from President Trump.
Infection and death rates here remain mercifully low — there were 1,481 cases, 4 deaths and 377 recovered as of Tuesday afternoon, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University. But the number of COVID-19 patients has surged in the past two weeks as many Asian countries grapple with a second wave of the disease.
A bar at the top of the Marina Bay Sands emerged as an infection cluster. The famously frugal government decided to tap its reserves and embark on an unprecedented $42 billion spending spree as it announced a month-long “circuit breaker” that will see many schools and offices shut.
“You saw what has happened in Singapore, they moved very rapidly to bring down the coronavirus [growth rate] down to zero and then they began to open up,” former U.S. vice president Joe Biden, the front-runner fdor the Democratic presidential nomination, said on ABC’s “This Week” last Sunday. “They had very, very tight restrictions in terms of social distancing.” He added, “Now it’s coming back.”
Working-class service workers still have to run takeout and delivery services while the affluent stay home. There were reports of an expatriate-frequented bar becoming a cluster for the virus.
The disease has also given fuel to some underlying socio-political tensions. Working-class service workers still have to run takeout and delivery services while the affluent stay home. News of an expatriate-frequented bar becoming a cluster, and cases spreading in dormitories for foreign laborers elicit some grumbles, though Singapore has remained remarkably open at a time of populism.
The realities of the virus cut closer to home. My fitness instructor canceled a week of online classes after developing moderate COVID-19 symptoms, and a colleague sent photos of her socially distant walk in Manhattan’s financial district, coupled with a description of the refrigerated body trucks she spotted. It is infuriating to be unable to help in any way, beyond staying in this slightly corseted but comfortable hotel room.
Like everyone else cooped up indoors, I grasp for silver linings: News that a Singapore-listed company has gotten European Union approval to sell a rapid testing kit becomes a minor cause for celebration. I become extremely familiar with the leveling-out of France’s infection rate, the fall of coronavirus-linked deaths in Spain and news that Austria is countenancing the slow reopening of its economy.
Take it day by day, a friend counseled me just before I boarded the plane at Heathrow. In these times, the simple has never sounded more sagacious.