Life As a Pandemic Refugee
Exactly a year ago, I was in Singapore finishing up my second year as an undergraduate. It was April when covid-19 hit Singapore hard. We went into a pseudo-lockdown. We called it a ‘circuit breaker’ — delusionally named to mislead all of us of the severity of the pandemic.
The country went into lockdown when I was about to finish up my semester. Following that was a 4-month long semester break. Without border restrictions, I’d usually travel back to my home country across the border.
But travelling back then had an ante. It wasn’t just the usual shitty swab tests or the suicidal isolation in the quarantine. It was the prospect of never being able to return to Singapore for some time.
Hell, I was right.
I had an urgent oral surgery that needed to be done soon. As an international student, the medical fees incurred would be at least three times the cost in my home country. Not to mention having to face surgery alone.
So, it wasn’t much of a choice. I had to go back.
The moment I reached back, we collectively thought it was a brilliant idea to take the semester off. We all thought covid-19 would die down after that, given how Malaysia’s and Singapore’s numbers were going down. Plus, I had braces on after the surgery.
So I did.
Being raised by an Asian tiger mom, staying at home for 6 months was a no-go. My mother pressured me to get a part-time job. And her cocky ass thought that finding a job would be so easy during a pandemic, let alone a part-time job. At the start of July, she started cutting off my allowance, which I barely used. She said some hurtful shit which threw me into a mild depression.
I had to take time off away from home. Fortunately, a religious organization graciously took me in and allowed me to stay for two weeks until I find a job.
Maybe I’ve raised her expectation of myself too much. She did stop giving me allowance since I was 15; I scored a scholarship to study in Singapore then (I still am on scholarship now).
I did found a part-time tutoring job, though.
But I had no intentions of staying home for long. When the next semester starts, I’ll get my ass back into the world of academia that I know to love.
But I didn’t. I couldn’t.
In late October, Malaysia’s Covid-19 cases went off the roof. There’s no better way to sum it all up than by saying that our government is stupid.
They thought it’d be wise to hold a state election that requires state residents to travel back to their hometown to vote. When you allow interstate travel, viruses spread. Even a fifth-grader knows this.
Following this election in mid-August, our cases slowly increased. But no one had the brains to take action and bar any more interstate travel quickly. So, our cases skyrocketed.
From consecutive single-digit cases to successive triple-digit cases. No one had the brains to take further actions. And not long after, our cases reached four digits.
This means I’m fucked.
Singapore’s initial plan for returning Malaysians to serve a 7-day quarantine now got upgraded to a 14-day quarantine with a swab test. The total cost amounting to over $2000 (approx. USD$1500).
It was too much.
I discussed this with my family, and we all agreed that going back then wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t worth the time. Nor was it worth the cost. So I extended my leave for another semester.
And with another 6-month stay at home, my mother got rowdy, again. She said some hurtful things, again. It threw me into a mild depression, again. But I was more furious than depressed then.
I needed things to keep me occupied. That’s when I found Medium. Shortly after, I landed on two more teaching jobs. One involved interning at a local not-for-profit organization providing education for socially disadvantaged children (mainly refugees). The second involved teaching Singapore mathematics to local students (who often come from rich families).
So I had the best of both worlds.
Once again, I had no intentions to work for long. When the semester starts this August, I’d be sure to make it back.
But then more bad news hit.
The previous border measures got tighter. Instead of the anticipated 14-day quarantine, it’s now 21 days (don’t ask me why). Instead of the $1500 accommodation, it was now well over an estimated $3000 (with two additional tests that I needed to bear).
If things are as they were a few months ago, I’d happily go back. I’ve saved enough money from my crazy working hours just to go back to school — let’s not forget the exchange rate: it’s 3:1 (every dollar spent in Singapore was equivalent to three in Malaysia).
Things got a lot more expensive. And I’d need to spend 21 days being a meatloaf.
This month, I formally held down a full-time job and two part-time jobs to earn what a fresh graduate in Malaysia would earn (that’s a little over USD$700 /month— pathetic, really). By the end of June, I’d have enough to return to Singapore with money to spare. But not anymore.
I didn’t intend to spend all my savings on just one petty trip back to Singapore.
Covid-19 hit right after I had the best time of my life in Singapore, watching my first ever live concert by my — hands-down — favourite singer JJ Lin. This pandemic has lasted for almost two years.
At the start of it, we’d all say that things will settle down quite. And we had good reasons to. SARS, H1N1, Ebola all died down relatively quickly. I insisted that things will only get worse — of course, my pessimism was right.
But I haven’t anticipated that things got this bad, honestly. I’ve had to make three tough decisions over the past two years that have significantly affected my early adult life. The first is to delay graduation. The second is to stay home and deal with my psychologically challenging mother. The third is about to come. God help me.
I’ll be seeing most of my friends graduating next year while I’ll still be in class. Some even got married.
My problems are first-world problems. They’re problems that people with unfair privileges have the luxury of facing. My every decision to stay away from Singapore and my studies were accompanied by a taller obstacle to hurdle over.
I’ve managed to secure a livelihood in these short months. But I don’t want to wait another semester or two just for things to get even worse. For the past few months, countless people have told me to keep the faith. Be hopeful about what’s about to happen. Even my counsellor told me that my struggles now are temporary.
‘You have a bright future’, she said, ‘You just need to wait a little longer for it’.
I’ve battled depression for the first few months I’ve been home. All this time, I’m resilient for a future I hope would come soon. But it turns out it isn’t coming to me. I have to seek it out, yet again.
Here’s my next hurdle (to those who’ve followed me this far): I have two more semester leaves to take. Should I use them up, wait this out for another semester or so, hoping that things will clear up in the next year? Or, should I not risk any more, and return to Singapore now?
I’m honestly lost. I was so sure about my decisions the last two times but I was proven so wrong.