London in Lockdown: Confessions of a Millennial Singaporean Working Away From Home


Musings, Travel / Monday, March 30th, 2020

*I have taken my artistic liberties very seriously in writing this post. One for the dramatics in the name of light hearted, slightly self-deprecating cheer, this post is neither meant to undermine the gravity of the alarming and tragic pandemic afflicting the world nor the immense privilege that I recognise I am blessed with and am grateful for.

I am also immensely proud to call Singapore home and would never want or intend to do anything that goes against good citizenship.*

Within a span of 25 days, my life had taken a drastic nose dive from trainee lawyer fulfilling her fantasy of hustling in bustling London to solo Singaporean, legally obliged to stay at home majority of the time and occasionally terrified of running out of toilet paper and rice, in that order.

How did things go pear-shaped so quickly?

I arrived in London a day shy of my birthday, exhausted but wide eyed and impressionable. My arrival to my apartment was graced with light snow for a few minutes at 8AM. As I admired nature’s handiwork from the windows, I was buoyant with the promise and prospects of my intended time in London – to work, explore, reflect and mature.

In my head, I pictured my time in London to be faintly reminiscent of my time during university exchange in Barcelona, Spain, as part of the Erasmus programme, which involved (on top of studying) indulging in fiestas, siestas, aperitivos and traveling. As my first rodeo in Europe provided me with the privilege of visiting several countries in Western and Central Europe, for Europe 2.0, I was keen to explore other parts of the United Kingdom and Eastern Europe. Apart from quenching my wanderlust, I envisioned entrenching myself in one of my favourite cities for a period longer than a brief holiday, adapting to a different way of life, gaining invaluable work experience from the brightest minds in the legal industry and making new friends.

Excitement overtook my jet lag I hurriedly unpacked my luggage and settled in my apartment in under an hour, reassured my family that I was safe, put on my new coat and set out to explore and embrace my new (short-term) home.

I was pumped.

As fantasised, the first month in London exceeded my expectations (rare in life), both work-wise and fun-wise (detailed post on what to see, do and eat in London coming up). I was thrilled and hungry for more.

As I have been told, “Man plans and God laughs“. Things quickly went pear-shaped.

As Covid19 (an infectious disease caused by coronavirus which can affect one’s lungs and airways) began to spread hitherto mostly unchecked throughout the UK and infect a worrying number of people, the UK Government (rightfully so) announced a lockdown on 23 March 2020. The weekend prior to that, some 40 Tube stations had closed and non-essential shops, pubs, restaurants, leisure centres, gyms, anything of entertainment value, really, were ordered to shut. Indefinitely.

On Monday evening, the PM of the UK, Boris Johnson, laid out the exceptions in which we are allowed to step out of our homes (for food, medication and one form of exercise a day) from Downing Street. I sat on the floor of my living room, absent-mindedly chowing on the 蛋炒饭 (egg fried rice) I recently learnt to cook and unlocked my phone in search for solace the way millennials are typically most comfortable with – on social media. This is the most draconian set of restrictions placed on British people since World War II.

No prime minister wants to enact measures like this. I know the damage that this disruption is doing and will do to people’s lives, to their businesses and to their jobs.

A grave Boris Johnson

Unfortunately, my naive self was slapped in the face of reality when many of my Singaporean friends in London informed me, in no uncertain terms via several different social media platforms, that they were taking the earliest possible flight back to Singapore.

I was suddenly thrust with a painful dilemma that had never even crossed my mind – should I leave London and go home, or stay in London and ride out the indefinite lockdown?

I refused to accept the truth. But the reality was, and still is, with London in virtual lockdown and work taken from the office to our homes, there is little need for being physically in holed London during this relatively restrictive lockdown. More importantly, in a crisis like this, being at home with the emotional support of loved ones and having comfort that Singapore’s healthcare system is reliable, high quality, not at capacity and well-prepared (not that the NHS is not high quality; Singapore is home lah, home trumps everything), made the decision of whether to go home or stay in London for the majority of my Singaporean friends a no-brainer. Granted, the allure of London, among many others, lay in its vibrant city life, but the virtual lockdown stripped away most of the sheen – why stay in the city when you can’t explore the city?

Over the week, more and more of my Singaporean friends bid adieu as they packed at Olympic-record speeds and caught the first flight back home. With each passing day, I felt more and more alone. I wrestled with the dilemma of whether to stay or leave as I discussed the issue extensively with my family, HR and my well-meaning friends on both sides of the coin. Most (with the exception of HR who remained neutral and highly supportive of both camps) were in favour of returning to Singapore.

The window for making my decision was steadily closing in as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged Singaporean students in the UK to return home and made arrangements with Singapore Airlines to fly Singaporeans home from London, up until 31 March 2020. My decision changed every hour, as I dithered back and forth, with social media polls, tears and Sauvignon Blanc, exasperating those who cared for me. I tried desperately to buy more time. There were so many variables and factors to consider; I was caught between a rock and a hard place.

You bodoh* sia. No flights in April you know, you sure you want to stay??? What if you’re stuck in London for good??? Macham** PR sia.

My incredulous friends to me, and rightfully so

Against reason and the compelling persuasions of my well-meaning friends, I chose to stay. It was a decision that I believe would best allow me to stay safe, protect my family and work to the best of my abilities for my company. My friends were flabbergasted and convinced that I had completely lost my ability to reason.

Bodoh, indeed.

Truthfully, I am terrified amidst the indefinite lockdown and unsettling news affirming my fear that I may not receive the requisite medical attention I may need in the unfortunate event that I fall ill. At times, I feel utterly alone in a foreign land with most of my Singaporean friends having gone home. 

The soundness of my decision, or lack thereof, will only be clear upon hindsight and with time, as with most uncertain things in life. I have made the potentially foolhardy decision for several reasons, one of the most significant reasons being my (again, likely naive) optimism. I have faith that the lockdown will not bleed into summer and hope I am mentally strong enough, with the wizardry of technology (to borrow a phrase from Boris Johnson), kindness of friends who act as pillars of my emotional support, a virtual library of books and sermons, to ride out this lockdown physically alone but virtually with my friends and family.

There were other concerns as well, such as potentially catching the virus while going through customs or on the 13 hour plane ride back to Singapore, the shortage of protective equipment to be delivered to me at short notice in time for the journey home, the chance that I may infect my family should I go out and about in Singapore after serving my 14 day Stay Home Notice upon arrival in Singapore and the need to work at London’s hours while physically in Singapore (night shift, essentially).

While the situation in London is concerning, with the tsunami of patients flooding the healthcare system and keeping the UK politicians up at night, this is war and I have armed myself as best as I can. I take comfort (however cold) in the fact that my company has generously obtained private healthcare insurance in London for me and that the NHS has stated on its website that it will not charge for the treatment and diagnosis of Covid19 for non-UK nationals. I also exercise caution, going out as infrequently as sanely possible and as frequently as legally possible, and have corralled a small stash of the current hottest commodities – medicines, hand sanitisers, and antibacterial wipes. I further arm myself with daily vitamins (placebo effect notwithstanding), ginger tea, kale and plenty of prayer. (I am, however, running low on surgical masks and have no hand gloves. The sellers on Amazon Prime are only able to deliver post-April.)

Ultimately, I recognise that my decision to stay is selfish. By giving in to my taste for adventure and working abroad, my family and friends are made to worry for my health, safety and sanity. To this end, I am nothing but respect for my Ma, who has to deal with the crazy decisions of her daughter!

Ma, I promise to call and text everyday and to be careful to the point of being kiasu***. I have made my bed, now I will lie on it. Also, well the ship home to Singapore has sailed, literally, with almost no (if any at all) commercial flights back to Singapore in April.

危机

At the time of writing, the situation in the UK has taken a turn for the worse. The UK PM and Health Secretary are down with Covid19. The NHS hospitals are close to crumbling with the influx of Covid19 patients. Private healthcare providers have also been requisitioned to help meet the demand in NHS, further throwing doubt onto my accessibility to adequate healthcare attention should I need it. The lockdown, initially due to end after 3 weeks on 6 April 2020, appears poised for extension. Even more of my Singaporean friends have left. Recent reports have also surfaced that Covid19 can also render young adults in their 20s and 30s with no underlying health issues in the ICU.

It’s bleak.

In the Chinese language, the word for “crisis” is “危机”, which means “danger” and “opportunity”. I wish to remain obstinately positive and see this situation as an opportunity for me to make the biggest and tastiest sanitised jug of lemonade with the lemons that life has thrown my way.

During this time of solitary confinement, I am keen to use my newly freed up time and my imagination within the 4 walls of my apartment to tap into (what I like to believe is) my creative side and work on the personal goals I have, such as achieving a free standing handstand, reviving my blog (case in point) and reading more fiction books. The world is my oyster, and while the closure of shops and studios mean that I can no longer partake in the usual things that make me happy, such as shopping, cafe-hopping, dog-gazing and taking aerial dance classes, this does not mean that I am rendered unable to exercise my brain or my body.

It helps that the beautiful parks in London have not been closed.

Yes, the timing is unfortunate. Many friends have also expressed sympathy at my secondment gone sour. But I am not bitter. I am in a very privileged position, to be cared for my family, friends and company. The entire world has been negatively affected in one way or another. About 20% of the world is in lockdown of varying degrees. People have lost jobs or family members, or both. Doctors, nurses, postmen and supermarket staff are on the frontlines of this battle on a daily basis, risking their lives to nurse patients back to health, deliver our items and feed bellies.

Presently, my civil liberties have been curtailed, but it is with this curtailment that I find freedom; the freedom to respond to the ever-changing petrifying situation the way that I can and prefer to. (Of course, the knowledge that I may soon be robbed of any freedom to decide whether to go home or not is not lost on me.)

So for now, I am situated in the UK. I appreciate that this is a fluid situation and there might be other reasons which will necessitate my return home, such as a repatriation (It’s 2020. At this point, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility). Until then, I will be doing the best I can to stay sane, healthy and be a pillar of support (as well) for my loved ones. Whether this lockdown in London bleeds into the summer or not, whether I lose my cool or not, whether I eventually head home sooner than planned or not, whether I survive this period, literally and metaphorically, or not, I know that I will have interesting stories to tell my grandkids when I am old and grey, if I may be so blessed to live to tell my tales.

I have made a small donation to the WHO’s Covid19 Solidarity Response Fund. If you wish to donate as well, you may check it out here.

For a bit of laughter, watch this: Don’t Mess with Italian Mayors During An Epidemic. I spent 2 weeks in Italy with a dear friend and fell in love with the delicious cuisine, scenic views and passionate, friendly and kind Italians. My heart goes out to Italy and look forward to the day that the country recovers. <3

For useful tips on sanitising your groceries, watch this: How to Safely Shop During Coronavirus.

If you’d like to reach out with comments or company, you’re welcome to do so!

I wish you health and happiness.

Love, Pearls

*Bodoh – stupid

**Macham – similar to, like

***Kiasu – afraid to lose

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