On Plague and Public Living

By Ng Yi-Sheng

In his fourth piece for GRC, Ng Yi-Sheng talks of harrowing times. From the Coronavirus to SARS to AIDS, from the personal to the societal, he remembers states of fear and—on occasion, of solidarity and looking after for one’s own. Finally, offering a clarion call to empathy and vitality, he reminds us to remember to live, with heart and art—even amidst face masks and kiasu.

Page divider

My boyfriend is really freaked out by the Coronavirus. No more kissing on the lips, he says. No more handshakes. No wandering around Chinatown before hitting up the gay bars of Tanjong Pagar. No going out to the theatre to watch The Importance of Being Earnest or the cinema to catch Parasite: when you’re shut in the same room with hundreds of others, who knows what germs you may inhale? Buses are safer than the MRT, because the air is renewed every time the doors swing open. Lift buttons and doorknobs may only be touched with elbows and wrists.

So I’m kind of amazed that I managed to convince him to keep our Sunday Brunch reservations at the Grand Hyatt. This hotel, as you may remember, was the site of the Singapore conference cluster, an outbreak of Coronavirus transmissions at an international business meeting from 20 to 22 January that yielded twelve new cases across Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, the UK, and France. On the other hand, the brunch consisted of a free champagne-inclusive buffet with our limited-time-only voucher, which was a gift from my mum. So in the end, filial piety and kiasu-ness beat kiasi-ness. We went to brunch.

Munching sashimi and oysters, slurping down creamed spinach and tom yam kay, I realised I’d been infected a little by my partner’s paranoia. It would be so easy, I reflected, for another outbreak to happen right there, at our banquet. Sure, the sommelier wore a surgical mask and a dispenser of hand sanitiser sat at the receptionist’s desk. But our hands were touching everything—the communal serving spoons, our mouths as we pried apart prawns and crayfish tails, our filthy phones whenever we shot our glistening meals for Instagram followers.

Dorscon Orange has made scaredy-cats of us all. Performances and tournaments are being cancelled; offices are segregating their workforce; universities are transitioning classes into e-lectures; churches are recommending private worship and online tithing. The big bogeyman right now is mingling—the very thing that we desire of our public spaces—the pleasure of human contact with friends and strangers, the feeling of belonging to a community. If such activities are necessary, temperature checks and recording of NRICs should be performed, so as to better contain the virus. Far safer, though, to stay at home under self-imposed quarantine. Better to be atomised. Better to be alone.

And yet, on the afternoon of my brunch buffet, the restaurant was full. My fellow diners weren’t oblivious to the danger they were in: I overheard them discussing diversions of travel plans, new stats, new plans to mitigate risk. Nevertheless, they had chosen to feast amidst the plague, like the doomed nobles in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.

 As had we. As have we all, every time we figure out a way to partake of society in spite of the dangers, through our regimens of masks and disinfectants and shareable memes.

Fear eats the soul. Partying makes us human.

***

Commentaries on the Coronavirus have often made reference to SARS, that other Chinese respiratory epidemic. Many of us can still remember how the disease turned Singapore into a weird technologically dystopian ghost town in 2003—schools were shut, streets were deserted, those under quarantine were forced to register their attendance via video camera, airline passengers were screened using infrared monitors that turned their outlines into rainbow-coloured ghosts.

In his 2006 play Homesick, Alfian Sa’at noted that the virus had an oddly democratising effect:

Do you know what SARS is? It’s literally the bug in the system. A transnational virus. Why should it be so easy for money to cross borders, but so difficult for people to do the same? So SARS comes along. It manages to sneak past all the gates we have set up to jealously protect our precious assets. A professor from Hong Kong carries it. So does a waiter from Toronto. Disease doesn’t discriminate. We’ve created these monstrous inequalities in the system. The virus equalizes it back. (212)

Now, artists and intellectuals are noting how the Coronavirus exerts a different kind of equalising force: a challenge to Chinese racial dominance. Comedian Fakkah Fuzz  relishes the irony of how Chinese, not Malays, now bear the brunt of racialised suspicion; researcher Faris Joraimi has noted how the selfishness of panic-buying means that “these two racially-coded characteristics: kiasu and lepak, are now having their moral connotations subverted.” (See the Twitter feed Pantat Kau for more of such analysis.)

However, what intrigues me about the Coronavirus isn’t its transnational or reverse-racist nature. It’s the way it’s emerged as a post-truth disease.

And I’m not just talking about the deluge of myths and conspiracy theories, raging like wildflire through Baby Boomer chat groups. I’m talking about how right now, at a pretty advanced stage in the epidemic, health authorities don’t seem sure of the facts. How long is the incubation period? Can it be spread asymptomatically? Hell, even the government and medical professionals can’t agree whether everyone should be wearing masks, or only the sick. Google can’t help you now! Our current half-measures have loads of us confused, adding to our collective stress and fear—almost evoking a longing for the comforting tyranny of the SARS lockdown.

It all reminds me of another post-truth epidemic. AIDS. I’ve been researching queer history in Singapore, and it’s shocking to remember the hysteria that surrounded the first diagnoses here in 1985, among transgender sex workers. Twenty-six nurses at the Communicable Diseases Centre asked for transfers; two doctors resigned. Patrons of the Bugis Street hawker stalls were terrified: “who’s to say that some other person cannot pick up the virus if they eat off the same plate or drink out of the same glass which may not be properly washed,” an informant told the Straits Times. Some even proposed a concentration camp for patients. And all this for an illness that’s so hard to catch that you literally have to share blood or sexual fluids to contract it!

I grew up gay in the 90s, and saw how the paranoia towards the illness persisted: the raids on gay clubs (which the CID had attempted to ban in 1988); rumours about toilet seats and mosquito bites; the compulsory cremation of victims within 24 hours of death; the policy of deportation of foreigners diagnosed with the virus. A friend of mine told me their mother—a doctor!—actually tried to hold her breath once she learned she was sharing a cab with a lesbian.

However, we’ve gotta remember that even at the worst of times, queer folks refused to stop living their lives. The sex workers of Bugis Street responded to the 1985 diagnosis by insisting that everyone get tested, so as to protect the reputation of their district. Gay men figured out their own coping strategies: monogamy, avoiding sex with foreign travellers, even (rather pointlessly) advising bars to give regulars personalised drinking glasses to be washed individually under running water. And of course, founding Action For AIDS, which continues to provide sex-positive, judgment free resources and testing that’s available to this day—while also fighting the stigma of queer sexuality and HIV status with its campaigns.

In the case of AIDS, many early government officials simply wanted to eradicate the disease, and if that meant the oppression of the unsavoury communities most at risk of infection, so be it. But what we actually needed, as much as medical treatment, was dignity and humanity—things that could only be sustained by preserving community and communal spaces, whether through nightlife or activism.

And if we look back at the Coronavirus, I think we’ll notice that there’s something that links the saddest stories of the disease across the world—the death of a disabled boy in Wuhan when his family was in under quarantine; the heart attack victim in Sydney whom no-one helped because he was Chinese; the nurse in Singapore verbally abused for wearing her uniform in the lift. They’re all tales of the side effects of containment—how the fear of infection overrides natural human empathy.

Conversely, the most heartwarming stories of the season—the couple giving out free masks at Punggol MRT; the quarantined citizens of Wuhan calling out “Jiayou” across the skyscraper abyss—are about human connection and community.

Now, I’m no public health expert. There’s no way I can advise our policymakers on the most effective way they can curtail the Coronavirus. And I can’t tally costs the way economists do when they calculate the financial impact of the epidemic.

But I do want to remind everyone that there’s also a social cost, a fundamentally human cost, that comes with routines of isolation and containment. And it’s probably better for our psychological and spiritual health if we let ourselves live a little, outside our homes, in the public eye.

Don’t throw away your mask. But maybe consider eating at your favourite restaurants, watching some shows, attending some parties. Shake some hands. Kiss the people you love.

***

There’s a final little story I’d like to share. It’s from The Decameron, a 14th century work by the Italian author Giocanni Boccaccio. It’s set near the city of Florence in 1348, during the period of the Black Death, a disease that killed hundreds of millions of people across Europe and Asia, characterised by the grim visage of the plague doctor: goggles and a beak-shaped muzzle, enclosing fragrant flowers and herbs—purifying the air, just as our own surgical masks shield us from microbes.

It is a time of complete civilisational breakdown. Yet the characters of the story—seven young women and three young men—refuse to cave in to horror or barbarism. They seek refuge in a countryside villa and spend ten days telling a hundred tales, ranging from the comic to the tragic, the moralistic to the pornographic—fantasies of sex without consequence, without infection.

Through art, they regenerate their souls. They remember how to be human.

Then they return to the plague-riddled city.

Not just to survive. But to live.

Page divider

Bibliography:
Alfian Sa’at, “Homesick”, Collected Plays One. Singapore: Ethos Books: W!ld Rice Ltd, 2010.
Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron. London: Penguin Books, 1995.