People are intolerable. Absolutely insufferable beings that never do what they’re told. People do whatever they want and often don’t care because it’s one life right? Let’s live it and all that. Pandemic who? So much diversity across people everywhere because everyone kind of went off and did something they were told not to. That’s growing, right? Fighting the dominatrix of political hierarchies to find your sense of individuality?
But what if there was a way to regulate people? Not just regulate though, but really control them. To stop this ‘individuality’ process and structure entire strings of human populations. How about something like keeping them confined in a room for 14 days with no access to the outside world, and a looming fear over them that if they left their room, they would face a $10,000 fine or 6 months jail time. That would keep people controlled wouldn’t it? The answer to that is absolutely. Ironically, this isn’t actually some miraculous escape story about someone who got out and went on the run, fighting that $10,000 fine. This story is incidentally about little old me and the controlled human that I became in this experience. What I learnt after 14 days in isolation is fundamental to this story: there is nothing more dystopian than not being able to open a goddam window.
Everyone at this point has either left because they don’t know what I’m talking about or are hoping that I will explain it now. That I will. Recently, my family and I were granted Permanent Residency status in Singapore, which is exciting and miraculous especially in the lead up to Christmas. Miraculous because my sister and I didn’t know whether we could come ‘home’ and its weird saying ‘home’ when for a while, we weren't even allowed to come back. Home that you’re not allowed to go to? So that’s why PR was so great because finally we were allowed. However, one of the requirements when entering Singapore, is that you have to serve a 14 day stay-at-home notice; though the word ‘home’ is once again very debatable in this scenario too. You cannot quarantine at home, you must do it at designated quarantine hotels, which moves me on to the ‘dystopian’ part. And yes, I used the ‘d’ word, ‘dystopian’, because to be quite honest, it pretty much sums this up in its absolute entirely.
I met my sister in York on the way down from Edinburgh. I met her here so we could travel to London together and catch our flight to Singapore that night. Heathrow was a mess, packed to the brim with desperate people trying to get home before the winter rush. The plane was surprisingly empty and all had our own rows. It’s really difficult to get into Singapore right now, so when I thought about it like that, I guess I couldn't really be surprised. I didn’t take my mask off for 25 hours. Well, I took it off when I went to the bathroom, I had to, I needed to let my skin breathe for my second. And admittedly, I took it off for almost 30 minutes when I lay completely submerged under the blanket. So we’re down to about 24 hours and 25 minutes with the mask on. And then arriving ‘home’; we were actually in Singapore! But whisked away to the Hilton Garden Inn, Serangoon. A room with no floor space and a view of a carpark. Disappointed was my first reaction, which was followed by a surge of stress. Could I do this for 14 days? I can’t even open a window?? Big shock to the system. That’s when my mum stepped in and complained to all the right people, so my sister and I actually got moved to the Swissotel 3 days later with a balcony and an interconnected room on the 51st floor. Miracle again, and I personally thanked each one of my lucky stars.
And although, I gave quite a big leadup to this being some tragic event that rid me of my personhood, it wasn’t all like that (I really just wanted to sound dramatic, and I hope it worked because its good for setting the scene). Parts of it were dramatic though; for 3 days, I couldn’t open a window. It’s laughable maybe, but in reality that shit hits different. A friend of mine compared what I was going through to life in a Dutch prison. Don’t know if Dutch prison life is different to any other kind of prison life, but his point got through all the same. At least when you’re in prison you’re allowed to go on a walk. However, even though we were confined and had no choice in the matter, we came out to a country where there is 1 community case a day and you can go to restaurants, meet friends, actually live a relatively descent lifestyle.
How each country deals with people is immensely different, which I’ve learnt from my experience in Singapore and the UK. That’s why I wanted to call this piece the ‘mask tan’ and use my tale of the intertwining confusion of feeling trapped in a room but also respecting the care a country will take on to protect its people from a pandemic. Not every country will or can do this the way Singapore does. Regardless, the mask tan still applies. It is by my own definition, the print of the covid experience that stays upon us. It has marked possibly every single human on this planet. I say possibly, because I imagine that there are still some Amazonian or Sentinelese people that don’t know about the pandemic yet, so I’ll stick with ‘possibly’ rather than certainly. But each human that has been printed by the mask tan will have their own story, their own version of how this pandemic went for them. That’s interesting you know, how something so large scale can impact so many people so differently. For some it was an incoveneice, and for others a tragedy. For some, it went by completely unnoticed.
So I use my quarantine story to share just one of the billions of stories that happened during this time. And what I’ve learnt is that even when politicians and governments can control people and their physical bodies in terms of mobility, citizenship, quarantine procedures, travel rules, Descartes would argue, you could never control the mind.
“The key to happiness is the realisation that, even if nothing is in one’s power, not even one’s body, the thoughts of the mind are inalienable" (Descartes 1637 cited in Ecks 2008, 154)
Thoughts cannot be taken away by anything. I urge people to share the stories of their mind even when the body was told what it could and could not do. You have a story that is valuable and worth hearing, so we can all come together and realise we are not alone. Humans may be intolerable, but they do have a massive capacity for care and empathy even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
Ecks, Stefan. 2008. "Welcome Home, Descartes! Rethinking the Anthropology of the Body". Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 52 (1): 153-158. Project Muse. doi:10.1353/pbm.0.0075.