“Covidiots” and caution tape: Care, surveillance, and the elderly in Singapore

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Author: Kellynn Wee, Research Associate, Asia Research Institute (Singapore). She can be found on Twitter and contacted at kellynn.wee@nus.edu.sg.

Fieldsite: This report draws from six weeks of ethnography in a housing estate in Singapore that has been designed by policy to host large numbers of elderly, particularly elderly people living alone or elderly couples. I took notes and photographed my twice-daily walks since the beginning of Singapore’s lockdown to observe how COVID-19 has reshaped community life. Singapore’s small size, tight state control, extensive urban planning, ageing population, and highly developed technological infrastructure render it an interesting field site.

Everyone has vanished. I never realised how ephemeral my ties to my community were until the pandemic struck. But the people in my neighbourhood have all gone, and I don’t know where they are, or how to get in touch.

I live in a public housing estate in Singapore, which has been in lockdown since 7 April to stem the spread of COVID-19. Like many other parts of the world, the compulsory wearing of masks, suspension of all social gatherings, and closure of non-essential businesses have all been put in place as Singapore grapples with the spread of the disease.

The worst struck have been migrant construction workers sequestered in overcrowded mega-dormitories far from Singapore’s shining skylines: as of 19 May, 93% of all cases consist of migrant men from countries such as Bangladesh, India, and China, who are already often indebted, isolated, and exploited. Our desire to pack them away into the margins of a wealthy city has combusted in hotbeds of disease, while community spread in Singapore remains low.

But there have been other, quieter, disappearances. I live in an estate that hosts the third-largest elderly population in Singapore, and through twice-daily walks, my dog Chai and I had gotten to know many of the older folk living in our cluster of apartment blocks.

There’s Auntie Rosalind: she lives alone, and is always looking for a place to sit so that she can hold Chai in her lap. There’s the bow-legged woman in her 70s I met one day, limping home. The walk from the bus stop to her flat took us thirty minutes when it would have taken me five. There’s the uncle with a fanny pack who came into the thrift shop I volunteer at and bought a reading lamp from me for three dollars.

And now they’re gone. Now when I walk my dog, it is through a ghostly estate, matched by other furtive bodies anonymised by face masks. My apartment blocks consist partly of studio apartments—fitted with grab bars, ramps, and other elderly friendly features—which are aimed specifically at older individuals, and many spend a great deal of their days outside the 45 square metres afforded to them by their tiny homes. Many of these older men and women lived more out of their homes than in them, and now they have been evicted.

For my elderly neighbours, inhabiting public space meant opening oneself up to passing conversation, small talk, a daily check-in, an exchanged smile, eye contact. The imperative to care for frail bodies in the face of the pandemic has forced them back into their homes, and a mixture of community pressure, social shaming, and citizen policing have conspired to keep them there.

As lockdown measures tightened, a friend’s grandmother told her, “I’d rather die than live like this, trapped at home.” The bow-legged auntie I met lives with her ailing husband, who is bedridden and almost twenty years older. She told me it had taken her two hours to go to a market to buy flour to make dumplings for dinner, but she did it, because it was how she participated in the passage of her life.

Now she cannot leave her home, and I can’t visit her, because she didn’t give me her phone number, and I don’t remember what floor her apartment was on. I never imagined I would have to ask. I just thought I’d see her downstairs from time to time, tapping along with her walking stick, ready to exchange hellos.

Everything became hostile architecture

On April 8th, one day after Singapore’s nationwide lockdown kicked in, I woke up, clipped the leash on Chai’s collar, and walked out to find that there was warning tape wrapped around every playground: red-and-white ribbons blocking access to slides and swings. The fitness corners, with their ellipticals and sit-up benches, bristled with tape. Red tape crossed out every public bench, table, and horizontal surface I passed.

The hawker center and wet market near my house were wrapped in red netting. Having run out of tape, an enterprising Town Council official had tied the tables and chairs in red raffia string. They have now added taut cling wrap that stretches between chair and table: ingenious, because the flimsy material now physically prevents the act of sitting, rather than simply signifying it.

Hostile architecture is a term used to describe public infrastructure that appears innocuous, but which has actually been designed to make the occupation of public space inhospitable to particular marginalised groups—usually loiterers, youths, or the homeless. Think public benches punctuated by railings to make it impossible to lie down, or spikes beneath bridges that make it difficult for anyone to lay down a mat or pitch a tent.

Everything has become hostile architecture. Infrastructure that had been created to foster passing encounters and participation in public life—public benches, resting spots, communal eating areas—is now wreathed in caution tape.

It has turned the neighbourhood into a construction site, where everything appears liable to breakage, fragility, or sabotage. Everything indicates danger. It is like walking through a kitchen where all the stoves are boiling hot to the touch. The first weeks of COVID-19, faced with caution tape and warning signs everywhere, turned us into uncertain tiptoers, attuned to disaster.

Walking my dog home on the first day of lockdown, I saw that the hawker center was as crowded as before, but instead of people sitting at the benches and tables, everyone was milling around with a sense of purposelessness. Unable to sit down, gather in groups, or stop without reason, we were a people startled into endless motion.

The insistence of bodies on inhabiting public space

The elderly were told to stop being stubborn and stay at home. If not, the news warned, you might die. Stay at home and have someone do the grocery shopping for you. You must only leave for absolute essentials, for medical checkups, or to get some exercise. It’s for your own good.

Quietly refusing this edict, my elderly neighbours continued to leave their homes. Every day, they discovered new items to buy: a carton of eggs, a bottle of green tea, a bag of sugar.

I saw an auntie pace through the open areas of our estate, windmilling her arms in occasional circles, daring anyone to tell her that she is not legitimately occupying public space by exercising. Older men strolled around unfazed, doing the occasional squat or dropping into perfunctory shuffling jogs whenever someone’s gaze on them lingered.

Living in densely-packed high-rise apartments meant that this was the only opportunity for light and air. Even as frustration grew with the elderly for not being, in many online commentators’ terms, “obedient”, they refused the blanket imperative to stay indoors.

They found ways to obey the spirit of the law without quite paying heed to the letter of it, reinhabiting the places where they felt more at home than the four walls of their two-bedroom apartments.

At midnight a few days into lockdown, I walked Chai down an empty street. Something caught my eye: the tip of a lit cigarette in the inky night. I saw an older man, white-haired and wearing a white singlet, standing in the corridor outside his apartment, maskless and smoking. Another figure in the distance revealed itself to be another older man, swinging with placid determination from an elliptical machine wrapped in caution tape. I’d rather die than live like this, trapped at home.

The creation and policing of “Covidiots”

3,000 “Safe Distancing Ambassadors” were dispatched across the country to ensure that everyone was observing social distancing regulations; if caught flouting the rules, they were fined $300. The sight of the ambassadors, wearing the bureaucratic uniforms of lanyards and polo t-shirts, was often enough to send a worried thrill into the crowd.

What exacerbated this sense of vertigo, where everyone still seemed to be out in public but were no longer certain about how to exist in it, was how quickly citizens took it upon themselves to police each other.

Multiple Facebook group sprang up to shame Singapore’s “Covidiots”, consisting of videos and photographs of groups of people gathering in public spaces, often accompanied by derisive scolding from the posters and the community. (The largest group, as of 19 May, has 29,000 members.)

An example includes the following photos of an older man sitting on a flight of steps:

The above poster mentions reporting the “Covidiot” on the OneServiceApp created by Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA), which was initially used for citizens to report pest infestations or broken footpaths, but now has an option to turn in people whom the users gauge are violating safe distancing measures.

Citizens were quick to police and enabled to act through state-sanctioned phone apps. They rapidly formed online communities in order to commentate on what they felt was the violation of new social norms, particularly by the youth, the working class, and the elderly. As one user writes: “If these elderly listen, pigs will know how to climb up trees.”

A new community space

I uncovered a secret a few weeks into lockdown. I was walking Chai through the rooftop garden on top of the multi-storey car park in my estate when it began to rain. We ducked down a stairway and found ourselves on the sixth floor of the covered car park, which was empty of cars—and full of people.

On the sixth floor, a little girl careening through empty parking lots on a tricycle while her dad trailed behind her. On the fifth floor, a young almost-teenager wobbling on a pair of rollerblades with her mum at her elbow, steadying her.

The developers had overestimated the density of car ownership in our neighbourhood—or perhaps we were just short of visitors in these times—and the fourth, fifth and sixth floors were almost always devoid of cars. I started going at all times of the day, and always I would run into another illicit non-vehicular carpark user.

A shirtless, stringy older man running laps.

Two different aunties, on two successive days, holding grocery bags and wearing masks, ascending briskly through the levels in wide circles.

Photo taken by the author

Three teenagers perched on three adjacent kerbs—physical distancing made incidental, or made easier, by public infrastructure—smoking, talking, all dressed in black.

A delivery man leaning on his motorbike. As he ate his lunch he scrolled through his phone, his helmet hanging from the handlebars.

A couple walking their white Chihuahua. We took the dogs off their leashes to let them chase each other, white tails flashing, as we talked about the weather.

Another couple play-wrestling on a Friday evening, their shining faces drawn close to each other, bags and shoes strewn in a heap on the side.

A man sleeping in front of a parked truck, shirtless to make the most out of a cool night. Another man stirring in the cab of the vehicle. The closed Malaysia-Singapore border has left many Malaysian workers stranded in Singapore, and as I steered Chai away, I wondered if these were two men far from home.

No passers-by to snap photos. No security cameras to observe movements. No Safe Distancing ambassadors to conduct a surprise check. Who would come into a car park except cars?

We kept apart from each other, diligently wore masks, smiled, gave each other wide berths. We occupied different floors, spreading out to rollerskate or do push-ups or chase our dogs. But not because we were afraid of being fined or caught. But because we felt the duty of care, and a desire to preserve the space for our own.

Striking a tacit compromise between care and surveillance

Six weeks later, the lockdown has dissipated into the everyday. We have adjusted to the new normal, particularly as community spread plunges to a handful of cases. The Covidiot posts have slowed. The caution tape in my neighbourhood is falling apart.

The need for mutual surveillance has weakened, partly because we have internalised the new rules and partly because the cases have been confined to the migrant worker dormitories. In its place, a tacit compromise has been struck.

Now I see older men perched cautiously on public benches. I see pairs of people serenely practising tai chi at the playground. I see trios of uncles sitting at coffee shops in the dead of night, strung out a meter apart from one another, the distance overcome by the volume of their conversation. A commonsensical and gentler approach to physical distancing has gradually pervaded my neighbourhood.

As for the elderly, the possibilities of staying connected through digital means remain slim for now, as this extensive report shows. While many of my younger neighbours chat daily on our shared community WhatsApp group, ordering dinners in bulk batches and sharing information on how crowded the nearby grocery stores are, the seniors are not part of these conversations. The senior activity centre I volunteer at set up a YouTube channel showcasing daily mobility exercises and mask-making instructional videos aimed at the elderly living in my estate, but the views are low.

The spectre of surveillance in the name of care also continues to hang heavy: Spot, a Boston Dynamics robot, autonomously patrols a park near my house and booms safety messages to park-goers. Its stalking movements are viscerally unsettling. The police have also seized the COVID-19 as an opportunity to introduce autonomous drones that patrol industrial estates, ostensibly as a crime prevention measure. And the government continues to urge citizens to use the TraceTogether app—amidst concerns about data privacy—to facilitate contact tracing to track COVID-19 clusters.

In a crisis, how do we care for each other? There is a willingness in Singapore to call on the authorities to mete out justice, to meet lapses in new norms of social behaviour with shaming, surveillance, and punitive measures. The spread of the disease has been responded to with the enforcement of isolation, even for those whom isolation is unbearable or incomprehensible, partly because of their displacement from the digital world.

As the pandemic unravels, we are coming to the slow realisation that the suspension of everyday life as we knew it is no longer tucked into the shock of a momentary crisis, but something that will divert the course of our lives for years to come. Knowing this, there are questions that we have to ask ourselves.

Does the state trust its citizens to keep each other safe? Does the citizenry itself depend on each other to keep each other safe? How empowered are they to act, and in what ways do they choose to act? How are local communities, and the constitution of these communities, transformed—through what means, in what ways, and on what grounds? What is the relation of care to surveillance, and how do we work through this relationship in ways that preserve not only human life, but human connection?