COVID diaries in Singapore: daily testing, mask culture, next-level contact tracing, and a health scare

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As you may know, I recently visited Singapore as a tourist under the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme. In my previous post, I described all of the steps that I had to take to be able to get into Singapore. But it turns out that was just the beginning — I was in no way prepared for how different the atmosphere was in Singapore as it relates to the pandemic, and experienced quite a bit of culture shock, especially during the first few days.

This trip to Singapore marked the first time I had travelled to Asia in nearly two years (I went to Indonesia for work in February 2020, right before the whole world shut down). Since then, I have remained largely in Europe, restricting my travels almost exclusively to the handful of countries that border Switzerland. My only overseas trip was back home to the United States in April 2021, when I got vaccinated.

Compared to much of the United States, COVID rules in Switzerland are considerably more strict. Since summer 2020, we have been required to wear masks at all indoor venues, from buses to trains to grocery stores to workplaces; there are no signs that this rule will be lifted anytime soon. Since summer 2021, we have had to show our Certificat Covid, a QR code that serves as proof of vaccination or a recent negative test, any time we wanted to eat inside a restaurant or attend an event with over 30 people. We are currently under a mandatory work-from-home order, and are not allowed to gather in large groups (I forget the threshold; it changes all the time). And lastly, we do have a national contact tracing app, although we are not required to download it, and I have never been notified of an exposure to a positive case through the app.

Well, Singapore — and many other Asian countries — has taken these precautions to a whole new level. Here’s what I observed.

Daily testing

Before I was allowed to board my flight to Singapore, I had to show proof of a negative antigen test, taken within 48 hours of departure. Then, when I arrived at Changi airport, I was ushered to a testing area and given a PCR test. After that, I went straight to the hotel to quarantine while awaiting the results. They arrived via email after about five hours: negative, as expected. I was now cleared to exit quarantine.

Being under quarantine did not mean that I was cut off from the external world and its resources. After seeing a tip on the government’s website, I downloaded an app called Grab on my phone and used it to order delivery from a Thai restaurant (it was delicious!). Out of curiosity, I also checked the app to see how I could order at-home COVID tests from a nearby pharmacy. I had brought my own box of tests from Switzerland, but if I had needed more, I could have quite easily placed an order and had them delivered to the hotel by a Grab driver in 15-30 minutes. The efficiency and resourcefulness of the app were mind-blowing.

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I brought a pack of five self-tests.

A little after midnight, I received a massive email from the Singaporean government, reminding me of my obligation to perform a self-test and report the results every day prior to leaving my hotel. On Days 2, 4, 5 and 6, I needed to do a self-test. But for Day 3, I had to schedule an appointment at a Quick Test Centre to get tested under the supervision of a medical professional. (Day 7 did not apply in my case because I left at the end of Day 6.)

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The next morning, I did a self-test in my hotel room and reported the results via a website before heading down to breakfast, which I had reserved the night before by scanning a QR code in my room. When I approached the breakfast area, I was asked to ‘check in’ again using the Trace Together app on my phone, then escorted to a table that had been reserved for me.

I was surprised to see that breakfast was a packed and lively affair, given that travel to Singapore is not exactly at its peak right now. Later, I found out that most of the diners were actually Singaporeans themselves, who had taken to booking ‘staycations’ in local hotels on the weekends, since it was difficult for many to travel internationally at the moment. And indeed, when Monday came around, the breakfast crowds thinned down considerably.

After breakfast, I went back up to my room to book an appointment for my supervised rapid antigen test the next day. I had assumed it would be easy to snag an early morning appointment, but it quickly turned out to be nearly impossible. When I checked several locations that were closest to me, I found that they were all booked up until 4:15pm. Which sent a jolt of shock through me — I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere prior to my test, which meant I would have had to sit in my hotel room for almost the whole day!

I went through the entire list of Quick Test Centres, checking each and every one regardless of the physical distance, until I finally found a 9:30am appointment at a mall that was a 10-minute walk away; someone else had held the booking and just released it at the last minute. I quickly booked it and paid S$15 for the test.

The next morning, I walked to the Quick Test Centre, which was a sort of makeshift block of tents on the second floor of a mall. I had never done a supervised test before, but it was completely hands-off: a medical worker watched attentively from the side as I opened an antigen test, took out the swab, swabbed myself, swirled the swab in a solution, and squeezed several drops into the testing kit. He took the kit from me, and I asked, “Do I have to wait here for the results?”

“No, it’s all right, you’re free to go anywhere.”

About 20 minutes later, I received an email from the government, informing me that my test results were negative. My testing status had also been updated in the Trace Together app.

On my last day in Singapore, although I was exempted from taking an antigen test by the Singaporean government, I had to take one regardless: though Switzerland was no longer requiring a negative test for vaccinated travellers, I was flying into France via Amsterdam and exiting the airport from Paris, and so I needed a negative test to board my flight.

About three days prior to my departure, I booked a testing appointment with the ATA Medical Clinic, which I found to be a great experience. Testing providers in Singapore are charging all over the place for antigen tests — the Marina Bay Sands neighborhood is particularly expensive — but this clinic charged only S$30, which was the lowest price I saw. It’s in the Tanjong Pagar neighborhood, very central, and walkable to a lot of places like Chinatown and Downtown.

They were able to serve me immediately upon walking in, and it only took three minutes to get the test results (which I had never seen before — was it some sort of extra-extra rapid test?). At my request, they printed a paper copy of the results for me to take to the airport.

A few minutes later, I received a text message from the government, informing me that they had my negative test results. Which was surprising, although it shouldn’t have been. Even though I’d gone to a private clinic that I had booked for my personal use, all of that data — my passport number, my history of movement across Singapore, my test results — was synced with government records in real time. They always knew where I was and what I was up to. (More on this in the later section about the contact tracing app.)

Mask culture

I will admit that while I am normally pretty diligent about masking, I don’t wear a mask if I’m by myself and outside. For instance, if I’m walking through the park or taking my glass bottles to the nearby recycling point, without any contact with others, I don’t see the need for a mask.

In Singapore, however, everyone is masked at all times in public, everywhere, indoors or outdoors, doesn’t matter how hot it is. The only exception is when you’re sitting at a table at a restaurant or hawker center and actively shoving food into your mouth. I’m not sure if there’s a law requiring mask-wearing in all places, but it certainly seems ingrained into the culture. Very few people had their mask under their nose — an extremely common sight in Europe.

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A Chinese-language government poster in Chinatown affirming that the vaccine is safe.

The pressure to conform to the norm of mask-wearing outdoors was immense, and so I kept it on at all times. The only place where I took off my mask was on Sentosa Island, where I found a sparsely populated beach and lay there in the sand, listening to a guy in the distance blast old school Cantonese songs from his phone.

One unexpected side effect of all the mask-wearing was that I found it hard to understand people at first. Which is absurd in theory, as I am a native speaker of both English and Mandarin, the two most popular languages in Singapore. However, I found that because people assumed I was local, they spoke to me in Singaporean English, which is a real trip if you’re not familiar with it, and I wasn’t. With their voices muffled under masks, it was even more challenging than usual to decipher unfamiliar phrases like “Want or not?” or “Can meh?”. I often had to sheepishly ask people to repeat themselves up to three times, because I simply had no idea what they were saying.

Contact tracing

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Checking in to a Buddhist temple.

Three things to remember when in Singapore: keep your cellular data on, keep your bluetooth on, and install Trace Together. It will be virtually impossible to do anything ‘off the grid’ here while the pandemic is still raging. You will be tracked, and you will be a part of the system. I only used about 10MB of cell data per day, and I suspect most of it was taken up by the Trace Together app.

Before I arrived in Singapore, I had thought the Trace Together app was just something you kept on your phone for contact tracing purposes. Boy, was I wrong. It wasn’t just an app; it was the key to being able to participate in public life.

When you get on a taxi or enter an MRT station, you have to scan the QR code.

Want to eat at a restaurant in a mall? Scan the QR code when you enter the mall, and again when you enter the restaurant.

Going to a grocery store, pharmacy, hotel, hawker center, museum, or even the beach? QR code.

Here’s a video of people waiting in line to enter the ION Orchard mall on Orchard Road. At any point along the way, they can scan one of the QR codes. Many malls and department stores have employed someone specifically to sit at the entrance and check to make sure that people have scanned the code.

Scanning the QR code didn’t come as muscle memory to me, even after a few days. I would remember to scan in but not check out; then it would dawn on me a few hours later, and I would hurriedly check out of three places at the same time in a way that most definitely defied the laws of geography.

I fretted: was I breaking the law by not using the contact tracing app perfectly? Was I going to get caned? Ultimately, I did my best, and faithfully recorded all of my check-ins. According to the app, every single day, I came into contact with over 4,000 people.

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While in Singapore, I got to talking with a white American woman who had lived there for five or six years. “How do you like it here?” I asked, and she hesitated.

“You can be honest with me,” I added. “I’m not from Singapore.”

She visibly relaxed. “Well,” she told me, “it used to be great… before the pandemic.”

According to her, life in the lion city had been blissful in the before times: great food, nice weather, efficient services, lots of shopping, frequent trips to other Asian countries. Now, it seemed a lot of the perks were gone. For a long time, they were stuck in the country, unable to go home and visit family because they weren’t sure if they’d be allowed back in. With everyone forced to remain inside the city state, the country felt small and over-crowded. The rules were constantly changing; until recently, families couldn’t even dine out in groups of larger than two people. And the amount of contact tracing required to navigate everyday life, she said, felt suffocating. She was thinking about leaving.

At a museum, Singaporeans in my tour group told me the same thing. “A lot of expats have left in the last year,” they said. “They couldn’t get used to the new rules, the new way of life.”

Health scare

With all this in mind, it’s not surprising that when I detected a sore throat one night, I became highly anxious.

Asides from a throat that was sore only on the right side, I also experienced a sharp, stabbing pain in the depths of my right ear, a toothache, and a throbbing pain on the right side of my head. The symptoms were less reminiscent of COVID, and closer to an ear infection I’d had a few years ago. I took some ibuprofen that I had packed, and hoped I would be better by morning.

In the morning, I was better, but the ear pain persisted. I took a self-test and tested negative, per usual. After breakfast, I decided to head to a local medical clinic in Chinatown to get checked out.

The clinic was quite efficient; I walked in without an appointment, and they were able to process me on the spot. They took down my passport and hotel information, so I assumed the government would be informed. While I was waiting, two people came by to get their booster shots and were charged S$50, which I found strange: I had thought that the vaccine was free in Singapore. Perhaps I had misheard, or maybe they were temporary residents.

After a 20-minute wait, I was waved in by the doctor. She checked my ear and throat, but could not find anything abnormal, so she just suggested that I rest and sleep off the pain. I was charged S$38 for the visit — $8 for a pack of 20 ibuprofen tablets, and $30 for the consultation. And that’s all without health insurance.

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The next day, I continued to test negative for COVID. It’s been about a week now, and I can still feel a bit of pain in my right ear when I wake up, but it usually goes away after drinking lots of water.

All in all, I am pleasantly surprised by how safe this trip was. When I left, I was seriously worried that I would contract omicron during the trip and forced to quarantine, and so I packed my work computer just in case. But in reality, the universal mask-wearing and daily testing, combined with eating a lot of my meals in my hotel room and not meeting up with anyone, kept me safe from the virus.

It was such a treat to visit Singapore, even if it was during these extraordinary times. I am already missing it intensely and hope to make it back within the next year, by which time things are hopefully a little better.

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