“This is introvert heaven,” I marvelled to my friend. We were strolling around a surreally empty Funan Mall after dinner, one Saturday night in early February. The first wave of coronavirus panic and hoarding hysteria had just hit our shores, and Singapore’s dining hotspots were swept barren. But we’d said fuck it, we haven’t met up in forever – so there we were, ambling down corridor after blissfully unpeopled corridor.
My friend gave me a look. “If you’re not afraid to die, maybe.”
We might have been among the few souls delusional enough to venture out then, but it’s clear we’re not alone now – at least till our entertainment venues close down this Thursday. Despite the dire advisories on social distancing and overwhelmed healthcare systems, the snowballing of local cases day by day, the avalanche of lockdowns paralysing nations from Malaysia to Belgium – despite all this and more, Singaporeans have still been heading out to have fun.
In the past weeks before more restrictions on public spaces set in, we’ve been seeing the weekend crowds bounce back at malls and hawker centres, as The Straits Times highlighted. Butts have still been filling seats in many cinemas (though with theatres closing, we’ll have to turn to Netflix instead).
Working out of cafes in Amoy Street and Orchard Road all last week, I was surprised by the steady stream of people that flowed in throughout the day – with hardly a mask in sight. No amount of handy infographics on flattening the curve, it seems, could deter us millennials from bar-hopping or making brunch plans. Even clubs like Zouk – aka textbook breeding grounds of bodies massing and spit swapping – were decently packed when we went down last Wednesday.
All this has been good news for our suffering F&B scene, which saw sales nosedive by as much as 80% last month. It seems rather less rosy for our COVID-19 outlook, given the way infections spread like wildfire across Europe – and now the US – before the lockdowns. Indeed, this partying-while-the-world-burns mindset is far from unique to Singapore – witness the reports of visitors pouring into California’s Disneyland, of Washington’s bars thronged with tipplers, of Berliners getting in one last club rave before the closures kicked in. It’s a fascinating question – why have we been willing to risk our lives to go out, not to mention those of our family?
The most obvious answer is that it hasn’t felt like we’re risking our lives – at least not more than usual. One friend pointed out blithely that we’re more likely to die from smoking, heart attacks, or crossing the road (the key difference, of course, being that none of those things would crash our economy or cripple our public health system). What’s more, with many people still heading out to work, hitting up happy hour after doesn’t feel much more hazardous. As another friend, a salesperson who has to meet clients in person, put it: “If I’m still going out anyway, I don’t think it makes a difference to not go to a bar.”
Others cited the swiftness of Singapore’s containment response to reason that going out was low-risk: “I think the number of cases are isolated and most have been tracked.” Then there’s the genius logic of a friend who went to USS two weekends ago: “It was emptier than usual so it’s lower risk! Might as well enjoy when there’re no queues.”
Call it reckless, but perhaps not thoughtless – the striking thing about all these responses is that some sort of calculation was involved. After all, which of us with an Internet connection could hope to make like an ostrich, completely ignorant of each day’s grim news of clusters and death tolls?
In this case, part of it boils down to the fact that our monkey brains are just pretty damn bad at calculating risks. As studies have shown, we’ve all got a built-in pair of rose-tinted glasses when anticipating the future. This leads us to unrealistically predict that things we don’t want to happen are less likely to happen (to us, at least). Until this point, it’s been a little too easy to pretend – selfishly – that life might go on as per normal.
Still, that doesn’t seem like the whole story. A couple of weeks back, I came across an intriguing NBC News piece on how young people have been capitalising on cheap coronavirus flights to travel. As you might expect, most of the article oozed #YOLO, but the final quote – from a woman flying home for her grandmother’s birthday – struck a poignant chord. “If I die, I die,” she said. “I miss my family.” It may be that we, in all our narcissism, believe we won’t get struck by COVID lightning. But on some level, we’ve also stared the likelihood of death in the face, paused, then thought, “…worth it.”
What seems worth the gamble? Maybe it’s the sure bet of enjoying time out with friends and fam, of snatching a moment of normalcy from the dread that has gripped the world. Shutting oneself at home is such a deeply isolating experience – more so when we’re left to spiral down a pit of social media anxiety and apocalyptic news. Many friends have jokingly said that they were going nuts at home – but I suspect there’s too much painful truth behind the joke to easily dismiss. It’s at our most anxious that we’re hardwired to crave social connection – a craving instinctive enough to overcome fear of death, even if it ironically, at this point in time, might kill us all.
As COVID-19 rages on with no end in sight, it’s clear that stepping out of our own front doors will keep on being a personal and moral dilemma. With Singapore’s bars, clubs, and cinemas now temporarily closed, we’ll all be spending more time at home – and though we may struggle with it, and even resent it, there’s no question it’s for the best. Until we can laugh freely on a night out with friends again, we’ll have to keep reaching out to one another even from afar. Cheers to staying sane, while staying safe.