Genuine Fear: S'pore Student Recounts Her Hasty UK Exit Amid COVID-19 Outbreak
STORY: Benita Teo
29 March 2020
Day Five of my 14-day Stay Home Notice, and I am staring out my bedroom window. Everything still feels unreal. Never would I have imagined that I’d be one of the thousands of students rushing to return to Singapore from the UK, where COVID-19 is tearing through right now like a blind, angry tornado.
Sucker punched. That’s how I’d describe how I feel.
COVID came to us slowly in Scotland, where my friend and I had been studying at the University of Edinburgh. When we reported our first case at the start of the month, my classmates were unfazed: “It’s far from Edinburgh anyway.”
In London, it’s business as usual too. In fact, just on 10 March, we had headed down to catch OneRepublic in concert. The sentiment then was “F*** COVID! Stop the panic!” (Ryan Tedder said so, not me. I would never say “f***”.)
By that Saturday though, our university announces that, because of growing concerns about the situation, it will cancel our final week of classes.
But the moment we finally realise, “Sh**, this is really happening” comes on Tuesday. Our Airbnb host laments that his restaurant could be forced to close. Our classmate, a tour guide, gives his last tour for the foreseeable future. Another classmate carries her potted plant home as her workplace closes. And you know sh**’s getting real when people are bringing their office plants home. There are also fears that Edinburgh might close its airport.
And like what had happened in Singapore, our supermarket has been wiped clean. The first to go? Fruits and vegetables, carbs, and surprisingly, beer. The only fresh produce we find is a bag of brussels sprouts. I now have a damn good recipe for char kway teow with brussels sprouts, DM me if you’re interested.
They say in a crisis you choose either fight or flight; for us it’s yelling “F***, what??” while staring at the TV/our phones/each other. Because by the next morning, news is coming in fast and furious that both Singapore and the UK are implementing stricter measures to curb the spread. We seriously worry that London and its airports could be locked down, preventing us from flying back.
Anxious messages from home are also flooding in, asking if we can come back sooner. After being put on hold by our airline for an hour, we give up trying to change our flight and, instead, buy a new ticket for three days later. We console ourselves with the thought that it costs as much to spend a week in London, which we had planned to do. (Yeah, no. The only thing more expensive than spending a week in London is trying to leave London within a week.)
Scared like sh**
The next two days are a manic blur of packing. We dash out for last-minute gifts. Royal Mile, a popular tourist area, is empty. A shopkeeper there tells us business is quiet save for students like us buying souvenirs before heading home. My friend gets a haircut in preparation for his SHN. #bigbrain
Finally, dragging almost 40kg of luggage each, with hand sanitiser in pocket and surgical mask over face, we make it to the airport. Someone rocks up with four suitcases, rubber gloves, and a giant spray bottle of disinfectant. I stare in amazement, like sis, you can wash away my sins with that thing.
I should mention that virtually all food places, including coffee joints, are closed. This small inconvenience will be important later.
Now, all this while, I’m just running on the desperation to GTFO before borders are closed. But there are exactly three instances when I feel genuine fear:
The first is on my first plane ride from Edinburgh to London. I guess this comes from the deluge of Whatsapp messages warning us to wear our masks, wash and sanitise our hands, not touch our faces, stay away from people... every surface terrifies me and I feel like I’m walking into a nuclear fallout. Honestly though, the flight is uneventful. My friend sleeps while I have a mini-meltdown deciding between removing my mask to eat my sandwich and fainting from hunger. Paranoia is scary.
The second is when we discover that the booking for our flight to Singapore the next day has disappeared. We spend three-and-a-half hours queuing at the airline’s counter in Heathrow Airport and discover that our tickets were not issued, and we have to buy new tickets. At least there are seats. An elderly uncle behind me has spent the last seven hours being bumped around the different terminals after his flight was cancelled.
The third – and this is the worst one – is when we finally settle into our hotel after all this, and my friend turns to me and asks: “Can you feel my forehead? I don’t know if I have a fever.” @FJS$KS&%KJF#^* HALLOH BROTHER CAN YOU DON’T YOU GONNA GIVE ME DIARRHOEA COS I’M ABOUT TO SH** MY PANTS. Thankfully, six shots of espresso later, he is feeling better. And you thought coffee places closing wasn’t a big deal.
Not all is doom and gloom though. For instance, our airport hotel lets us checkout as late as we want, to suit our flight time. “In times like these, we help each other out wherever we can,” the concierge tells us.
Our flight is so uncharacteristically empty, that passengers have entire rows to themselves. Normally, I’d be only too happy to sprawl out across three seats. This time, though, I just gingerly wipe down my table and TV monitor, and keep my limbs close to myself. It’s a 12-hour trip and I’m kinda hungry, but all in-flight services have been stopped. So, besides the sandwich left on our seats before take-off, we’ll just have to wait some 10 hours before we get a hot meal.
When the plane lands and I look out and see the “Changi Airport” sign, I feel a mix of relief and disbelief, that we’d somehow successfully pulled off the last four days and we're finally home. I start to tear uncontrollably, until I remember that exiting a plane while red-eyed and sniffling is the worst thing to do right now.
I’m. Finally. Home.
SHN is damn sian. But just for these two weeks, I’m happy to stay home and not have to worry about rushing to get somewhere before time runs out.