By Faith Ho Enki (22A01A)
A fully vaccinated household contracts Covid. Here’s what happens.
Thursday, past nine. My brother stands outside my room, slightly over a meter away, holding up a thermometer. “Jie (Chinese name for older sister), I have a fever. But I can still taste and smell, so I probably don’t have Covid.”
Past ten, I hear two knocks on the door and my mother’s muffled voice from the other side. “Your brother has Covid.”
I walk out, feeling a bit like I’m in a dream. My parents are seated at separate sides of the dining table, both wearing N95 masks. I take the proffered antigen rapid test (ART), and for the first (but not last) time stick a swab up my nose. I slip the N95 that’s lying on the table over my head. It’s almost surreal; we were just here a few hours ago laughing and talking over dinner, and now we are spaced apart, breathing hoarsely into our masks like budget Darth Vaders.
Truthfully, it never crossed my mind that my family would have a Covid case—it was always something that happened to other people.
“We’re taking him to take the PCR test tomorrow; otherwise, he’ll be isolated in his room.” I nod, “Is he okay?”
“Just a mild fever, he’s in his room, don’t go there.”
My entire family is fully vaccinated, and my dad had even received the booster shot a few days prior. The majority of vaccinated people are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms when they contract Covid-19, and in Singapore, 98% of people have little or no symptoms. Even so, there was still fear lingering in the back of my mind – there are always exceptions.
Even after this whole episode, we still never found out how he got infected, as none of his friends tested positive. Covid-19 can happen to anyone who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
His room is right next to mine, and I steal a peek in from a safe meter-and-a-half away. He’s huddled under his blanket, calling his friends. “I have Covid,” he tells them. He sounds almost disbelieving as he holds up the two lines of his ART test to the screen. I give him a small wave.
That night is a flurry of texts to friends, all capital letters: MY BROTHER HAS COVID. MY BROTHER HAS COVID. MY BROTHER HAS COVID. Like a broken record. I text my CT that I won’t be coming to school on Friday. I text a friend whose family also contracted Covid-19, “My turn :/”. Concern and queries pour in: Oh no, please take care… What’s going to happen now?
I don’t know.
Arrangements are made the next day. We all quarantine ourselves at home, poring over the government guidelines. My parents are arguing over whether it is “Day 0” or “Day 1”, and if we can go out if we test negative on the ART (yes, but only the next day – Day 1). We follow the Home Recovery Programme, which has just recently become the default care arrangement for (almost) everyone.
My brother’s ART uncooperatively reflected a positive response again – and so did the PCR test he later took. (Is some negativity really that hard?) We agree that he should self-isolate in his room, and we put food or any items he needs on a table outside.
In the morning, I trawl the internet about living with Covid-19, and gain new gratitude for my privilege. Dad’s job allows him to work from home, so this new arrangement won’t affect his job. My brother has his own room, so he can quarantine himself in it. We have two toilets, so he can use a separate one. We’re able to order food or groceries in, or have friends and relatives willing to deliver. And we’re all vaccinated and relatively healthy.
In the afternoon, I have to remind myself of this as I clean every square inch of the house with Mum, faces sweaty behind N95 masks. We vacuum, mop, dust, scrub and wipe down what feels like every tiny crevice. I regret not Marie Kondo-ing the house before; how is it possible that one apartment can have so many corners, and so many random items? (It is also my first time sanitising a tissue box.)
We survey our efforts afterwards, collapsing into chairs. “Well,” Mum remarks, glancing at my brother’s room, “At least he won’t have to get the booster shot now.”
Living with Covid, I learn, is finding laughter in the small things.
Days 2 – 3
It is possibly one of the quietest weekends I’ve had.
Normally my brother comes by my room every five minutes if he isn’t caught up in some YouTube rabbit hole, but now it’s just silence, and I find myself missing his supremely (okay, slightly) irritating presence. It’s rather strange, because he is next door, and yet it feels like we are a world apart.
At night, we call over Discord. He tells me about his friend who was unable to get vaccinated due to allergies, and how he intended to get Covid-19 in order to obtain a “natural vaccine”. He says this very earnestly.
I pause for a second. “That makes so much sense,” I deadpan. He doesn’t catch it, and responds, “I know, right?” Then something about my expression makes him pause for a second, and when the ludicrousness of the proposal hits him, we burst out laughing, static-sounding over the shaky connection. Covid makes us all go a little crazy.
Moments later, the WiFi goes down, and I find myself more than a little frustrated.
According to MOH, I’m supposed to receive my Health Risk Warning, but it doesn’t come all through the weekend. My mum is frustrated, calling them up without any response. Eventually, we give up. We turn to thorny ethical ponderings, a by-product of the relatively flexible guidelines for home recovery. Yes, we could technically go out if we tested negative in our daily ART, but what was the responsible thing to do? What if one of us had Covid and it was just incubating inside us? (On average, it takes 5–6 days from when someone is infected with the virus for symptoms to show.)
Eventually, I decided to go back to school on Monday, if only to get my Promo results back. I text my seatmates to gauge if they’re comfortable with me going back, and resign myself to staying in my corner (one of those occasions I’m grateful for my introversion). My CT texts me the instructions – take the ART test, fill in a form with my ART results – which I dutifully carry out. It’s my new 6am healthy morning routine: forget skincare and avocado toast, just poke a stick up your nose.
Then on Monday night, still processing my Promo results, Dad knocks on my door. I open it, looking at a familiar scene: serious faces, N95 masks, seated apart.
“Your mum has Covid,” Dad says. I inch towards the seat at the corner.
This time, it comes as less of a shock and more of something I’m resigned to.
We sit around the table and discuss – should we move out? Stay? That night, my dad sleeps on the couch, and I lie awake at night, feeling guilty for going to school even though I tested negative.
“Well,” I think when I drift drowsily into sleep, “That’s a plot twist.”
Days 5 – 12
The next day we reconvene. We decide to stay because there’s a chance one of us has Covid, and we don’t want to bring it with us if we move out. That also means we have to minimise contact between the two of us. Thus, the complicated living arrangements begin (especially due to the usage of toilets). As Dad explains it, “My wife moved to my daughter’s room, she moved to our room, my son stays in his room, and I stay on the couch.”
In half an hour I have packed up my life for the next week into a few messy piles. The rest of the morning is spent in a cleaning frenzy once again: round 2 of my war against Covid-19, armed with my battle supplies.
For a week, I’m suddenly thrust into the role of household manager, and I have never wanted to go back to being a child again as much as I did then. Suddenly I realise how much work goes into keeping the house running: there are clothes to wash, hang out, fold, and iron; food to clear; surfaces to wipe; floors to vacuum and mop; toilets to wash. Mess accumulates constantly, as if items just move around of their own accord. Then there are plants to water, newspapers to take, food to collect. As the day extends, I gain manifold appreciation for Mum’s everyday work.
Adulting is hard.
Some of Dad’s friends send over fruit. As I chop up the fruits, soft fur rubs against my ankle. It’s my rabbit. “Fine,” I mutter and cut a tiny piece of carrot from the fridge, kneeling down and feeding it to him. As I stroke his fur, his small body pressing against my leg, I realise that this is probably the only physical contact I will have with another living being in a while.
By the fourth day of “adulting”, I still haven’t burnt down the house—a win in my book. We eat dinners mostly apart, with Dad busy with work calls, Mum and my brother locked away in their rooms. There’s a particular sort of loneliness in eating alone, with the knowledge that your family is doing the same, only a few meters away behind doors.
I play Christmas music, an ironic juxtaposition to the mood.
Thursday is the first time I step out of the house in a while to buy groceries, and though I know I’ve tested negative on the ART for many days, a sense of worry and guilt stays with me. I cook pasta for dinner, a reprieve from the parade of assorted dabao foods. Though possibly of dubious quality, no one’s calling 995. There’s even a (possibly perfunctory) “yum”. Another win!
Mum opens the door and says (from a safe distance, masked), “You’re my favourite daughter, you know.”
“I’m your only daughter,” I respond.
Despite my hermit tendencies, I find myself missing school. The feeling of FOMO hit so much harder when I was the only one at home, and the fact that I was missing school at this critical time when everyone was doing literally nothing in school was especially painful. Why couldn’t I have been quarantined when going to school meant actually having to use my brain?
There are little joys, however. I am grateful to have the means to order in for most of our meals, and occasionally someone drops by with food. My friends send over bread just as I’m worrying about how to settle breakfast. People text to check in with how my family’s been. Teachers let me video call in for classes. We make little sacrifices for each other: Dad sleeping on the couch, Mum sending encouraging messages over text and ordering the meals, my brother helping to mop when he finally tests negative (albeit with bleach… never trust 14-year-old TikTok-obsessed boys. Though he did re-mop it afterwards). After some time Dad’s work crisis abates and he joins me for some meals; we call Mum and my brother over WhatsApp for good ol’ family (virtual) dinners.
I also gain a newfound empathy for others also stuck somewhere, unable to be physically near friends and family. I never realised how important my family was to me in getting through the various Covid-19 phases (lockdown, restrictions), until now. On a deeper level: that I have a family that can be that kind of support. And how much I craved just being physically near someone. Migrant workers in Singapore have been stuck in their dorms since April 2020, and while the pilot programme allows 500 to go out for recreation for around 6h, most are limited to only dorms and worksites. If my far less drastic experience already took a toll, what more that?
It is nearly ten days after Mum first got Covid, and while she’s still okay, her cough shows no signs of letting up, the virus refusing to relinquish its visitation rights.
Then she tells me that my aunt had Covid for five weeks.
I burst into uncontrollable, slightly hysterical laughter. My body shakes for three minutes and I face away from her, feeling her concerned gaze on me, but I can’t stop.
Thankfully, my fears are unfounded. Barely a day and a half later, my mum emerges from her room, saying “I think Covid is leaving!” The second line in her ART test is fading. We wait with bated breath the whole day, and I feel the agony of having something so close yet so out of reach.
Mum is finally negative the next day, and she disinfects my entire room and I tidy the rest of the house in preparation for her return. I grab my stuff, eager for my return to my own space.
It almost feels like a miracle that I can stand close enough to her to smell the comforting scent of her shampoo when she comes out from the bath, clean and Covid-free. She holds out her arms, and I hug her tightly, marvelling at the simple joy of human touch again. My brother walks by and joins in on the group hug. For a moment there is silence, just the sensation of warmth and sound of our slow, steady breathing.
“Welcome back,” I say.