Pandemic diaries: Letters, videos and illustrated poetry from migrant workers

SINGAPORE – A coronavirus patient spends 60 days isolated in hospital; entrepreneurs struggle with the loss of business; overseas Singaporeans are forced to return home abruptly; families celebrate a quiet Hari Raya Puasa.

These are some accounts of the tumultuous past half a year, documented by people who wrote letters addressed to the coronavirus as part of a memory project, Dear Covid-19.

It is one of at least four memory projects that have emerged over the past two months. A combination of government and ground-up initiatives, these projects share a common goal – documenting the day-to-day experience of ordinary folk while the country battled coronavirus.

“A lot has been said about front-liners and while it is great that we celebrate them, we wanted to create something that would be relatable to the rest of Singapore which is stuck at home,” says Mr Matthew Zeng, managing director of integrated marketing agency DSTNCT, which conceptualised Dear Covid-19 in partnership with the National Youth Council of Singapore.

The project was launched in May with an initial pool of about 100 stories, accompanied by photos from virtual shoots by local studio Pixioo.

Some feature recognisable faces, such as actress Cheryl Wee, who wrote about caring for her two young children under the circuit breaker, and influencer Christabel Chua (known as @bellywellyjelly on Instagram), who learnt to cook new dishes from her helper. About 400 more stories have been submitted.

GRATITUDE DIARIES

Browsing the letters, a common thread emerges. Many lament the difficult times, yet also express gratitude and positivity.

Events planner Aakarshana Saravanan, 31, whose job scope has shifted to overseeing a temporary dormitory for foreign workers, was initially disappointed that she did not get to work from home and spend time with her family during the two-month circuit breaker period.

She and her husband, a 39-year-old pilot, were also forced to postpone their long-awaited honeymoon, which they had been looking forward to since getting married six years ago.​

But writing the letter to Covid-19 helped put things into perspective.

“It was a chance for me to reflect and be grateful that I still have a job – to focus on the good instead of whining about small problems,” says the mother of two sons, aged four and 1½.


Mrs Aakarshana Saravanan penned a letter addressed to the coronavirus as part of memory project Dear Covid-19, reflecting on what she was grateful for. 
PHOTO: PIXIOO FOR DEAR COVID-19

Dr Shawn Ee, director of The Psychology Practice, says expressing negative emotions offers a form of catharsis. It is a way to cope with grief, or loss of reality, that can arise from the unlikely circumstances.

“Being able to rant at or communicate about Covid-19 allows people to retrieve some sense of control in an uncertain situation,” says Dr Ee, who is also a clinical psychologist and psychoanalytic therapist.

Indeed, freelance musician Joie Tan, 25, was left angry and helpless when her boyfriend Charlie Triano and his father, both from Delaware, United States, contracted the coronavirus in March.

Her boyfriend, 24, who is awaiting university and had been staying home for months, caught the virus from his father. The elder Mr Triano had been infected by a colleague who had gone to work even though his wife was awaiting test results, and later tested positive.

“I was furious. Livid. I was angry at the situation, for Charlie, and because of one man’s stupid mistake that could have been avoided,” says Ms Tan.

She adds that instead of being hospitalised, her boyfriend was told to stay home and treat his symptoms.

“I wished he was here in Singapore, so at least he would be taken care of,” she says. The couple, who met online, have been in a long-distance relationship for 3½ years.

Yet she, too, came to see the light in the situation.

“We have it so good in Singapore,” she wrote in her letter, contrasting the care and testing that patients receive here to that in the United States.

MIXED MEDIA


Edward Teo is putting together SG Interrupted, a visual journal of things people miss and lessons they have learnt under the circuit breaker. PHOTO: EDWARD TEO

For those who do not fancy picking up a pen, there are other ways to tell one’s story.

A joint collection drive by the National Library Board (NLB) and the National Museum of Singapore is underway until the end of the year, collecting personal perspectives and key objects to present a picture of living with the coronavirus in Singapore.

NLB is looking for videos, audio recordings, photographs, flyers, posters, blogs, journals and diaries, while the museum is collecting images of objects and their accompanying stories. These might include household items, hand-sewn masks and SafeEntry posters.

The items will augment official sources such as websites and television broadcasts to provide a more personal aspect of the experience, and may feature in future exhibitions presented by the National Museum.

Meanwhile, content writer Mr Edward Teo, 31, and his colleagues at advertising agency Tribal Worldwide, are putting together a visual journal of things people miss and lessons they have learnt under the circuit breaker.


Edward Teo (top right) and his colleagues at advertising agency Tribal Worldwide are putting together a visual journal of things people miss and lessons they have learnt under the circuit breaker. PHOTO: EDWARD TEO

Titled SG Interrupted (@sg.interrupted on Instagram), the project is tailored to the social media generation, with minute-long videos and a square format for mobile viewing. Five videos have been uploaded since the project was launched this month.

In one video, cinematographer Basil Tan says staying home has made him ruminate on why he chose to work in visual media over music composition, both of which he is passionate about.

“I miss going with the flow and not having to examine the career choices I’ve made,” says the 28-year-old.

Mr Teo, a former Straits Times video journalist, guides contributors to shoot footage and a voice-over, which he edits.

He is looking to capture more “raw and honest” stories and says upcoming videos will explore mental health issues, addiction and perspectives of migrant workers here.

“I want to get more representative views from people across Singapore,” he adds.

MIGRANT VOICES


Joy Ho is one of five artists who illustrated poems written by migrant workers, with the goal of amplifying their voices. PHOTO: JOY HO

Migrant workers, once invisible to many, have been thrust into the spotlight by Singapore’s Covid-19 battle.

Working with non-profit organisations, five artists came together to illustrate poems written by migrant workers (migrantstories.online), hoping to help their words reach a wider audience.

Illustrator Joy Ho, who came up with the idea, was inspired by a poem, The Death Of Wishes, by construction safety supervisor Md Sharif Uddin.

“I want to go to Mustafa minimart and eat two plates of briyani at Fakhruddin, chat on the fourth floor of City Square. Kissing hot tea and blowing smoke… But wishes are lost in the city, all desires are blocked by four walls,” wrote Mr Md Sharif in Bengali.

The 42-year-old is also the author of Stranger To Myself, a collection of poems and diary entries published locally by Landmark Books in 2017.


Artist Joy Ho’s illustration of The Death of Wishes, a poem by construction safety supervisor Md Sharif Uddin. PHOTO: JOY HO

Mr Md Sharif, who lives in a dormitory in the west, writes poems and snippets of prose every day to pass the time. The father of a 10-year-old son left Bangladesh to work in Singapore 12 years ago and often writes about the sacrifices of his countrymen.

“Maybe the people who live here don’t know about our feelings and memories,” says Mr Md Sharif, who hopes his work will help them understand the migrant community better.

For Ms Ho, 26, reading the poem brought to life what migrant workers have experienced over the past few months.

“There was a lot of help for migrant workers, but not a lot of their voices. Beyond the data, I saw the soul of this one person expressing what was going on,” she says.

Other poems, written in Mandarin, Tamil and English, represent different facets of the migrant worker community, such as Filipino domestic helper Shy Lhen Esposo’s account of learning to cook new dishes and tending to her employers’ pets and garden.

Ms Ho hopes to feature one more batch of poems and illustrations to follow up on the post-Covid situation, pointing out that even after the pandemic abates, other concerns, such as late salary payments, persist.

She says: “There is a responsibility that we can’t end the conversation after Covid. If we want to document migrant worker stories, this is just the beginning.”

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