"Hey, do you have any masks in the house?" my mom asked on one of our weekly calls.
"Yeah, I bought a box when I had a terrible cold last year, I still have most of the box."
"Well, pick up a box just in case, the next time you go to the pharmacy, ok?"
I didn't dare to tell her, then, that by February there were neither surgical masks nor thermometers to be had for love or money.
The Singapore students' societies in the Boston area (and elsewhere too, but I'm only on the mailing lists of places I could get to for free food) were sending out surveys on behalf of the Overseas Singaporeans Network, worded in the most neutral way: hey, we want to know how many students there are in the area, send this out to the students on your list ok?
The gears of government were quietly turning. More obvious were the regular updates that came, first via the SGN mailing list, and then locally through a chat group of Singaporeans in the Boston area that SGN officers had also joined.
Grocery shopping as quest
I stepped into a Whole Foods and had to pause to take a breath.
Imagine it is the day before Chinese New Year at Chinatown. The day before Hari Raya Puasa at Geylang Serai. The day before Deepavali at Little India. All rolled together.
How does a supermarket run out of onions?
What's going on that, according to a sales associate, they had made more money in the previous three days than they would have over the usual Thanksgiving rush?
This was the number of non-travellers at Logan International Airport that I counted wearing masks when I flew out. Granted, medical professionals were running short themselves (a freecycle group I was in had someone in a teaching hospital ask for donations of something, anything. This was a teaching hospital. In Boston. Where the sickest people in the Northeast would be sent. And we couldn't look after our carers.) but given the volume of people staff would come into contact with every day, even given the cancelled flights, surely these people were as high-risk as anyone who didn't work in a medical setting.
That's the number of steps (not counting the actual soaping up and wiping down the faucet) recommended for effective handwashing: interlacing fingers, brushing down the knuckles, doing a quick rub down the wrist.
I remember sitting in the classroom after signing up for Healthcare Corps, learning to wash my hands as part of basic PPE training. I remember feeling that I had absolutely no idea how to do it properly - surely it is a skill that competent adults should have? - and thinking that oh, this is why in Atul Gawande's book "Better" the first essay is on washing hands; people really don't wash their hands as well as they need to.
Donning and doffing
The technical terms for putting on and taking off protective gear makes it sound like we're gentlefolk taking our evening constitutionals around the park, greeting other gentlepeople.
We aren’t, of course. That yellow (or blue, or white, or whatever) gown stands between us being available to provide care, and becoming disease vectors ourselves. This was why Healthcare Corps' PPE training was not just an online module, but numerous (probably, not enough) times of practicing to hold the ties of one's gown off the ground, of remembering the correct way to cup one's N95 mask, of not flicking our gloves when we take them off.
It's still a wonder for me to realise that there were enough sets of PPE that the government could train people who might not even get activated. The set of PPE hanging behind my bedroom door for me to practice is not a toy. When deployed to support swabbing operations, I get a fresh set every shift. Some hospitals in the US still practice rationing of N95 masks. A friend who was cared for at the NCID observed how nurses and doctors would doff and don every time they entered his room to care for him. Imagine how many sets of PPE that involves, just to care for one person?
Let that sink in: how much counting had to take place so we can do that. What counts. Who counts.
Chew Lin recently graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a Master of Divinity degree; her three years there were an opportunity to learn more about how faith and values support human flourishing. On returning from Boston, she was part of Healthcare Corps providing admin support for swab operations. Her time there has introduced her to the many people, foreign and local, who keep Singapore running. Chew Lin is now a pastoral counsellor in a local hospice.