State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


The COVID-19 Pandemic at Age 31 Versus 67

Communicating science to the public is not always easy. It requires a different set of skills than those generally used to address the scientific community. Claudia Dreifus, lecturer in the Master of Science in Sustainability Management and an adjunct professor of International Affairs and Media, shares these skills in her class Writing Global Science for International Media. The course invites students to produce different stories that address global science topics in a more personal and relatable way for the non-scientific public.

Dreifus believes that it is important to “learn how to translate global science.” “Science is performed by passionate individuals who use their intelligence and determination to seek answers from nature,” she says. “By telling their stories […], we believe that there are ways for science to be successfully communicated to readers who might otherwise fear it.”

Below is the work of one of Dreifus’s spring 2020 students, Rina Phua. Rina is a student in the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program.

* * *

In the wee hours of March 17, I was roused awake by my phone buzzing insistently on the nightstand.

When I moved to New York for graduate school, I rarely talked to my parents over the phone—the 12-hour time difference between New York and Singapore meant never finding mutually compatible times to talk. We communicated through messages instead. They liked to forward videos and articles circulating in group chats with their peers. I tended to respond with an “OK” or “thumbs up” symbol without opening the files. Whatever they wanted to talk about that morning had better be more important than the usual forwarded content.

“Ma, it’s 5 am!” I snapped.

thangka is a richly colored Tibetan painting on fabric. This one was gifted by a monk I met while hiking in Bhutan.

“Did you see the travel advisory from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?” my parents asked. Their cheeks and chins were crowded on the screen. Like many boomers, they have not quite gotten the idea of holding the phone away from their ears during a video call. When COVID-19 broke out across the world, uncles and aunties—as men and women of their generation are known in Southeast Asia—took to sharing virus prevention hacks: “100% true, place a cut onion in your room to absorb contaminated air.” Tips like these had spread widely in my parents’ social media networks despite their questionable origins.

Here’s another gem: “recommended by a friend closely connected to a famous doctor, carry ginger slices in your pocket to kill germs!”

“Let’s see, uh, Singapore…Ministry…Foreign Affairs…Advisory,” I read the search terms aloud for them to hear as I typed. The press statement issued by the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated in bold on its first paragraph: “Given the evolving COVID-19 situation and rapid increase of COVID-19 cases around the globe, we encourage Singaporean students studying overseas to consider returning home soon.”

As a former consular officer from the very same department that issued this statement, the text surprised me. When I used to draft travel advisories, my go-to verbiage was “exercise caution” and “defer non-essential travel.” These worked for everything from earthquakes to terror attacks to large-scale strikes. It never got to the point of actively encouraging people to move away from a location.

Wow. Was this new, urgent tone the brainchild of an overzealous bureaucrat? Things might have changed since I left the foreign service to pursue a degree in Sustainability Management at Columbia University. I thought I had a good plan: at the end of three semesters, I would toss a Columbia-blue mortarboard into the air and magically evolve from civil servant to environmentally conscious professional. Then I would build a fulfilling career anywhere but in Singapore. To friends, I complained that my country was “too sterile.” It “limited my worldview.”

The unconventional but forceful message prompted my usually restrained parents to venture, “Is everything okay in New York? What do you think about coming home?”

That morning in March, my main preoccupation was a month-long assignment for a life cycle assessment class. I felt prepared for a siege if COVID-19 forced New York into lockdown. The fridge was stocked; there was 30-roll pack of toilet paper in the hall closet; assignments and tests, though online, would keep me busy till mid-May. “I’ll think about it, but don’t worry, I’m fine!” was how that rare phone conversation ended.

I was not going to think too hard about the proposition. Going home meant deviating from the path I set myself on.

My insistence crumbled just hours later because of Dianne, my housemate and first friend in New York City. Our apartment is located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a 15-minute walk to the Columbia Morningside campus. She had sublet her spare room to a succession of female graduate students for the past three years and was looking for another after my predecessor moved to Pittsburgh for a PhD program. In my application for the coveted room, I offered to feed and clean up after her two cats and knew instantly I was a shoo-in. Cat lovers are a tribe.

Unlike my other inter-generational relationships, there was no power dynamic between Dianne and I. She never differentiated between leaseholder and sublessee, New Yorker and foreigner, elder and younger. We interacted as friends and baked often for each other. She had a dog-eared copy of Betty Crocker’s cookbook, circa 1970, which she used for a scrumptious blueberry muffin. In return, I made pandan chiffon cakes from a recipe on my iPhone. Dianne liked this fluffy snack that was my tea-time favorite growing up. And as promised, I fed her adopted cats, Scout and Misha, on time every night.

Dianne had been working from home since March 12, when New York State governor Andrew Cuomo ordered a stop to all Broadway shows. Her job selling blocks of theater tickets to businesses changed radically. Whereas she used to talk about plots, music and sets, after COVID-19 hit New York, conversations with her had been all about cancelations and refunds.

We had developed a routine of watching the politicians’ daily coronavirus briefings together before heading to our respective desks and tasks for the day. That day, as the governor spoke about intensive care unit capacities, Dianne piped up, “I’m not sure if this is good enough. Look at Italy, there aren’t enough hospital beds, and doctors are having to decide who gets to live or die. That’s a real concern when you’re 67 years old.”

“You don’t look 67 at all,” I responded weakly. Awkward. Thirty-one years old but unable to carry a conversation. I had not realized that my friend is the same age as my father.

That morning on March 17, there were 664 confirmed cases in New York City. It seemed improbable that either of us would be infected in this great big city of 18 million. We had been hunkered in the apartment for at least a week since school and work moved online. While we were both nursing slight coughs and runny noses, these were attributed to hay fever. New York was transitioning into spring and pollen was plenty in the air. Besides, it was simply impossible to eliminate cat fur from this apartment. That was known to cause nose and throat irritation, too.

One COVID-19 statistic separated Dianne and me—the fatality rate increases with age. Put bluntly, Worldometer, a data and statistics website, estimated that Dianne is 18 times more likely to die from the coronavirus than I am. What if our coughs and sniffles were caused by something more insidious than pollen and cat fur?

I had been sure about staying just hours before. No longer. When she entered my line of sight, I held my breath. Better safe than sorry.

On March 22, following an announcement that Singapore Airlines would ground 96 percent of its fleet, I called the airline and learned to my dismay that the New York-Singapore route was on the chopping block. They would not operate any more direct flights out of New York after March 24. The airline personnel on the phone asked, “Would you like to book a ticket for the last Newark to Singapore flight?” Without knowing exactly why, I said, “Yes, please.”

Suddenly, my life in New York was faced with a deadline. In a single day, I did a load of laundry; packed; discussed the terms of terminating my sublease; requested extensions on assignments, and ate as much kimchi as possible since Dianne was unlikely to eat any left in the fridge. To use up a two-week old tray of eggs, we baked another pandan chiffon cake together. We connected her laptop to a bigger monitor so she would not have to hunch over a small screen as she worked. She let me do whatever I deemed fit. It was probably more cathartic for me than relieving for her. Then I put on a surgical face mask and headed for the airport.

For most of the 18-hour flight home, I prepared myself to confront arguably the most important boomers in my life, my parents, whom I had not lived with for the past 5 years. Over and over, I rehearsed my spiel, vacillating between diverse and conflicting feelings. I was both determined and reluctant to remain outside their sphere of care and control.

Determined, since I had become used to the autonomy of living abroad on my own terms. Reluctant, because the virus made me realize that they, like Dianne, were aging and vulnerable. The best I could muster was, “Leave me alone, it’s for your own good.”

It was a fine line to tread between sounding unfilial to the man and woman who raised me and being excessively soppy. We were pragmatic people. Displays of emotion were so rare, my parents’ stiff upper lips never wavered even at my elder sister’s wedding. I decided to err on the side of ungrateful because stoicism was valued over emotion in this household.

The flight touched down at Singapore Changi International Airport, to palpable relief in the cabin. Masked faces emerged from 161 seats, eager to exit the artificial atmosphere that we had shared for the past 18 hours. A text message pinged in the family group chat as the plane taxied to its assigned gate. My parents and elder sister were tracking the flight. The message from Ruth, my sister, read, “Text us when you get your bags.”

Alas, I never got to the baggage carousel. An attending doctor noted that I had checked the cough box and recorded a slight fever on the mandatory health declaration forms. “We want to be very sure even if it is a very slight cough, so you’ll have to go to the hospital for further checks. If no problems are detected, you will be released your place of residence to serve a Stay-Home Notice for 14 days,” the doctor explained, scribbling his comments on a document.

Spotting the words “suspected case,” my thoughts shot to the communal dinners my parents had insisted on for years. At close quarters, everyone picking at stir-fried dishes, soup and rice from the same plates and pots. If I had the virus, the entire family would be infected before we adjourned to the sofa for the evening news.

A health ministry official marshaled me to a single plastic chair in the far corner of the arrival hall, where I was to wait for the next ambulance bound for National Center for Infectious Diseases (NCID).  With no one else around to consult, I turned to him. “My parents are elderly and I don’t think it’s a good idea to go home now. Can I wait at NCID till I sort out my living arrangements?”

He seemed to read my jumbled thoughts. “I’m sure your parents are eager to see you so it may not be easy to tell them this. But their utmost concern is probably knowing that you’re safe. Why don’t you consider serving your Stay-Home Notice in a hotel? Many of them are offering preferential rates now.” This stranger was an empath and a genius, I thought. A hotel was a neat solution. It eliminated my parents’ exposure to any viral risks (even if suspect) while affording autonomy to myself and some degree of control to them.

From my lonely seat, I dialed my father for the first time in five years. With a clear set of talking points, it turned out to be a straightforward call. “Pa, can I serve the Stay-Home Notice in a hotel? A doctor classified me as a suspected case because of a cough. I have to go to the hospital for some tests, but don’t think we should be in close contact.”

There was a pause on the other end as he gathered his thoughts. “Because we’re senior citizens?” It was the first time my father identified himself as part of that segment of the population. “Yes,” I replied simply.

“Thank you, let us know when the test results come out,” he said and hung up. His admission of age had surprised me, but hearing “thank you” was utterly unprecedented. Parents were providers. It was the child’s filial duty to be thankful. I realized I did not want to be thanked, for that suggested a diminishing of their parental responsibilities, and by extension, our kinship.

At the end of 14 days of isolation in a hotel room, Singapore was two days into a state of semi-lockdown which the authorities termed “Circuit Breaker.” Starting April 7, the public was advised to stay home and avoid interactions with anyone other than immediate family members living in the same household. I came home to an empty apartment that weekday afternoon. It was my sister and her husband who handled the transit. My parents were at work. They run a small business distributing goods which include surgical masks, gloves, and disinfectants. Based on these products in their stockroom, they are allowed to continue operations as an essential service.

Because classes in New York are still in session online, I am due to wake up at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m. for classes on some days. To prevent disruption to classes and a carefully calibrated sleep schedule developed in the hotel, I taped a note written in Chinese to my bedroom door: “If the door is locked, it means I am attending a class or asleep. Please do not knock.”

Truthfully, I wanted a way to face my parents only when I was ready. There is no graceful way to re-enter a shared space, having actively asserted my independence from them for as long as I could remember. When we finally speak frankly to one another, I will have to admit that my road map to life looks foolhardy. Worse, all of my bullish projections cumulate in the establishment of a career overseas. I had not planned for my life to intersect again with theirs. What gives me the right now to seek refuge in their house?

Then there is the matter of expressing different opinions. I do not approve of their continuing to work, given their age. The volume of goods moved by a small distribution business is inconsequential in the global supply chain of masks and hand sanitizers. It is not worth risking daily exposure to the coronavirus, even if they are careful to mask up each time they leave the house, and keep the mandated social distance of one meter. (They have no choice. At the time of writing, flouting any of these Circuit Breaker rules will invite a S$300 ($211 USD) fine. Repeat offenders are fined more than double that.)

My sister warned me not to impose what she called my “annoying Ivy League cleverness” on them. This is how our parents have lived for 40 years. These might be the last invoices they issue before the economic depression forces them to close down for good. How do we expect them to handle a loss in routine, purpose, and financial autonomy during a pandemic? I have no good answer.

Eventually, I approached them in the clumsiest manner possible. One morning as they were leaving for work, I signed out of the last virtual class for that day and rushed to the door. Keeping a meter’s distance, I regurgitated bits of corona-advice. “Be careful. Don’t stay out for too long. Change your masks regularly. I’ll lock the door behind you so don’t touch the doorknob.”

“We know what to do, go back to your lesson,” came their reply.

It felt absurd communicating like this with my own parents. Between them and Dianne, I find it much easier to communicate openly with my American friend. We have been texting and calling each other frequently since I left Manhattan. Once, during a video call, she brought her phone to the rooftop of our building at 7 p.m. so I could hear New York’s daily cheer for healthcare workers. She candidly revealed that she had been furloughed from work and had to apply for unemployment benefits. I commiserated.

With my parents, reminders to maintain a strict personal hygiene and social distancing came out sounding like accusations, as though they do not know better. I am frustrated that I cannot be forthcoming with them about my worries, but habits are difficult to change. Our interactions for 31 years have been built on proving to one another that there’s nothing to worry about.

My parents never knocked on my bedroom door, showing remarkable respect for the handwritten sign taped to it. A departure from their earlier “my house, my rules” mindset.

In nocturnal paces around the apartment, I am discovering how their concern and anxieties manifest, in their stiff upper lip ways. Full meals in the fridge, ready for reheating and labelled with a Post-it note bearing my name. A single ginger slice left out on the dining table. You know, just in case.

One night while setting up for a Zoom class, I noticed from my laptop screen a new addition to the living room wall behind me. Turning around, I saw that my parents had hung up a thangka, a richly colored Tibetan painting on fabric, gifted by a monk I met while hiking in Bhutan. “For protection,” he said simply, demonstrating how to draw the saffron-yellow cover apart, like curtains, to reveal the Buddhist meditation master Padmasambhava painted in resplendent red and green on the layer below. “When unveiled, the mind clears.” Commonly used as a meditational tool, I had regifted it to my parents. The thangka, which was rolled up and stored in a bookshelf, had been unfurled while I was stewing away in my own thoughts. For protection in these times of turmoil and clarity of thought through our internal struggles.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. Visit our website to learn more.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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