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A pandemic virtual reality

As Covid-19 sees many go online to learn and communicate, The Straits Times captures some of their experiences.

The year 2020 will forever be remembered as the year of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has left its mark on nearly every corner of the globe.

Life changed as people grew accustomed to wearing masks in public and keeping their distance.

Years-long digital transformation road maps were compressed into days and weeks to keep up with changing new norms.

The pandemic accelerated digitisation among small businesses such as hawkers and retailers - who realised they had to get online to stay afloat during the circuit breaker - as an invisible bug changed how people around the world shopped, ate and entertained themselves.

Through portraits using visual projections, The Straits Times looks at how different people in the community have had their lives changed as they explored online alternatives for learning and communicating.


MR FAZLEY ELAHI RUBEL, 30

A Bangladeshi worker who has been in Singapore for 11 years

Mr Fazley Elahi Rubel started the annual Migrant Cultural Show in 2018, bringing together migrant workers from India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines to perform for locals and their peers.

In pre-Covid-19 days, meetings and rehearsals would be held at places such as the Sing Lit Station in Dickson Road.

This year, the show on June 21 was held virtually for the first time, and featured about 15 performances over 11/2 hours.

They included song, dance, poetry and drama in solo and duo pieces that were broadcast on Facebook. Rehearsals were done via Zoom and participants were not able to put up group performances.

Mr Rubel is a safety coordinator for a construction project.

"It has been tough for the migrant worker community, not able to work, not able to go out," said Mr Rubel, who stays at his work site in Orchard.

"One of the Bangladeshi workers who was supposed to perform a dance was not able to participate because he was quarantined in an isolation facility and didn't have enough space to dance."

Mr Rubel hopes to continue promoting cross-cultural understanding between Singaporeans and transient workers.

He is collaborating with independent content creators and artists to produce an upcoming show, Embrace, which combines performances between local artists and migrant workers.

It will be posted online on Nov 6.

MR FAIZ AMAN, 33

Freelance group fitness instructor

"Covid-19 affected me financially. I struggled with a huge financial loss due to the closure of the studios, and coaches like myself or personal trainers who are self-employed were unable to continue with our daily jobs and assignments,"said Mr Faiz Aman.

The fitness instructor has been conducting virtual classes via Zoom ever since the circuit breaker - which ended in June - was implemented. Through the virtual lessons, he has been able to connect to friends outside Singapore and has students from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the United States taking part in the online sessions.

Mr Faiz is glad different organisations like People's Association are taking steps to resume classes again at physical studios, with safety measures followed strictly. They have even introduced a new approach - students get to attend the classes at the physical studios as well as from home through an online platform.

The toughest part of the pandemic for him is not being able to be there physically with his students.

"Although conducting virtual lessons from home can be really convenient, the vibe that you are getting is still different compared with what you get when you take classes with your friends and kaki at the physical studios."

MR RICHARDO CHUA, 38

Group managing director of Adrenalin Group, an event management company that champions an inclusive workplace

"Ten years of hard work and heart work almost wiped out in 10 days. Covid-19 has decimated the events industry," said Mr Richardo Chua.

For Adrenalin, that meant its best start of the year ever in terms of forward sales turned into cancellations of almost 30 contracts in two weeks. It went from growth and excitement to cuts and distress.

On defence, it had to find creative ways to save costs and on offence, it had to find innovative new ways of bringing in revenue.

"So our Online X Hybrid strategy was born, an idea not from me but from multiple members of the team. We launched our own Facebook show, called the Good People Show, to give us the much-needed practice, to spread the word on our capabilities and to shine the spotlight on worthy causes during these dark days.

"Many teammates adjusted and transformed their roles and took the pay cuts in their stride. The unity of the team has seen us through the worst days so far."

MR JAMALUDIN OTHMAN, 70, AND HIS WIFE, MADAM RAHMAH ABDUL RAHIM, 69

Married for 45 years, the couple have two daughters and four grandsons.

Since retiring as a technician in 2018, Mr Jamaludin Othman has enjoyed meeting different groups of friends every weekend.

That came to a halt when the circuit breaker was announced.

"I was very stressed in the beginning because I could not meet up with my friends. I was stuck at home. It's like my world collapsed. Luckily my daughter taught me how to use video call, so I could call my friends," said Mr Jamaludin.

He also learnt how to use Zoom because the Arabic class he attends had to go online.

The family had to celebrate Hari Raya together over Zoom. Before the circuit breaker, their elder daughter, who is married with four sons, would visit every week.

Madam Rahmah, who is partially blind and has weak legs due to arthritis, said: "During the circuit breaker, we still got to see them through video calls, but it was not the same without hugs and kisses."

She also lamented the fact that they had to miss four important overseas weddings of friends due to travel restrictions.

SARAH ANG, 18

National weightlifter

Sarah Ang joined the sport last February and competes in the female 55kg weight class. Her goal is to qualify for the next SEA Games.

Before the pandemic, she trained five times a week after school at the Singapore Weightlifting Federation in Bedok.

Her father helped transport equipment - such as bars, plates, racks and crash pads - home so she could continue training during the circuit breaker under online supervision and feedback from her coach.

Her family joked that if she were to drop the bar while training at home, their apartment building might collapse.

Sarah took note.

She said: "At the training centre, I can just drop the bar. The real pain of training at home is the part where I have to put the weight down, because I'm very scared to drop the bar."

The Raffles Junior College student is still working out at home because she is preparing for the A-level examination next month.

She is glad she did not have to stop practice during the circuit breaker and was able to continue pursuing her sporting dreams.

MS GOH SHUET-LI, 56

Executive director of the non-profit Resilience Collective with part of her team

Resilience Collective (RC) helps people understand mental health as well as those who struggle with it through workshops, public events and peer support groups.

Ms Goh Shuet-Li said: "Our planned workshops and engagement events were immediately at risk of being aborted. Fortunately, the RC team's IT capabilities allowed for a relatively painless transition into the digital space.

"But it was challenging for some of our community. Not all had laptops - only mobile phones. Hence, it was not conducive for presentations and certainly near impossible to be interactive with digital tools."

Before the circuit breaker, the team's engagement sessions allowed eye-to-eye contact, and participants could observe body language and pick up on nuances.

When they had to move their programmes online, the team had to be creative and think of different ways of engagement, like using word-cloud tools and digital "emotional" responses such as the clap and thumbs-up emojis on Zoom.

The team worked to maintain emotional connections, which is key to peer support and recovery.

"The toughest part about the pandemic for us is knowing that some of our community just could not join. Some, even if they were capable, were not able to due to a lack of IT equipment or poor network connectivity. Others did not have conducive environments to allow for their participation," Ms Goh said.

PART OF THE TEAM FROM OBJECTIFS CENTRE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY AND FILM

Ms Aditi Shivaramakrishnan, 31, Ms Tiffany Nah, 27, Mr Lim Ming Rui, 33, Ms Emmeline Yong, 43, Ms Leong Pui Yee, 34, and Mr Ryan Chua, 42

The team at Objectifs had to adapt their programmes to a new normal of remote or smaller gatherings.

Centre director Emmeline Yong said: "Having to pivot to digital has ironically made us think more deeply about what it means to have a physical space - the impact we wish to make as an arts space, the connections with our communities, and the conversations with our audiences."

Going digital has offered new possibilities, but also shown them the limitations of online engagement.

Objectifs gained new audiences through online talks, raised nearly $60,000 for migrant workers affected by the Covid-19 lockdown through an online print sale, launched a digital short film library and amplified the works of artists in a weekly ObjectifsSupports showcase.

"However, all our physical workshops and programmes were cancelled or postponed, and this has affected us greatly financially.

"While our online efforts have been well received, they are often presented free. It has also been challenging to fund-raise as a non-profit arts organisation."

SIBLINGS EMMANUEL AND AMELIE POIGNANT, 9 AND 8

Emmanuel took taekwondo and piano lessons online during the circuit breaker, while Amelie had ballet and piano lessons online.

There was a lot less face-to-face interaction with teachers and friends, and their parents needed to find ways to occupy their time at home - by doing jigsaw puzzles as a family or playing Monopoly.

Their paternal family is in France, which means they have not seen them in nine months and do not know when they can see them again.

They have tried to engage their family in France more - by playing Hangman over WhatsApp, for example - but it is not the same. The family will probably spend the coming Christmas - usually a big event for them - apart for the first time.

Said the siblings' mother, Madam Eeleen Tan, who is Singaporean: "The children have learnt to become a lot more independent and outspoken.

"They have learnt to watch the clock for when it is time to do online lessons, and how to print out materials sent by teachers ahead of class.

"They have also learnt to give a summary to teachers of where they are at vis-a-vis previous class, as well as the difficulties they faced learning on their own."

MRS JAYASUTHA VIJAYA, 44

Tamil language teacher at Seng Kang Primary School

All schools moved to full home-based learning (HBL) on April 8, the day after the circuit breaker started. While a wholly remote experience is far from an ideal substitute for classroom learning, it allowed students to keep learning under the exceptional circumstances.

HBL comprised online and offline modes of learning.

Like many teachers, Mrs Jayasutha Vijaya had to explore innovative ways to keep her students engaged and connected with her.

Daily lessons were taught using PowerPoint Mix, with recorded lessons to simulate a classroom experience and interactive tools for students to communicate with her as well as each other.

HBL was hard in other ways for Mrs Vijaya, who has three children - one in secondary school and two in primary school. She had to juggle teaching with taking care of them, especially the youngest child.

To manage, she asked the older ones to help look after the youngest siblings. After lessons came family time, which was spent playing games or watching movies.

Her husband, who is an engineer and has to work on site, helped when he got home from work, so she could prepare her lessons for the next day.

MADAM SEE LIANG HAU, 85

85-year-old featured on Grandma's Kitchen, a Facebook live cooking series

As part of World Alzheimer's Month 2020, Apex Harmony Lodge is celebrating the lives of persons with dementia (PWD) by reminding people that PWD can still contribute when empowered in a positive environment.

As such, Apex is hosting Grandma' Kitchen - a Facebook live cooking series - which features Madam See Liang Hau, 85, an assisted living resident at Apex, and other residents as well. The series is aimed at portraying their strengths and hidden potential, while showcasing the importance and impact of facilitation, respecting the person in each PWD.

Having joined the Apex family after her dementia diagnosis in 2019, Madam See's openness to new experiences has helped her adjust well into life at the lodge. She remains highly independent and makes personal choices of her daily activities.

Her marriage into a Peranakan family has trained her well in different cooking techniques and recipes, which she vividly remembers till this day.

Like many other residents, Madam See enjoys helping with daily chores in her home including vegetable plucking and laundry folding.