Sunday, 12 April 2020

First SARS, now Covid?

The year was 2002.

The hubs and I were in our 20s and we started our own business as I wanted to help women who were facing weight issues. I was working as an Occupational Therapist in a slimming centre and was dismayed to see unprincipled practices and wanted to do better. I had big dreams.

Shortly after we opened, SARS struck.

It was a surreal time. The streets were deserted. One by one, F&B outlets around us started closing down. Nobody dared to come into contact with others.

We held on, but our business bled for months. We had zero customers and high overheads to pay. Slowly, the cases subsided and the customers started trickling back.

Soon it became inevitable that we had to shut down to prevent further losses. We gave our customers ample time to finish utilising their packages and closed on a clean note. They were so kind and tried to help our staff look for new jobs.

In an instant, our lives were shattered.

From dreams of a better life for our family and goals to do our part for society, we were penniless, jobless, faced with huge loans and 3 young children to raise.

We couldn't afford their preschool fees and transferred them to a church-based kindergarten. We stopped their enrichment classes like art, swimming and dance. We couldn't even afford to go out, let alone buy toys or have meals at restaurants. Our in-laws ensured that the freezer was stocked with basic food so that the children did not go hungry. Necessities like diapers, milk powder, shampoo had to be bought via credit and those amounts ballooned. Our parents had loaned us money to start the company and we could not ask for a cent more. We couldn't even tell them how bad things were because they would be worried sick.

It was a depressing time. The marriage almost didn't survive. We were yelling at each other constantly, figuring out how to save the business, and when the credit card companies harrass you daily, you are not in a stable state of mind.

Yet, you had to be strong. You couldn't break down in front of the kids because it was hard enough on them having to adjust to the situation where what was once normal had all been stripped away. Not even the comfort of going to the same school, having the company of their teachers and friends. No going out. No extras from the supermarket like snacks or ice cream.

You are emotionally depleted and too exhausted to do anything.

I can understand why people would be pushed to attempt suicide. Drowning under the weight of your worries and seeing no way out, some days you hit rock bottom and wish that all this suffering could just disappear.

I met a neighbour, an angel almost, and the comfort of having someone to talk to, who checked in on you daily, a person who cared, made all the difference.

It took us years to pick up the pieces.

You become resilient from experiences like these.

When Covid-19 hit, I was stunned. How could anyone be so unlucky?

I was so scarred by that first business that I never expected to start another.

Somehow, one thing led to another.

I met a speech pathologist who ran a programme I was extremely impressed with. We had dreams of building a generation of resilient children and helping families to understand and manage their children better.

We started from one room in her existing company, and by word of mouth, kept growing until we needed to expand to our own premise.

With our own space, we had high operational costs to bear, renovation loans to clear, rental, staff, marketing and many other costs. We worked hard with our dream team of educators who shared our vision.

Contrary to popular belief, not everyone starts a business with the purpose of making tons of money. Sometimes, it's a dream that propels you. And I know of many other small business owners who are just as passionate.

When news broke that all enrichment centres had to be suspended for at least a month, we reeled from the sudden notice.

The scary memories came flooding back.

After the shock, I managed to stay calm. This time around, I have not been crippled by the emotional turmoil or intense fear, possibly because I have gone through the whole trauma with SARS. I was able to adapt and adjust very quickly, to steer my team, and I kept my focus on spreading positivity and hope to others, and sharing practical ways to help them cope during this time.

A large part of being able to stay sane was because of the reassurance and financial aid given by our government.

The BIGGEST DIFFERENCE I'm witnessing with this pandemic is how much the government has stepped in to cushion the impact across the board, and just how MUCH reserves they have!

We are thankful that the government has thrown companies a lifeline by providing for 75% of local staff salaries and waiving foreign worker levies for the month of April.

But as business owners, we don't get any wage assistance. Not only have many of us stopped drawing any income from February when businesses first got hit, we have to top up the shortfall for operating costs and foreign worker salaries. It is indeed worrying times for SMEs and it will be a downward spiral for many, with closure and retrenchment of staff as this prolongs.

With the economic fallout, we will start to witness the psychological impact on individuals and families.

There are pockets of individuals who may not look like they need help, but they do. There would also be those who miss out on getting adequate help.

Check on your friends, keep an ear out for your neighbours. Mental health issues and domestic violence are on the rise. The elderly may be isolated and unable to get their necessities or meals. Not everyone has family, and many families are dysfunctional. People may be under such tremendous stress they are not behaving rationally.

If you yourself need someone to talk to, don't be afraid to open up to your friends. It's hard to think straight when the clock is ticking and you don't know how you are going to survive the next month. Give someone a call. It is not an embarrassment. It is courage. Even the strongest of us will buckle under the immense stress.

This situation has affected all of us. The difference is, to what extent?

When the rug is pulled from under your feet, you feel the pain. Your eyes start to be opened to another person hurting. If we can't have empathy, perhaps we can start with tolerance. Seek to understand, to console and to give a helping hand.

Let's spread hope, love and kindness, not negativity, fear or judgement.

We WILL get through this in the end.

But the true test of our communities is

HOW we got through this.

Will this pandemic bring out the best of humanity or shred it to pieces?


A Stay Home for Singapore portal has just been launched, where people can go to get help, give help, or stay connected. It has listings for counselling services, social services and more. An App called GoodHood has been created where you can offer or request help within your neighbourhood. Let's all stand up and be counted!


About MummyWee


Michelle is an Occupational Therapist by day and mum of 6 by night. Besides the already very demanding job of managing 5 teenagers and one 6-turning-16 tween, she is also Founder of The Little Executive, a nurturing centre to develop children in their 4Qs to survive today's volatile world. She also makes time to volunteer with children and the elderly in her community.

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