Stayed Home, Noticed — A Pandemic Diary #1
It’s been 2 weeks since Singapore tightened our Covid-19 containment measures, and it seems things are going decently well.
It’s fairly comfortable for us to stay home, even somewhat enjoyable at times as we get more space to do things we don’t usually do. But of course, it’s not the same for everyone. Many are suffering and multi-millionaires telling people that their suffering is not suffering in actuality, is simple gaslighting.
I almost teared up yesterday watching a video on Facebook posted by the energetic hawker advocate KF Seetoh. He randomly interviewed an old uncle selling prawn mee at Golden Mile Hawker Centre who said he has no customers this time around. When Seetoh said “I’ll tell my followers to come support you!”, you can see tears well up in the eyes of the uncle no doubt coming from a sense of helplessness.
Yesterday, I headed out to dabao as I usually do.
There was no queue at this stall selling very traditional tasting Teochew rice. The auntie cooking looked like she was in her 80s (yay to true traditional Teochew taste!) and I figured the guy serving me is her son.
I asked for a portion of the classic braised chilli shark meat. He apologetically informed me that a single portion on rice would cost $4, and my packet with the ingredients I wanted would cost me $8.20. I was mentally surprised and retracted my order on a knee-jerk reaction.
I saw his face drop. He looked so disappointed that he had lost a sale. At that moment, I knew just how tough it is for these older hawkers who aren’t online and whose food just does not have the margins to pay 35% to a billionaire-to-be.
I changed my mind and asked for a full $6 portion in a separate pack and kept it for dinner.
Some believe Covid will accelerate the shutting down more traditional businesses who are unable to digitalise quickly enough.
But really, understanding the economic structures underlying the food delivery businesses, do we really want our old hawkers to digitalise? What will we gain, and what will we lose?
One thing that permeates all aspects of life in a pandemic is scarcity.
Scarcity is not lack. It is the inability of supply to meet demand.
Some of that scarcity is artificial — companies producing just a little less than demand, intentionally or otherwise, to create and sustain demand for its products. The bakeries that sell out within 1 minute of their pre-order links going online, or have queues for their baked goods that start half an hour before opening and stretch around the block.
Scarcity even extends to the provision of religious services — in Phase 3 we had to book spaces for our kids and ourselves to attend Sunday School and church services. Often this resulted in a mad, stressful scramble when it was literally fastest-fingers-first and every man for himself. One wonders how this pandemic-created scarcity has changed our human behaviour even as we claimed to be a community of grace, love and giving.
Scarcity does not affect all equally. Scarcity can be a kingmaker; it can also strip one of what they have. It depends on who you are and whether you have the capital to supply what is needed at the right time. Just look at how Sheng Siong’s shares surged when the latest round of Heightened Alert measures were announced.
I wonder how this pandemic-imposed scarcity will shape our society going forward. While those who can afford it can queue long hours for croissants, get a place to perform their religious duties and exit this pandemic either unscathed or richer, it’s incredibly painful to see the old, the infirm, the discriminated face ever higher risks that threaten to beat back any progress or stability they forged over the years.
I wonder what it will take to build a new, cohesive social compact in a Covid-19 world.