23rd January — The start

Eyes turned to Singapore, not because of another meeting between Trump and Kim, but because of something else that has been grabbing the attention of all around the world. On that day, a 66-year-old Chinese national tested positive, marking the first of many cases within the small island state of Singapore.

Unlike other countries, the outcome of Singapore’s bout with the coronavirus meant something more to the world. Being labeled by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the ‘gold standard of near-perfect detection’, Singapore was deemed to be one of the most, if not the most, prepared countries to face the forthcoming global pandemic. Having experienced SARS in 2002/2003, and H1N1 in 2009, the Singaporean government has the tools, it was just a matter of using it. With that in mind, the world kept a close watch as Singapore took on the new global pandemic, believing that if Singapore is unable to overcome it, no one will be able to.

Social distancing rules being applied in a food court (REUTERS/Edgar Su)

Initially, Singapore’s response was paying off, by enacting swift travel bans and social distancing rules, and by having extensive testing and contact tracing, the spread of the coronavirus was relatively well contained. At the beginning of April, the total number of cases was less than 600, with an average of 11 new cases a day. Things were looking up for Singapore, and a day where life will return to normal seemed near as people were starting to slowly ease back into their regular routines.

7th April — The Problem

However, anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and wrong it went. Despite the extensive testing in place, Singapore had one major blind spot that led to its current high case count. This sudden spike in case count was about to bring a commonly seen yet largely ignored population into the limelight.

Migrants workers’ dormitories (The Washington Post)

Being confined within crowded and small living quarters, Singapore’s migrant workers were, to no one’s surprise, living in extremely risky conditions. Making up for more than 20% (or roughly 1.3 million people) of Singapore’s 5.7 million populace, migrant workers were going to get more attention than they were ever used to. Of the 1.3 million migrant workers within Singapore, 300,000 of them were living within overcrowded dormitories and should have been classified as a high-risk group.

Expectedly, cases started to show up among the migrant worker population around mid-April, with the coronavirus blitzing through them at a pace of hundreds of people a day. By the end of April, Singapore had about 15,000 cases, of which about 85% belonged to the migrant workers living in such dormitories. Seeing the consequences of their lapse in judgment, the Singaporean government has since attempted to regain control of the situation by placing those that tested negative within temporary housing, and those who tested positive within isolation facilities. Singapore currently tests about 3000 migrant workers a day and is aiming to soon increase that figure. How the situation plays out remains to be seen.

Chart depicting the number of cases within locals versus migrant workers (The New York Times)

Void decks — In health

Senior citizens talking over a game of chess in the void deck (Martino Tan/Mothership)

The void deck, a term familiar to most Singaporeans, refers to the ground floor of the buildings of Singapore’s public housing, or HDB blocks, as the locals would call it. Void decks were introduced in the 1970s with the intention of promoting racial integration, and to create opportunities for its residents to socialize through the frequent usage of the shared space for recreational activity or social functions. Since its inception, void decks were constantly redesigned to remain relevant and to improve on aspects that were already being achieved. Features made available to the residents were also constantly being added and removed, from chess tables to libraries to shops to bomb shelters. To those who grew up in HDB blocks, void decks became an integral part of their lives.

On a daily basis, one would commonly find children playing among themselves while their parents conversed, or the elderly population enjoying their silver years by meeting their friends while enjoying a game of chess. On a less frequent basis, events such as Chinese funerals, or Malay weddings may be observed taking place in void decks as well, showing its versatility as a public space.

Void decks — In sickness

As the number of cases grew in Singapore, stricter measures had to be in place. Shops deemed as non-essential services had to close their doors till the situation takes a turn for the better, public gatherings were disallowed and arrests were in place for those who breach the rules. Even for services deemed as essential, prolonged stay within those premises may also result in an apprehension. Despite being an important aspect of many Singaporeans’ life, the void deck was no exception, public gatherings were simply not something that should be taking place during a pandemic. While there were several incidents of locals being arrested for blatantly disregarding the lockdown by gathering in the void deck, there are also positive aspects to the existence of the void deck during the pandemic.

With the coronavirus spreading swiftly within the migrant worker clusters, there was an immediate need to isolate those that were deemed healthy from those who were not. With no immediate housing options available, the Singaporean government had to get creative. Multi-story car parks and void decks were hence refurbished into temporary housing sites and isolation facilities, becoming interim shelters for migrant workers within Singapore. While this arrangement is most certainly not the best for the migrant workers and could be improved, it certainly showed a practical application of the void deck in times of emergency.

Even before void decks were being used as a temporary housing solution, they were playing other roles in supporting the fight against the coronavirus. Early in February, the government needed to find a way to distribute masks to the local masses, their solution? Transform the void decks into distribution centers, once again tapping on the versatility of the void deck.

Masks being distributed from a void deck (Lim Yaohui/The Straits Times)

Void decks — From this day forward

As of current, void decks have been an oasis in times of safety and have offered us support in times of crisis. Though many Singaporeans only see the void deck as nothing but a public space, the sheer number and styles of void decks in existence offers the nation a versatility that few or no other public space can rival. As new HDB blocks are constantly being developed, new void decks are being redesigned in an attempt to fit the needs of the future. Following the crisis, it would be wise for the architects and urban planners of Singapore to entertain the possibility of void decks being capable of providing better emergency shelter for longer periods of time, or even capable of providing more complex medical assistance. In essence, it would not be out of place to believe that void decks are here to stay for a long time to come, all while consistently playing an active role within Singapore.

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