When all of this first began, having to witness the world plunge into an unprecedented phase of extreme isolation was probably the most terrifying thing ever. Not knowing of what’s to come and being left handicapped with such little information about a novel coronavirus – who would have thought that life would just come to a standstill like this? That after all these years of “technological advancement” in the research and development sector, we would resort to nothing but locking ourselves up indefinitely in our homes, because of a novel virus? That a virus, was all it took to cripple human societies. Of course, my most immediate reflex action was to think about myself and my “plans” - my life, my family, my school semester that had come to an abrupt end and the graduation trip to Spain in May 2020 I had planned for months! I remember being so gutted!
Soon after, the information overload began – with innumerable articles reporting the rising death tolls across the world every single day. It was havoc. One country after another fell victim to the wrath of COVID-19 - China, Italy, Spain, America (New York). It almost felt like doomsday had literally arrived at our doorstep. We just had to take one wrong step before succumbing to it.
For days and days, I recall struggling to shoulder this constant weight of human mortality, loss of freedom, anxiety and helplessness in my heart. It was almost suffocating. Having to mentally register that our sickly world was going to be the new normal for the next few months took me a while to wholeheartedly accept. But soon through the process, I found myself no longer worried about my plans and my life. All of that didn't even matter anymore. Rather, how I could protect my loved ones had now become priority. Almost ironically, it was sufferings of the underprivileged that revealed to me fortunate I was – to have stable familial income, a roof over my head, food to eat, comfort and safety, the joy of having my family safe and healthy right beside me (in the words of Angelina Jolie). And above all, a pragmatic government with strategies put in place to assist its affected citizenry population. We had more than everything we ever needed to stay protected. What more could I have asked for?
It was in that instance I began feeling almost undeserving of all this privilege. Nothing would mean anything at all I didn't live a life of use to others. I simply couldn’t sit idle at home knowing that I was safe, while others were at the brink of their death because of this virus. My heart ached for the ones hardest hit by the crisis - for the underprivileged, the elderly and the vulnerable, especially after the sporadic spread of COVID-19 cases in Singapore’s migrant worker community. I wanted to do more to help, to be part of the community that stepped up in times of need more so for myself than anyone else. I needed to do this - to stop the guilt of my privilege from consuming me.
That’s when I jumped on board to help a dear friend (Sudesna) who with little technical expertise, started an English-Bengali translations website overnight. All it took her was the right mindset to accomplish so seemingly impossible! I couldn’t help but say yes to being part of the voluntary translations team she put together when she first started this initiative - it was the least my family and I could do to help a community in need. Since then, translation requests from parties all over the country have continued to pour in on a day to day basis – from health practitioners, non-governmental organizations to grassroots communities all stepping forward to help. Volunteering to be an English-Bengali translator in this time of crisis has been perhaps the best, and most fulfilling decision I have made to date. In group conversations have not only given me deeper insight on some of the rawest encounters many of these those working on the ground have had with our fellow migrant workers, but it is through these shared encounters that I have been exposed to the harsh, heartbreaking realities of the lives of our migrant worker brothers. Harsh is probably an understatement, and there is simply too much to say that words cannot encapsulate. The disturbing truth is that - the plight of the systematically discriminated in human societies is something we are indoctrinated to normalize and somehow, accept? How can we continue to live a life where we consciously sideline the ones who need us the most? COVID-19 has done nothing short in exposing the jarring injustices of our human society, as Arundhati Roy puts it. In fact, despite all of this, what shocked me more than ever had probably been the outcry of racist remarks by some against our migrant worker brothers – where they attributed the migrant community’s “unhygienic, backward lifestyle practices” to them falling victim to COVID-19.
But that being aside, If I could name one thing that COVID-19 has taught and revealed to me - it would be the beauty of human solidarity. The strength in community. No state, or institution can quite replace that. While I may be one out of the many translators out there - to witness humans selflessly come together and invest their time, energy and often times sacrifice their own personal safety for the sake of another less privileged and disadvantaged person day after day, has been a beautiful process to be part of. The generous spirit of these volunteers truly never fails to inspire me, every single day.
Life has not been the same with COVID-19 and we all know that. Perhaps it will never be the same. Most importantly, this pandemic has transformed not just human lives, but the human perspective. How we see look beyond ourselves.
I have never understood why some people are lucky enough to be born with the chance and privilege that I have had, and why someone across the world who is equally as capable, is left stranded in a city with no income or access to healthcare. Instead, they are compelled to walk hundreds of miles back to their village homes, facing abuse, mistreatment and humiliation from state authorities. I don’t understand any of that at all. However, although the pain and misery in this world terrifies me, I will do everything I can, with every opportunity I have to live a life of use to others. Because nothing would mean anything at all, if I didn’t do that.
“Now more than ever, we need to feel each other’s feelings, fight each other’s battles, feel and write and not protect (just) ourselves, (but) protect other people” – Arundhati Roy.
I miss my grandparents dearly too - they were supposed to come visit us in Singapore this June. And my lovely friends, whom I love all so much. While being away from them in this period of anxiety has been incredibly hard, I know deep down that this is for the best. And one day, we’ll all be able to reunite for good when this nightmare is finally over.