The New Normal: Changing How We Move

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

By Zenia Pang

With COVID-19 inflicting change faster than we can blink, it’s no surprise that many have stopped keeping up with trends. We’d started to focus on other things - whether our sourdough has proved long enough, if the weather will allow us to escape that planned run, and when bubble tea stores will finally be allowed to open. We started turning back to ourselves, started planning about how we’re going to tick off the Circuit Breaker Wishlist once Singapore reopens in Phase 2. But keeping track of change is important, because the pandemic isn’t waiting for us to keep up.

As COVID-19 consumes society, the contours of a restructured mobility system are starting to emerge. Telecommuting, while initially cumbersome, had quickly become a norm. Tech giants like Twitter and Google are leading the work-from-home revolution, with the former allowing employees to maintain status quo “forever”. This fall in demand is already putting financial strain on public transport services. Coupled with the increased costs induced by new safety measures - additional cleaning materials and workers deployed to ensure safe distancing - we can already expect transport fares to increase. In the long run, alterations to the pricing policy will probably be considered in conjunction with other cost recovery measures, so that commuters, providers, and the government can shoulder a proportionate share of the cost burden.

There are speculations about the opportunities for structural change that the coronavirus has presented, but with the virus stubbornly sticking around, predicting a concrete future is difficult. There are, however, some constants that can be relied upon to persist in the post coronavirus landscape, and these trends can help ease us into the new normal.

One thing has never been clearer: the definition of safety has expanded. Road and passenger safety remain baseline expectations, but sanitation and hygiene are now pivotal considerations. The end of Circuit Breaker saw an end to the policing of physical distancing on public transport - seeing Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan remove the safe-distancing sticker from MRT seats had us at a crossroads. Should we be happy that Phase 2 is starting, or concerned for our safety? A dilemma not easily solved, but which the Ministry of Health tries to ameliorate by mandating the use of masks. Transport system operators have stepped up their sanitising and cleaning regimens, drivers are advised to take their temperatures twice a day, and commuters urged to use SafeEntry and TraceTogether. Passengers should also avoid talking - a caution that may seem ludicrous but in retrospect, is very logical. Preventing contagion works best at the roots - keeping our droplets to ourselves.

This image of a personal bubble points to an in-transit experience that is increasingly hinged on the digital. When refused the social contact they crave, people turn elsewhere to spend their time - in this case, their smartphones. Digital entertainment isn’t anything new, but it highlights the need for even more engaging content now. Deloitte Insights predicted a growing reliance on e-commerce; while the end of Circuit Breaker indicates that people are able to travel to work again, their propensity to avoid crowded stores might mean that e-commerce maintains its foothold in this new landscape. And if you think about it, what better time to sort out the weekly grocery run than on a silent ride to the office?

We don’t know when COVID-19 will end, but it’s important to know that it hasn't ended yet. Pandemics usually have 2 types of endings: the medical ending, and the social ending. In the former, the pandemic dies out with a decrease in cases and deaths. This can happen in various ways, like in SARS’ mysterious disappearance, or with a vaccine, like for Ebola and smallpox. The social ending happens when the fear of the disease decreases - this is the ending that we should be careful of. Endings are messy; how or when pandemics end are usually heavily contested. A healthcare worker may be gunning for a medical ending - understandable, as they bear the physical strain of fighting the virus - but for other members of the public, a social end is more desirable. Already we can see some claiming it; the economic strains of lockdowns have vanquished their fear, and communities have reopened amidst exponential spikes in cases. But contrary to some beliefs, less testing does not equate to less cases. As we venture out into reclaimed freedom, we need to remember that the medical end is not here yet.

This doesn’t mean that life should stay suspended though. The prospect of the economic fallout is daunting, even disheartening. Restarting society should be done cautiously to prevent another spike in cases. It may be a while before we fully stamp out the coronavirus, but in the meantime, we can make its existence as arduous as possible by reducing the number of potential hosts. Tit for tat, Covid.

Zenia Pang is a fan of books, food, and happy endings. She is a writer for WiseOwl, and spends much of her time with coffee and The New York Times Crosswords. She loves laughing, and is very capable of talking the ears off a wall.


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