Love at a distance: Couples and families cope with travel restrictions amid coronavirus pandemic

SINGAPORE – Perhaps the sweetest sorrow in parting is not knowing when you will next see the other person again.

It is certainly the case for many couples and families here, who were caught off guard when countries successively announced lockdowns and travel restrictions to contain the coronavirus.

Some had mere hours to respond to border closures. Freelancer and Malaysian Rachel Koh, 26, described her family’s frantic situation as the result of an “incredible mess of a lockdown operation”.

The Singapore permanent resident lives here with her parents, who are also PRs. But her mother is now stuck with her grandmother in Sungai Petani – a small town an hour’s drive north from Penang. The family has a terrace house in Ang Mo Kio.

Ms Koh’s mother, 60, had gone back in end-January to visit her mother, 82, who has dementia. The elderly woman does not have a longterm pass and shuttles accompanied between Singapore and Malaysia.

When the situation started escalating last month, they booked a flight to Singapore immediately – but later found out that the grandmother would need an approved travel declaration or be turned away at the airport.

They booked the first bus out, a 12-hour red-eye, the next day. But that day, Malaysia announced its border closure to all citizens, effective at midnight.

“They just missed being the last batch of people to (leave) by a few hours,” says Ms Koh.

The family’s stressful ordeal happened within a span of two days.

Freelancer Rachel Koh and her father FaceTiming her mother, who is stuck in Malaysia. PHOTO: COURTESY OF RACHEL KOH

“The worst thing about this negative situation is that you can’t do anything about it. It’s out of your control,” she adds.

Ms Bing Blokbergen-Leow, 46, director of a brand and communications consultancy, also worries about her parents, who have been living in Perth since the 1980s.

She had to cancel a trip there that she had planned for Easter weekend. Australia’s borders have been closed to non-residents since March 20.

It can be a lonely time for the elderly to be constantly housebound, she worries. She has to remind her father, 80, and mother, 75, to stay home for their own safety.

“My siblings and I had to convince our parents not to have non-essential outings, karaoke sessions with friends or even home physio visits,” she says.

She tried to arrange food and grocery deliveries to their home, but the local supermarket was overwhelmed. She was relieved to hear that a neighbour across the street had offered to buy groceries for them on a weekly basis.

“We took things for granted,” says Ms Blokbergen-Leow. “What used to separate us was just a snooze on an overnight flight.

“With Covid-19, we are now made to feel the true physical distance – a separation of wide oceans, mountains and vast land.”


Global lockdowns have taken a toll on couples too.

Ms Victoria Ungsod, 24, a Filipina who was raised in Singapore, believes that the next time she can see her Perth-based boyfriend Mitchell Rogers, 27, is next year.

The two have been in a long-distance relationship since 2018, when they met at a party in Perth.

Before the outbreak, the couple would see each other every two to three months, often meeting midway in Bali.

They were last together for a holiday in Perth two weeks ago. She cut her trip short and rushed home when Singapore announced its 14-day stay-home notice for travellers.

“It was our final get-together before my schedule gets crazy. The fact that it was cut short broke my heart,” says Ms Ungsod, who is a nurse at Mount Alvernia Hospital.

“But as a healthcare worker, it’s my responsibility to keep everyone safe and be socially responsible.”

It has been a “roller-coaster ride” dealing with extended time apart, she adds. “There are days when the frustration comes. I don’t know when I’ll get to hug him again or hold his hand.”

Ms Jenna Ng, 31, and her fiance, who have an upcoming July wedding, are another couple, among many, who have had to grapple with uncertainty. But not just for obvious reasons.

How do you have a wedding when the bride and groom are not in the same country?

Ms Ng’s British fiance, 34, who works in finance and used to be based here, is now back in Britain. They had just taken their pre-wedding photos there in January.

Spearheading the planning here, Ms Ng, who works in sales, had just confirmed venues and vendors when the coronavirus became a pandemic. With guests due to fly in from both Britain and Malaysia, border closures are top of mind.

“I also need my groom physically present to go ahead with our wedding,” she jests.

While the wedding has not been postponed, she has “little hope” it can proceed as planned.

The uncertainty around when the borders will reopen and when large-scale private events will be allowed again has made it difficult to make decisions.

She says: “Our plan was to get married and settle down in the same country, so we can establish our life together. But now, all we can do is hope that this pandemic blows over as soon as possible.

“It’s more important that everyone stays safe and healthy, but we now have to maintain a longdistance relationship for longer than planned and that, of course, pushes back everything else that goes along with it, like housing and family planning.”


Through this, Apple’s FaceTime has been helping many to bridge the physical distance.

Siblings Joei Ng, 27, and Kelvin Ng, 23, have been using FaceTime daily to juggle moving to a new house.


The Malaysians have been renting a four-room Housing Board flat in Queenstown for the last two years, with their lease ending this month.

Mr Ng, who left his fashion marketing job here in January, and their mother, a housewife, are stuck in Johor Baru, where they had been waiting to re-enter Singapore on tourist passes.

They were due to return last Friday, but their plans were foiled by Malaysia’s movement restrictions, which were recently extended to April 14. Singapore has also banned short-term visitors.

They call every night, to help direct Ms Ng on what items to keep or throw for their move on April 16. “It’s a bit crazy because I have to pack the whole house on my own, and it’s hard to find time because my working hours are long,” says Ms Ng, a pastry chef.

Her brother adds: “There’s just a lot of uncertainty and we feel bad for my sister because there’s nothing we can help with.”

Ms Ungsod and her boyfriend try to call every day and get creative by playing games via video call.

“We know there are days we don’t have the liberty of time, but we must at least try to communicate, no matter how busy we are. Because there are 24 hours in a day, and a text message takes only five seconds,” she says.

To keep up her mental well-being, Ms Koh talks to her mother on FaceTime every other day. “It’s very difficult for my mum, taking care of her mother with dementia 24/7,” she says. “And with the restricted-movement order, she can’t even leave the house for a breather.”

And while they are mentally prepared to not see one another for the next few months, the family has been trying to stay positive.

They recently celebrated her father’s 62nd birthday over FaceTime, with each side blowing out candles on a cake. During the call, her grandmother, in a state of confusion, suddenly chimed in, “It’s my birthday!” Ms Koh recounts with a laugh.

“Even though it’s a bad time, you still have to keep up with these nice family things and find a way to do them together. You have to focus on the things in your control and consciously try to make them better, so you can still live your life.”

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