Singaporeans living in Seoul and the US share their experiences dealing with COVID-19 overseas

It's harder to deal with a global pandemic when you're far from home.

Wan Munirah

Published: 18 March 2020, 10:42 PM

News of Malaysia’s latest lockdown measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have left Singaporeans and other citizens across the region scrambling to tweak their travelling and working plans.

Similarly, many countries have started to impose entry restrictions and border closures to curb the spread. Canada is shutting its borders to non-citizens and non-residents, while the United States have placed several cities under lockdown.

What about the Singaporeans who are currently living and working abroad? How are they coping with the recent travel restrictions imposed around the world?

Youth.SG spoke to Singaporeans living in South Korea and the United States to find out how they are dealing with the pandemic while being away from home.

Life before COVID-19

29-year-old Amylia Zainal was about to leave Singapore when news broke about the COVID-19 situation in Seoul, South Korea, her second ‘home’ for the past two and a half years.

The marketing manager said: “I left just as it started to get serious. It was when South Korea advised their residents against visiting Singapore due to the situation. I wasn’t too worried because I trusted that the government would know what to do to keep the situation under control.”


Amylia moved to Seoul, South Korea, in August 2017.


25-year-old fitness coach Azimah Azmi first found out about the escalating situation in the United States through a WhatsApp message sent by her mother – 14,277 kilometres away in Singapore.

Azimah, who has been living in the United States since July last year, shared: “At first, I was kind of sceptical about the severity of the situation because it seemed like whatever was portrayed in the media was just fear. It was hard to get a lot of credible information until it escalated.

“It was only yesterday that I started feeling kind of anxious. Not so much because of the virus itself, but because of how people started to react.”


Azimah interacts with professional athletes and martial arts enthusiasts in her line of work.


Keeping calm in a foreign land

As the situation worsened across the world, people started stockpiling daily necessities. While the Singaporeans we spoke to remained calm, they started to worry when locals showed signs of panic.

Azimah, who is staying in San Diego with her husband, said: “On Monday, my husband and I were trying to get some supplies like meat, rice, potatoes and bottles of water, but there weren’t any. We went to three or four supermarkets and the shelves were empty. That was when I started worrying a little bit.

“I saw people filling up their carts with crazy amounts of bread and other things that could be rationed. It’s insane how people are just stockpiling everything they can find because the grocery store is still open, it’s not on lockdown yet.”


Azimah (right) moved to San Diego with her husband (left) in August last year.


Despite the alarming number of COVID-19 cases in South Korea, Amylia remained calm by avoiding crowds and keeping herself clean.

She also shared several stories of how locals reacted to the situation.

“A friend of mine stayed home for three weeks until she couldn’t take it anymore because she was going crazy. She wasn’t on home quarantine or anything – she was just terrified about getting infected.

“Last weekend, I went for the Phantom of the Opera musical and it was 90 per cent filled! Everyone wore masks and there was a temperature check at the venue. In a way, I think everyone’s putting their trust in others to do the right thing and stay home if they’re not feeling well,” said Amylia, who pursued a master’s degree in international studies at Yonsei University.

The only thing she found challenging was getting used to wearing a mask every day.

“Even before it escalated, the government asked everyone to wear a mask in public. Masks are not cheap, and wearing them all the time is painful.

“It’s so difficult to breathe when you’re wearing the KF94 mask [Korean equivalent of the N95 mask],” shared Amylia.

Adapting to the situation

Despite these challenges, these Singaporeans seemed to adapt well to the changes. Azimah started a daily routine to focus on her health and well-being while staying home.

“I usually do a guided meditation in the morning before getting some exercise at home. I also spend a lot of time drawing, doodling, and creating video content for my followers on Instagram and my clients.

“It really is a good time to do a lot of work [at home] because otherwise I’ll be spending a lot of time in front of the computer and end up feeling more scared [of the news].”


Beside staying home, Azimah shops for groceries early in the morning to get her supplies for the week.


It also helps that most of Azimah’s work with her clients are based online.

“I run a hybrid system where I send programmes to them online and meet them face-to-face. Nowadays, I take all my training online and do virtual personal training sessions,” said Azimah, who usually teaches at gyms and in parks.

Life for Amylia in Seoul, however, has hardly changed.


Amylia receives daily updates from her family and chats with her friends regularly on messaging apps to keep herself updated with the situation in Singapore.


“I’m still going to work as per normal, except that I now report at 7.30am instead of 8am. It was an option given by the company to adjust our working hours to avoid the peak period. Ironically, it seems that more people have adjusted their working hours because it feels more crowded during my commute these days,” said Amylia.

“I guess the only thing I needed to cope with was the loneliness since I live alone. Not being able to go out much for social activities has been challenging, but my sister has been video-calling me every night to show me how her cat is doing, which is quite comforting.”

Looking forward to life after COVID-19

Since Azimah and Amylia may not be able to return to Singapore any time soon, what do they miss most about home?

Amylia shared: “The one thing I really miss about working in Singapore is medical leave. I never realised how lucky we were to have 14 days of paid medical leave and about 30 days of hospitalisation leave.

“Unfortunately, there’s no concept of medical leave here. I’d drag myself to work even when I’m sick, unless I literally cannot get out of bed. I’ll have to use my annual leave to take the day off.”

Meanwhile, Azimah yearns to meet her family and friends in Singapore once the situation eases.

“I might not be able to come home for my sister’s wedding in July and I’m kinda sad about that. I’m still hopeful that it will work out. I’ve been meaning to come back some time this year, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”

With Hari Raya coming up in May, Amylia hopes to bask in the festivities with her loved ones at home.

“I’m worried that this situation won’t improve any time soon and it’ll be difficult to fly home for Hari Raya. I just want to be able to spend time with my family this Hari Raya,” said Amylia.


Amylia remains hopeful about being able to meet her family in the next few months.


“Also, Singapore’s election season is coming and I’ve registered myself as an overseas voter in Tokyo, which is our nearest polling station.

“But I’m not sure if we’ll be able to travel to Japan then without being stuck in quarantine.”

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