Syahiirah Junaidi is a writer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She has written for SME Magazine, published several pieces of her own, and is currently a content writer for Brand360 Degree. She lives with her newly-wedded husband and their cat in north Petaling Jaya. While the Globe takes the utmost care to publish accurate information, by the nature of these first-hand accounts we are unable to independently verify the accuracy of the details contained within them.
On March 16, the Prime Minister of Malaysia Muhyiddin Yassin announced that a Movement Control Order (MCO) would be enforced starting March 18, a Wednesday. By then we had seen a surge of cases, 100 new ones per day, and Malaysia had the highest case of Covid-19 in ASEAN, and among the top four in Asia.
People called it a lockdown even though they can still go out for food and essential work (as listed by the government). It’s more of a restriction of movement rather than a full lockdown, but we called it that anyway for simplicity.
My husband and I, a two-person household, live in an apartment along a large key highway in northern Klang Valley near the capital Kuala Lumpur. Before the pandemic, we were rarely home because of work – home was simply where we came back after a long tiring day to shower and sleep. Our little middle-class apartment was just a shelter for the night, before heading back to work throughout the day – myself as a marketing writer and him as a production executive in a factory.
But starting that Wednesday in mid-March, our routines were dramatically changed.
I was actually quite comfortable at home at first – waking up a bit later and working in my favourite nightshirt. But the challenge of working from home remains; our dining table is not very conducive to work, we don’t have A/C so it often gets very hot – it’s safe to say I began to miss the office just four days into MCO.
Despite the comfort of home, there’s still lingering anxiety. We don’t know if we’ll be okay financially or health-wise. How long will the quarantine last? Will we have enough food for the coming months? What about our paycheques? What if one of us gets sick? The trick was to not give the anxiety a chance. We keep ourselves occupied; work, boardgames, cardio, yoga, chores – anything to keep the demons at bay.
When the pandemic made its way to Malaysia, Sungai Buloh Hospital north-west of the capital, not far from our home, became the main containment and treatment centre in the greater Klang Valley area. Patients diagnosed with the disease were sent to this hospital complex from other clinics and smaller hospitals around the city, with it strategically located near a highway exit so patients can be promptly transferred.
This pandemic, and consequential social distancing, have given me many things to remember. But the most profound memory will always be the night sirens. In the evening, from around 5pm to 9pm, we can hear ambulance sirens from the highway.
The highway is rarely empty, and it’s normal for us to hear echoes of speeding trailers and motorbikes. However, since the pandemic, it has stood silent – the ambulances have it to themselves, as everyone is at home during MCO.
The ambulances wouldn’t stop coming, they would pass every 10 minutes. Many times, you could hear them non-stop. You can’t see the vehicles, but the sirens told us everything we need to know. The more sirens you hear in an evening, the more Covid-19 cases, the steeper the curve, the longer we’ll be stuck this way
Either I never paid much attention to them before or they were deliberately amplified, but the ambulance sirens are very loud. Perhaps the emergency vehicles are alerting to their radius that they were transferring Covid-19 patients to the main hospital. The high-pitched howls of the sirens are so loud you wonder if the ambulance was right below your block.
And on one night in particular, they wouldn’t stop coming – there would be passing ambulances every 10 minutes. Many times, you could hear them non-stop, in fives, sixes, sevens and even more, as if the ambulances came in single file, all heading towards the hospital. You couldn’t see the vehicles, but the sirens told us everything we need to know. The more sirens you hear in an evening, the more Covid-19 cases, the steeper the curve, the longer we’ll be stuck this way.
The sirens remind me that the country is at war with an invisible assailant. That we have to take care of one another because these are trying times. We have friends and family to call and check-in, but we have an elderly neighbour next door whom we sometimes worry if she has food. At day five of MCO, she knocked on our door and gave us some idli, an Indian rice cake, that she had just made. We returned her plate filled with brownies and fruit.
At day six, I went out for groceries. We hadn’t had fresh vegetables in days and I was really hoping to score some greens. Despite the government’s reassurance that food will be plentiful, some shelves remain empty. Eggs and bread are scarce, but rice, canned food and instant noodles are still abundant.
I drove to my neighbourhood supermarket at 7.45am, and there was already a small crowd. The ambience had an ominous feel. People weren’t talking to each other, almost all of them donning the ubiquitous blue-green surgical masks.
I tried keeping my distance but older ladies kept cutting me to get nearer to the door. At 8.30am, the store manager came out reminding people to keep one metre from each other and to please not panic buy. We went inside and I got my greens; mustard leaves, cabbage, water spinach, and even a small bundle of long beans. That night, I made nasi lemak and we felt thankful for this feast.
On day eight of the MCO, the government announced an extended social distancing period that will extend the initial end date by two weeks until April 14. My initial thought was of terror, but I calmed down. Again, I thought, as long as I keep the anxiety in check, I’ll be alright. That evening at 7.30pm, I went downstairs to warm up my car’s engine since she won’t be moving for another week or so (yes, my car is a girl and her name is Kelly).
We would see all sorts of individual expressions inside every medium-sized unit. There were quite a lot of homes with religious expressions; mango leaves hung by the window in a Hindu home, guan-yin wall decorations in a Chinese home, and flickering LED Raya lights in a Malay home
I took her for a slow spin around the apartment compound. It took us less than 10 minutes and I was driving at most 10km/h. There are six blocks in our apartment area, each not more than five storeys high. Since it was dusk, people were putting their lights on and since it was warm, they flung open their windows wide for ventilation.
Kelly and I would see all sorts of individual expressions inside every medium-sized unit. There were quite a lot of homes with religious expressions; mango leaves hung by the window in a Hindu home, guan-yin wall decorations in a Chinese home, and flickering LED Raya lights in a Malay home, even though Raya is two months away.
There were homes bare with little furniture and there were homes filled with knick-knacks and tchotchkes. There was one ground floor home with a big case filled with trophies – Kelly and I bet the owners of the house are proud parents of high-achieving kids.
Some homes have plastered walls and ornate ceiling fans, some homes have large HD TVs, some homes have thick curtains, some have none at all. One home has a lone fridge, not even a TV or a dining table. There were a few homes with lights out, but not a lot of them.
Our apartment isn’t noisy, it’s never noisy. Despite the number of people in the block, there are only murmurs of life – TVs, washing machines, kitchens, a baby crying in the distance. It’s quiet, yet so full of life!
Usually, I wouldn’t be able to see so much life in one space on a normal working day, with people here rarely home because of work, including me. So to see them living their lives was an experience for me – it opened my eyes to what I have and don’t have.
I parked Kelly back in her bay, and felt refreshed with a new perspective on my neighbourhood. I felt more connected with them and appreciated them a little more. I went back upstairs, washed my hands and showered thoroughly. After a game of Scrabble, we went to bed and I tucked in my demons back to where they came from and hoped for the best the next day.
It’s day 11 as I write this, thankfully there were only four sirens heard tonight, though we just reached the 2,000th case this week.
I might not know what the future holds, but I know Malaysians will stay tough against the situation. We’re optimistic, staying indoors in our little homes, silencing our demons with distractions while counting those nightly sirens echoing outside in the misty night.
This story is part of the Globe’s collection of personal essays from across Southeast Asia called Tales of the Pandemic. Published each Monday and covering different aspects of life during this unprecedented time in human history, all of these Covid-19 personal essays can be found here. If you’d like to contribute a personal essay of your own, please email your story of roughly 1,000 words, preferably with images, to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Covid-19 personal essay”.