My mum groaned, mourned and sighed all day. We are people of few words. Grieving the death of her sister, she was at her most fragile yesterday morning. Ma was here but I could sense her mind and soul weren’t. She would have been thinking of Ahyi’s funeral – she asked me to light her three joss sticks. I suggested one will do, thinking that conservation of those trees should begin at home. No, it had to be three for the joss, no less. The word joss came from the Javanese dejos. They learned the word from their colonial masters, the Portuguese deos, the original Latin word being deus. But, Ma lit them not for the gods but for her sister. May she Rest In Peace with the gods somewhere interesting. Italy restricts funeral attendees to just two, Australia is generous with ten. I later learned my aunt’s cortège was small, just a handful of immediate family members plus Prez Theng Lye, president of my year’s school alumni in Penang. He went to pay his respects for my Ahyi despite the restricted movement order and despite never having met my aunt. Prez is simply a kind and generous friend. I never even met him in school. My aunt was buried in the Batu Uban land bought by generous elder clansmen including Shaw Brothers in 1951. It has become an expensive piece of real estate in Penang. I wonder how long the cemetery will remain before the property developers devour it completely to satiate their never-ending quest to build ugly residential towers there. I told my cousin sisters Ma seemed more frail yesterday than her usual self. Ma actually has been looking better, less withdrawn, I would add. Maybe she is getting better nutrition, we share everything since she moved in almost a month ago. She eats what we eat. And we eat healthily. Good nutrition boosts our immune systems. Less meat and more fresh homegrown fruits and vegetables. Simple but good for us. She loves the eggs our free-range chooks produce too. Every day she sits outside under the verandah to catch the late afternoon sun. Free vitamin D. Like me, Ma likes freebies too, especially when it is from Mother Nature.
“Didn’t know she took the news so badly. Please tell her my mum passed away peacefully and she is in a better place now. No more suffering for her. But my mum hasn’t been healthy and strong all her life. She had beaten all the odds to reach a ripe old age.” Cousin sister Yee Chan writes to me.
“That she has. She is always the frail and weak Ahyi to me.” It took only a brief moment for me to recognise that we were still using the present tense about Ahyi. That may take a while before we correct ourselves. The Mrs took many years before she finally used the correct tense when talking about her departed mother. Letting go is universally preached but hard to do. Occasionally, I have had to banish the thought of losing Murray one day, and he is only an 18-month-old puppy. Maybe Ma is grieving also for selfish reasons. She, being the eldest at 96, would be thinking of the obvious. It is a nasty thought, I am beginning to dislike this ageing thing. I was surprised to read my aunt passed away at age 96. No, she was only 91. I didn’t know about the custom of adding five years to her age for the five generations that she enjoyed during her life.
The Mrs thanked Ma for sweeping the front verandah. It is decidedly the cleanest it has ever been, she discovered. The Mrs made her judgement clear to me, “It couldn’t have been you!” It seemed a logical deduction, and I did not bother to correct her. But, Ma said “Don’t thank me. It wasn’t me.” The Mrs refused to think further about it, she did not want to entertain the possibility that I had anything to do with making the front verandah presentable. She would not consider that my being home a lot more lately could be the reason why the house is tidier. This was my first week of working from home. In keeping with common sense, we have been isolating ourselves from the world. I love it, although The Mrs’ Youtube programs are a bit loud for my liking, especially those Taiwanese segments that love playing silly background noises that sound like bad farts in a kids’ birthday party. Cousin sister Yee Chan asked where she could reach Ma. She wanted to reassure Ma that Ahyi is now in a good place where there is no more suffering. That is something we all tell ourselves when we mourn a death. I like to tell myself Pa is in a good place too. He hardly visits my mind now, unless I light a joss stick for him – he must be somewhere happy, right? Cousin sister Yee Chan says I am a good son. A reasonable deduction, after all, there has been no audible complaints from Ma. I told her I am lucky. The Mrs could have easily made my life hell. But, instead she has been amazingly supportive and sweet to Ma. I am a good son only because The Mrs is good. Which forces me to ask myself, can I be a good son with a less willing wife? Working from home has been a joy and an eye-opener. I cherish working from home. From a vantage point, I can look into two gardens – mine and the one next door connected by a cottage gate. I have been witnessing the tasks The Mrs does which had for years escaped my attention. The missing dust on my antique collections. The missing streak marks of grease on the exhaust hood. The well-watered lettuce seedlings at the back and the emerging cottage garden in the front. The uncountable trips she makes each day with water saved from the kitchen sink to the garden using nothing heavier than a used two litre milk bottle. I am thankful the nature of my job allows me to work from anywhere, but will my job still be there at the end of this pandemic? Will my business survive? More importantly, will we survive? Governments all over the world are spending billions and trillions of dollars trying to keep their economies alive. To keep peoples’ livelihoods going. How do we pay rent or our mortgages? If tenants stop paying rent, how do their landlords who depend on their rental incomes cope? If banks are forced to offer their borrowers a mortgage holiday, how do they avoid corporate collapse? The Australian Prime Minister wants to achieve economic “hibernation” whilst we practise social distancing. Balancing the trade-offs between tough shuttering and economic calamity isn’t something in any leader’s playbook but what are they smoking in Canberra? It is a fairytale ending they are wanting to write – to put everything in deep freeze until the pandemic has passed and then, hey presto, we all wake up to the new old world. And at the stroke of 7 am on a Monday morning months from now, we all leave our homes and report for work as if in a dream? I think the old world we left behind before the lockdown, or Movement Control Order or whatever it is called is gone. Life as we knew it has changed and will not return. We fought for our freedoms in faraway lands, during both world wars. Many went to the frontline with the belief that liberty was a prize that lives were worth giving up for. They heroically lost their lives for freedom. Today, we are asked to do the opposite – lose our freedom and restrict our liberties to save lives. Countries that have traded some of their personal rights have so far managed the control of the spread of COVID-19 better. Singapore, China and South Korea with somewhat draconian intrusions into their citizens’ privacy use high-tech surveillance methods to keep track of their movements and well-being. China’s and South Korea’s enormous capacity to test for COVID-19 and their heavy use of surveillance techniques to track spreaders from their bank card and mobile phone usage have been largely credited with their success to curb the disease’s spread. Taiwan’s “electronic fence” that uses location information on their phones to ensure people are properly quarantined has won global praise. A measure such as this would have been abhorrent pre-COVID-19. Singapore uses rigorous testing methods and enhanced surveillance to track patients with respiratory symptoms. This is a dilemma a more liberal country is faced with. Are they prepared to lose more privacy rights? It is a choice that people may not get to make as governments struggling to cope with the disease’s onslaught change their tune and impose total lockdowns and close down businesses deemed non-essential. We all feel our jobs are essential. Essential to maintain a livelihood, to feed ourselves, to have a roof over our heads. But, millions are finding they no longer have that livelihood. No country can be in hibernation. The virus won’t allow us this luxury. Government handouts are limited and only to those legitimately registered as citizens and permanent residents. The rest are on their own, without jobs, without government support. Third world countries will fare badly. Economies such as India’s and Indonesia’s were faltering well before the first coronavirus case was detected in Wuhan. Millions are already facing homelessness and hunger in this initial phase of their lockdown. There won’t be enough handouts to prevent the tsunami of hunger, diseases, desperation and hopelessness that will swamp many countries. Drug addicts will react violently when their supplies dry up. Desperation and hunger usually lead to crime and violence. It is no wonder Americans rushed to buy guns and not toilet paper. Their fear is that home invasions start to happen everywhere once the situation becomes dire. When China locked down, the rest of the world carried on with their lives normally. They clamoured for Made-in-China products. Now, China has eased movement restrictions and factories are re-opening, only to find the demand for their goods have dissipated as the rest of the world face lockdowns, despair and death. The Australian government’s wish for hibernation assumes the whole world is in sync together. But, that is wishful thinking. I fear the Chinese workers will find many businesses have already collapsed and those that have not will not have customers to export to for many months to come. Street riots have already been reported in some areas as desperation grip the workers who have no jobs to return to. The social dislocation forced on the populace from a prolonged economic shutdown is tragic and destructive. This reality will spread to the rest of the world as they in time recover from the pandemic. How nations manage the eventual first-steps will be critical to whether their societies implode or return to some “normalcy”. Is there hope that urghhlings will gather together for the greater good and not disintegrate into a Darwinian reality where only the fittest survive? Already the question is being asked in some quarters – will the cure be worse than the disease? Will democracies be a victim of this pandemic? Will autocratic governments manage the outcomes in much more controlled ways, limiting the trauma and destruction from the global crisis? Which systems will get the balance right? The trade off between money or our lives? Trump argues a prolonged shutdown will cost more lives than the virus. An economic collapse will tear down the fabric of society decaying any semblance of law and order. Dare we test his theory? Who will be his guinea pigs? I suspect Mother Nature finds we are as bad as the virus, infecting all other life forms and she will do what is necessary to obliterate as many of us as she can. If we begin to think we are as deadly as the virus, then maybe we will finally see how we have ravaged Earth, our home. Maybe then we will finally form a global solidarity to unite and do the necessary things to let the world repair itself. I don’t have any answers but maybe when the world is a cleaner and better place, the virus will suddenly disappear. Japan offers the inspiration. The Japanese have always worn masks even when they aren’t sick. Cleanliness is one of their traits and they greet with a bow rather than shake hands. Japan was one of the first countries to be impacted by the virus when the Diamond Princess docked with passengers stricken with COVID-19. Yet, there is no lockdown in Japan and the virus has not caused any panic. When we learn to keep ourselves clean, our world will be clean. Hopefully then we will begin to see hatchlings in nests on side mirrors of parked cars.