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CDNLAO Newsletter

No. 97, February 2021

Special topic

Documenting COVID-19 in Singapore

By Janice Loo, Librarian and Shereen Tay, Associate Librarian, National Library Board, Singapore

For much of 2020, the world has been struggling to contain COVID-19, the disease caused by a novel coronavirus that emerged in late 2019. At the time of writing, the global pandemic has infected more than 75 million people and killed over 1.68 million.1

Singapore saw its first case of COVID-19 on 23 January 2020, marking the start of an extraordinary period that saw the introduction of stringent measures to contain the spread of the virus. From 7 April to 1 June, the government imposed a "circuit breaker" to pre-empt further transmissions. Schools, offices and most retail outlets were closed and social gatherings prohibited. Everyone in Singapore was advised to stay home unless they had to step out for essential purposes.

Life has entered a new normal as Singapore embarked on a phased approach to resuming activities after the circuit breaker. While some restrictions have since been relaxed, it is mandatory for people to wear face masks when they leave home, places of worship have a cap on the number of congregants and large gatherings remain curtailed.

To document this extraordinary period, the National Library Board (NLB) and the National Museum of Singapore initiated an open call in May 2020 for materials that capture how lives have changed as a result of the ongoing pandemic. "Documenting COVID-19 in Singapore" invites the public to contribute content under two categories: daily life during the pandemic, and the experiences of frontline and essential workers as well as those who have demonstrated kindness or gone the extra mile to help the community. So far, over 500 submissions comprising more than 3,100 photographs, personal stories, videos and nominations of websites relating to COVID-19 have been received by the National Library of Singapore.

The photographs capture scenes such as shuttered retail shops and restaurants, deserted streets and empty buses and trains, as well as safe-distancing markers.

< Left: Community facilities, in this case, a table and seats located at the ground floor of a public housing block, were cordoned off with tape as part of measures to contain the spread of the virus. Right: Red sticky tape and decals used to mark out safe distance in a queue at a local eatery. Photos contributed by Berny Tan (@tape_measures) >

< The pandemic has brought massive disruptions to international travel. All short-term visitors were barred from entering or transiting through Singapore from 23 March 2020. These scenes of Changi Airport devoid of its usual bustle were captured on 28 March 2020 and contributed by Tan Yong Lin >

There are also snapshots of daily life, for instance, how people have adapted to the restrictions, how they found creative ways to spend time at home, and how they kept in touch with family and friends.

< Yvonne Cheng and her husband welcomed their first child during the circuit breaker. Cheng recounts the experience: "A typically joyous situation where friends and family would visit the latest bundle of joy and shower him with love is replaced by contactless courier deliveries. In doing our part to stay safe and stay home, even my husband's mother (a first-time grandma) couldn't visit and cuddle with him. The postpartum period has always been a time when family and emotional support are important, yet we can only connect virtually and be there for one another in a very different way than we have imagined." Photo and story contributed by Yvonne Cheng. >

< Through these photos, Muhammad Farhan Bin Osman gives an intimate glimpse of how his family celebrated Eid al-Fitr (known in Singapore as Hari Raya Aidilfitri or Hari Raya Puasa), which fell on 24 May 2020 during the circuit breaker. Due to the ban on gatherings with family or friends who do not live together, Muslims took to video conferencing apps such as Zoom to connect and celebrate virtually with loved ones. As mosques remained closed to curb the spread of the virus, the communal prayer calls (takbir) and sermon were broadcasted over radio and livestreamed instead. Photos contributed by Muhammad Farhan Bin Osman. >

The collection also features stories and photographs of those working on the frontlines to keep Singapore safe, as well as individuals whose acts of giving made a difference in the community.

< This photo was taken by doctor and avid photographer Shyamala Thilagaratnam, whose team at the Health Promotion Board, Singapore, organised and implemented swab operations at migrant worker dormitories. Before administering the swab test, the team dons personal protective equipment and carefully checks the particulars of the workers. This photo forms part of a photo essay titled "COVID Chronicles". Photo contributed by Dr Shyamala Thilagaratnam. >

< Oliver Guo and Amanda Chua are avid volunteers who have gathered their family and friends to sew clear face masks for the community using donated cloth from CYC Tailors. Unlike opaque masks, these clear ones facilitate better communication as it allows lip-reading by those who may be deaf or hard-of-hearing. Photos contributed by Oliver Guo and Amanda Chua. >

The photographs are being made available on PictureSG, the National Library's database of digitized and born-digital images about Singapore. Each photograph is described with location and date information, which would help users place the image within the timeline of Covid-19 developments in Singapore. Over 260 photographs can already be accessed via the keyword search, "COVID 19", or by browsing the featured collection on PictureSG.

< Screenshot of Covid-19 Collection on PictureSG >

Stories from the Documenting COVID-19 collection are also featured in a series of monthly blog posts on the National Library Blog from September 2020 to March 2021.

On top of the public call for contributions, the National Library has also been actively scanning and selecting websites with content on COVID-19 for archiving since the start of the pandemic. The collection includes official online information on COVID-19 in Singapore such as the Ministry of Health website, as well as blog posts, commentaries and news articles from online media websites. The National Library has archived over 4,000 websites and web pages to-date, which can be accessed through a curated Special Collection "COVID-19 Pandemic in Singapore" on the Web Archive Singapore portal.

< Ministry of Health Updates on 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-NCOV) Local Situation
(Archived on February 2020).
The Ministry of Health website is the official website where the public can look for updates on the COVID-19 situation in Singapore. During the peak of the virus outbreak in Singapore, the website was archived weekly so that regular updates on daily cases and government measurements are captured. >

In addition, the National Archives of Singapore, an institution of the National Library Board, has recorded 53 in-depth interviews since the launch of the oral history component of Documenting COVID-19 in August 2020. The National Archives aims to record at least 120 interviews from now till August 2022. With interviewees' permissions, 15 interviews are already available on the Archives Online website, with more to be progressively released.

The National Library will continue to collect photos and stories until 30 June 2021. Engaging the community to document life during the pandemic is part of the National Library's strategy to capture and preserve the experiences of people in the moment for future generations—to collect today for tomorrow.

1 World Health Organization. (2020). WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard. Retrieved 20 December 2020 from

Copyright (C) 2021 National Library Board, Singapore