Nikita Mishra
Feb 17, 2023

As Singapore ends Covid rules, industry leaders recall their surreal pandemic memories

"People raided supermarkets for toilet paper... We really got so close to a near-collapse in human behaviour." We look back at these and other surreal moments which marcomms leaders recall from the pandemic years.

Leading marcomms voices in Asia recount their vivid Covid memories.
Leading marcomms voices in Asia recount their vivid Covid memories.

From the start of this week (Feb 13), Singapore lifted its public anti-Covid protective measures. As a result, vaccinated or not, travellers no longer need a negative pre-departure test, or flash their vaccination proof upon arrival, while unvaccinated short-term visitors are not mandated to invest in a travel insurance covering Covid. We can spare you the fine print, but a near-total scrapping of Covid measures is a massive milestone. It's one that implies the end of seasonal fluctuations, indicates stability, something that felt nervously impossible to achieve in the last three years.

In decades to come, pictures and news from the pandemic will make for an otherworldly WTF trivia night: The apocalyptically barren cities (and subsequent rise of #ruinporn or the collective fascination for dilapidated sights), empty supermarket shelves, the hoarding of rice, pastas and toilet paper, the disturbing obsession with home baking, the overarching fear of the pandemic and fundamentally, of another human, the comfort in social alienation all feels like a dream to even write about.

But before we finally put to bed our own memories of those crises years, it's time to pause and unmask the surreal moments which will be etched in memory for years to come. Marcomms leaders from the industry speak to Campaign with their take on what we just went through:


Sean Donovan
President, Asia, TBWA




Without question it would be (as one that didn’t take up baking banana bread or sourdough), the sight of a deserted Changi airport. I had to take an emergency trip during Covid, and passed through a weirdly empty Changi airport. All the closed shops, shuttered, with clothes in plastic, handbags in dustbags. A place designed for busyness almost totally emptysurreal.





Werner Lucksch
SVP, Social Media, APAC, Media Monks

People raided supermarkets for toilet paper. I think Covid taught us that the one product that seems to separate us from being a functioning society and falling back into barbarism is toilet paper. It’s the one invention in human history that seems to be the fine line before society collapses, as seen by the chaos it ensued in the early days of Covid. We panicked, but that's a moment to look back upon with disbelief and amazement; we really got so close to a near-collapse in human behaviour.

 

Natalie Lam
Chief creative officer, Publicis Groupe APAC & MEA

 

It was the sight of deserted landscapes for me. Surreal, strange yet beautiful. Back in 2020, when no one was travelling and flights were affordable, my partner, his two kids and I took advantage of this to binge travel to the national parks in the Midwest and California. Having the spectacular open landscape all to ourselves, occasionally crossing paths with a few other restless souls who didn’t want to stay at home was surreal. We were on the road for almost a month, hitting Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Canyonland, Lake Powell, the Mojave Desert and more, just taking in all the jaw-dropping natural beauty without the summer tourists. It was eerily beautiful, peaceful and grounding, while the whole world was turned upside down.


Julia Wei
CEO, Edelman Singapore

Talking to the houseplants.  Yes, in the thick of the pandemic. I clearly remember it was a Thursday evening, we were still fully working from home, and my husband caught me talking to my plants. He was both amused and concerned. In that moment I realised I had not stepped out of the house for four whole days. I put on my shoes promptly and went out for a walk.



Joyce Chua
Communications planning director, APAC, EssenceMediacom

I remember I was overseas for a new business pitch when Singapore extended its border rules and stay-home measures. I could not complete the pitch wrap-up in time and ended up landing minutes after the new, stricter measures took effect. I had to undergo a seven-day home quarantine, but my single most acute emotion was that of relief when I heard the plane’s wheels touch the Changi tarmac. It was so overwhelming that I cried—I could not imagine being anywhere else but home, trying to make sense of Covid. 




 

Ed Booty
Chief strategy officer, Publicis Groupe APAC & MEA

 

As the world was closing down in March 2020, I found myself as the only passenger on a rather large plane from Amsterdam to Singapore. It was an odd sensation of indulgence combined with impending apocalypse. Travel had never felt more necessary and yet so terribly wasteful. It also proved to be an experiment in how many times in a 13-hour period one person can be offered ‘another glass of wine?’, a facility I would perhaps have made more liberal use of had I known I would be locked at home with my children for the subsequent two years…

 

Charles Lankester
EVP, Ruder Finn Asia

My lasting memory of the Covid craziness? Going into quarantine “jail”, albeit at a very nice hotel, and being greeted by Robbie the Robot a.k.a the Hong Kong Government’s PCR testing vacuum cleaner. Honestly I don’t know what it was for but it looked like a big blue robot which was present when PCR tests were done for quarantine inmates. If it wasn’t bad enough to be locked into a room for seven days—luckier than some of course—this weird device and my PCR testers were my only visitors! I think I suffered a bit from Stockholm Syndrome as I possibly began to look forward to Robbie’s visits. I wonder where Robbie is today? In fact, scratch that. I don’t want to know.

 

Huiwen Tow
Head of strategy, Virtue APAC

It would be when travel resumed and we started moving about the region to meet our teams in person for the first time. We had never met a lot of hires in real life before. The thing with virtual interations is that you don't get a sense of how tall people are, so I was quite surprised when some of my colleagues turned out to be taller or shorter than I had imagined! Now we have an internal game at Virtue, where we take bets on a person's height when they are visiting. No prizes for guessing right or wrong though.


 



Hans Lopez-Vito
COO, BBDO Asia

When sensible people were staying home, I loved going quietly into the office to work on pitches. No one asked or expected anyone to show up, yet there were four other over-eager colleagues who showed up everyday too. We brainstormed, wrote slides, reviewed creative work, argued, and had an amazing opportunity to bond. Public transports were a breeze too. No sight of other humans, immaculately manicured streets and a few people in an otherwise empty office.

The best part of it all was the bonding we shared. Doing something sort of foolish together is an effective way to strengthen team culture. I guess you could say it was our Band of Brothers (and lone sister) moment. What was the outcome of this Covid adventure? While we lost our first pitch, we won the second one, and that client eventually became a top-3 client in terms of revenue. Looking back at it, showing up every day to the office was well worth the risk of infection because I made memories I'll never forget.


Divika Jethmal
Regional marketing manager, Carma Asia
 

Anticipating the novelty of virtual work and the lifestyle changes that I needed to make, would have to be my most surreal memory. That one weekend before the lockdown I raced to Ikea to invest in upgrades for my room to make it cosier, such as more candles, plants, lamps, a new throw (only to discover half the Singapore population had the same idea as me. Remember the queues at Ikea Alexandra, anyone?) Lockdowns getting extended, hearing relatives suffer medical illnesses and not being able to fly out to meet them, that also stays poignantly stuck in my heart. But I am thankful for the good habits: home cooking, reading, more yoga-mat workouts, I even started a small business selling pão de queijo (Brazilian cheese breads)!

 

Josh Gallagher
Chief operating officer, APAC, EssenceMediacom

I had directly come off a flight from Singapore to Adelaide and doing this big pitch on my phone. New business pitching during the pandemic was weird and wonderful. Despite the odd situation some of us found ourselves in, it provided unprecedented exposure. Virtual meetings took away barriers associated with pitching, such as travelling to a foreign country and standing alone without a script in front of an audience of critics. This provided a new opportunity to show off capability to the world, have a seat at the table, and for many, have a voice. 
 

Yeelim Lee
COO, Edelman Singapore

The post-apocalyptic, eerie feeling which came from the whole city during the pandemic, is something I won't forget. I remember driving down a once bustling street that was now totally deserted. No other vehicle on the streets, the shuttered shops, the lifeless mall and masked queues at the supermarket of people stocking up on basic necessities. I remember thinking, this isn’t far off a movie scene like "28 Days Later"! The last three years have felt like a lifetime, I’m so happy we’re back to normal. 

 




Prajakta Paranjpe
Senior VP, Media Planning, APAC, EssenceMediacom

For me it was the time spent discovering Singapore! When there were no flights going out, I used every weekend to discover a new spot in this beautiful country. From forests and rivers, to hills and city routes, a few friends and I walked across the country over 200km to cover different landscapes and locations. Through this journey, I thoroughly enjoyed the local food, met wonderful people, and learnt a lot about Singapore’s history. Although the pandemic is behind us, I hope to continue discovering Singapore!

 


Patricia Friejo
VP, Customer growth, TrafficGuard


The feeling of getting anxious watching TV shows of characters without masks! That was when Singapore had really double downed on masks with mandates, fines etc. My brain had been rewired with Covid fear during those early days of the lockdown. Who knew that a simple piece of cloth could become the ultimate accessory and save lives at the same time?







GuanHin Tay
Creative chairman, BBDO Singapore

Playing on Zoom’s virtual backgrounds for the first time! In 2020, when we were stuck indoors and bored to death; the world even took up baking and cooking, I missed Singapore’s great outdoors. Thanks to technology, it was fun enjoying the virtual roller coasters and getting mentally transported to ‘normal times’. Must watch the video here.

 


Alexandra Lowes
Vice president, Client Engagement and Growth, APAC, Finecast


Beep beep | siren and alarm wails until the attendant can work out how to turn it off. I thought body temperature controls were a great idea until I casually passed through one and caused a mini evacuation of a shopping centre during peak covid regulations. A brisk walk in Singapore heat had left me hot – I was mortified! Today, I am still grateful for the renewed freedom of walking through doors without controls.


 


 

Florence Shui
Regional finance director, BBDO Asia

It was the first time we switched to work from home and there was an acronym for it–WFH. The switch to online discussions, digital workflows, becoming tech savvy and tech-reliant all while maintaining a work-life balance and safeguarding your mental health: that challenge, that feeling stays with me.
 

Juliana Zainal Aznam
Head, INCA Malaysia


The resilience we collectively showed, both professionally and personally—that still blows my mind. To get used to working from home, immediately think on our feet, co-ordinate live video campaign, the complete switch of briefing, scripting, rehearsals and other process and an overnight adaptation of the new workflow—that’s still surreal to believe.

Source:
Campaign Asia

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