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By Aidalina Mahili

It’s another flight cancellation from XX, I just can’t be bothered,” a long sigh and Zayn excused himself from the conference room. The look of distraught on his face was expected.

That was the fourth time within two months that his flight was cancelled at the eleventh hour. This would mean another trip to PDRM, new state entry application and certainly that pointless leave retraction-resubmission with the Human Resource. And by then his new-born baby is already three months old; of whom he has not met, touched and held closely. Should he made it to the plane, he would have to endure another 14-days of mandatory quarantine and series of swab tests that has got to yield negative results. But for now, he will be heading home to an empty house, another night of solitude. 

Although the government allows long distance married couple to travel interstate but the bureaucracy that follows makes it difficult for them, and this involves mandatory quarantine, state approvals, micro administrative procedure at the workplace, pre-tests and the list goes on. Not to mention ridiculously priced and limited air tickets—leaving them with no choice but to stay put and endure behind closed doors. No amount of empathy could make up to these uncalled red tapes. That process itself is emotionally draining for a person.

Zayn is not alone in his quandary; in fact, he is one of the many bistate couples who are suffering in silence since the pandemic hit. COVID-19 has a whole different agenda for long distance relationships and it is not rosy at all.

  The government’s well intended effort in preventing the spread of the virus may be commended and looked up to but after almost a year battling as resistance, we must not gloze over the fact that we dismiss the elevated problem of family separation during the lockdowns. On top of the complexity of long-distance relationship, where separation itself has been taxing; travel bans or rapidity of changes in entry requirements might have embedded or even heightened a new problem, which is one’s mental health. The affected ones seek help silently, anonymously ranting over social media for one’s fear that his plight is insignificant from those glorified, the only deservingly front liners. As if punished for their decisions to settle down as bistate-couples, their dire situations are quickly dismissed and silenced. Worse, they’re accused of being tone deaf against the heroic narrative of the front liners who have to endure months of not seeing their family, hence they should just accept what’s coming at them. More often than not, their nagging of being apart from their spouse is mocked and underestimated. They are not measure up as men and deemed “weak” compared to the sacrifices by the front liners. Whining over their predicament often fell on deaf ears and considered as isolated cases. Hence, these people will struggle in silence, scared to voice out as their opinion are not considered as vox populi.

“Hey can you be patient for a little more time, at least when the travel bans is uplifted, other people can wait, why not you too? Now stay and man up. Get on board and flatten the curve”, one swears this was spit out from his superior’s mouth and he stopped appealing since then. His wife, also a career-driven individual is left alone to manage four children at home during the lockdowns. Imagine, the toll must have been steepest for the wife; she would have suffered loss of focus, energy, sleep, and slowly declining in her religious practice, leaving him an anxiety-ridden, borderline depressed life partner by the end of the restrictions; regardless the curve is flattened.

And Zayn here is only one example. Are we prepared to have a line-up of broken marriage institutions just because we want to be number one in containing the virus? Is statistic too important that certain state government keep on imposing non-targeted travel bans? Despite their willingness to get screened, tested and to undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine, they are still expected to be discreet and prudent in voicing out their appeal and implore the government to ease inter-state entry requirements. Sadly; even after a year and steadily increased of positive cases due to cursory guidelines, Zayn and these long-distance ‘victims’ are still deemed petty because addressing this will only open another can of worms, as if there are not enough issues surrounding the pandemic at this moment.

While being locked down with families is the major headline to promote the positive side during this pandemic, it is not always true. We all know that is the case. As the saying goes, too much of anything will bring no good. Being cooped together have made us felt the strain of the relationship. While for some, spending time in lockdowns concreted their relationship, but for others it’d be a perfect thunder strike for financial hardship, loss of job, children not being at school and eventually led to intense parental conflict. More time together at home has brought sharper focus in looking for fault which does not happened before; thanks to the void we had in office or in school. And if this the case for those who are locked down with their family, what about those who are apart?

 Long distance married couple especially the one left managing the household braced the hardest impact during the lockdowns. Although most are fortunate with their basic needs being taken care of, it doesn’t make it less tormenting for them. Intermittent visits used to be sensibly scheduled and they are actually incentives for all the hard work he or she had put in a marriage, but when travel bans and hollow guidelines are imposed, this has left the significant other felt robbed of their incentives, living with uncertainties yet the fact that he or she is running the show alone. How can they stay optimistic in these difficult times? We have already way passed the saying “Absence makes the heart grows fonder”, in fact it is now considered insensitive and an obsolete phrase. Social media plays a vital link in salvaging separated families during this COVID19 pandemic. They could be available online 24/7 but that is simply another restriction, it is the body language that they are longing for, not just words and pointless selfies. Even in a normal relationship words tend to get in the way and as human beings we resort to tender touch to convey the message.  Forced isolation on couples often result in arguments, as miscommunications slide into silence, leaving patience (and passion) hanging by a thread.

And this applies to isolated older adults i.e. parents during the pandemic. In the name of public health and planking the curve, these group of people are ironically most vulnerable to illness and the pandemic itself. Being a generation not familiar to digitalisation; exacerbated their condition of mental health. Prolonged lacking of social interaction and physical care from the kin somehow feared to induce mental depression and resorted to hallucination. In Malaysia, although these examples are anecdotal, it is an issue deserved to be looked into. Isolation among senior citizens is worrying. As a culture that cultivate care and engagement of the elderly, pandemic situation definitely hampers this course.

Focusing on lives but neglecting on livelihood has been the elephant in the room. Being enthralled to only COVID19 and MCO makes these issues suffering a lack of proper address. We wouldn’t want a social ostracism a time bomb in this long run of COVID19 fight.

*Government through the Ministry of The Women, Family and Community Development provides Talian Kasih at 15999 or whatsapp 0192615999 to the affected to seek help and support. They are taking all issues concerning abuse, domestic violence and mental health seriously.

** The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of M-Update