You’re Not Alone—An Overview of Tzu Chi’s Global Aid in 2021

Over 5.2 million people around the world had succumbed to COVID-19 by early December 2021. Despite vaccinations, breakthrough infections continued to put people at significant risk for infection. Even so, more and more countries decided to pivot in their response to the pandemic. Instead of eradicating the virus, they took the stance of learning to live with it. They lifted lockdowns, reopened borders, and eased travel rules to boost their economies. At the same time, Tzu Chi volunteers around the world continued to monitor the pandemic in their countries and offer help to the vulnerable. In addition to the challenges presented by the pandemic, 2021 saw our world beset by one natural disaster after another. Overcoming difficulties created by COVID-19, volunteers reached out to those affected, using their actions to show the less fortunate: “You’re not alone.”

In September 2021, tropical storm Dianmu triggered the worst flooding to hit low-lying regions in Lopburi Province, Thailand, in 20 years. Tzu Chi volunteers distributed food and cleaning implements to victims in three districts in October. Natthaya Thanatkittiphong

Saving Lives Is As Urgent

As Fighting Fires

Tzu Chi has provided aid in 126 countries and regions since it was founded, 24 of which were added in the last two years as a result of the pandemic. There were not even Tzu Chi volunteers in most of those new countries or regions. How did the foundation manage to overcome such a lack of manpower and get help to those in need amidst lockdowns and closed borders?

The novel coronavirus started spreading across the globe in early 2020, sparing no corner of the globe and impacting every economy in its path. The rollout of vaccines a year after the infection started brought a glimmer of hope that the end of the pandemic was in sight. But months later, in April 2021, the pandemic hit a new peak. Twenty million new cases were diagnosed in 30 days, over 900,000 of them in a single day, April 23. One third of those new infections were reported in India.

India had been among the countries hit the hardest by the infection since it had started sweeping the globe. The situation there was brought under control for a time, thanks to the government’s strict disease control measures, but daily case numbers began to rise sharply in March 2021 as restrictions were eased and as political and religious events brought out large crowds. More than six million cases were diagnosed and 45,000 people died in April alone. The rapid surge in confirmed cases overwhelmed the country’s healthcare system. Hospital beds, medications, and ventilators were in severe short supply. Many of those who died perished as a result of a short supply of oxygen. Families scrambled to buy oxygen cylinders on the black market for their loved ones. The news coming from India made the hearts of people around the world wrench in pain and sorrow.

A number of countries in Southeast Asia saw a resurgence of confirmed cases around the same time. One of the contributing factors was the rise of the highly transmissible Delta variant. Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines were among the countries that experienced a resurgence. In response, Tzu Chi donated medical supplies, helped with vaccination programs, and provided food relief to the underprivileged in these countries.

At the same time, Tzu Chi launched an aid program dedicated to helping people in seven countries in South and Southeast Asia suffering because of the pandemic. These seven countries were India and nearby countries, including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Laos. Food was purchased locally to distribute to the needy to help them through this difficult time. To address shortages, medical equipment and supplies were donated to healthcare institutions.

Among the medical equipment donated, oxygen plants, designed to generate oxygen, were the most special items. Tzu Chi had never donated such equipment before, but foundation personnel discovered that the equipment was badly needed after conferring with health authorities, medical institutions, and charity organizations in India and Nepal. Because hospitals were struggling with a short oxygen supply, the foundation decided to purchase and donate the equipment to hospitals in India and Nepal to help them better care for patients. Life is precious. As the Chinese saying goes, “Saving lives is as urgent as fighting fires.”

Donating the oxygen plants required planning and coordination. The amount of medical oxygen each hospital needed was different, and there were also installation requirements to consider. To ensure that the equipment donated really met the needs of the beneficiary hospitals, Tzu Chi headquarters in Hualien formed a team to handle the purchase of the oxygen plants. The team enlisted the help of experts and reviewed product specifications such as the make, model number, storage capacity, and other technical details to make final decisions. Finally, they arranged for flights to transport the equipment.

In 2020, Tzu Chi worked with 12 organizations in India to help people financially impacted by COVID-19. The organizations that partnered with Tzu Chi included ABM Samaj Prabodhan Sanstha (a Buddhist non-profit), the Camillians (a Roman Catholic missionary order based in Italy), the Missionaries of Charity (a Catholic religious congregation established by Mother Teresa), and several Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. A total of 140,000 food packages were distributed to needy families as a result of this cooperation. When the pandemic took a turn for the worse in India in April 2021, Tzu Chi continued to work with these partners and other like-minded people to distribute more aid. All told, more than 329 organizations spread across India received aid from Tzu Chi during this time.

Simon Shyong (熊士民), deputy CEO of the Tzu Chi charity mission, led a team to organize the foundation’s COVID support. It was a mission riddled with challenges, whether it be from purchasing the aid, transporting it, or getting it delivered. The deputy CEO recalled that when the coronavirus first broke out in China, catching everyone off guard, Tzu Chi quickly obtained personal protective equipment and other anti-coronavirus supplies in other countries and sent them to areas hit hard by the infection to help China combat the disease. Later, in March 2020, when other countries began to experience a surge in cases, the foundation once again jumped into action to prepare and donate needed supplies to those countries. When COVID variants started appearing in September 2020, Tzu Chi took preemptive action and warehoused anti-coronavirus supplies in countries across several continents to extend a helping hand as quickly as possible. When the pandemic accelerated in Asia in April 2021, the items donated by the foundation included specialized medical equipment. Over the course of the pandemic, Tzu Chi has donated more than 10,000 oxygen concentrators alone.

Since its founding in 1966, Tzu Chi has provided assistance to 126 countries and areas, 24 of which were newly added in the last two years as a result of the pandemic. There were no Tzu Chi volunteers in most of those new countries. How did the foundation manage to get relief to those in need in those countries amidst lockdowns and closed borders? Simon Shyong explained they acted on Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s instructions: they had sought out people and organizations that could help Tzu Chi get its assistance to the needy in those countries. There was no challenge too big when everyone combined their resources and worked together. Technology had come in very handy in the process too, enabling Tzu Chi personnel to meet partnering individuals or organizations online to talk things over and arrange related matters.

By adapting to changing circumstances, proactively seeking opportunities to help, and partnering with like-minded organizations—even if they espoused different religious beliefs than Buddhism—Tzu Chi was able to reach and help people the world over.

Outpouring of Support Amidst

the Pandemic

Text and photo provided by Tzu Chi Indonesia

Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting

One feels small and insignificant faced with the massive impact of the coronavirus crisis. But the pandemic also brought forth an outpouring of love, enabling support to reach the underprivileged across the nation.

According to information released in April 2021 by Lapor COVID-19, an independent data initiative in Indonesia, nearly a thousand doctors and nurses in the nation had died by that time from COVID. Though more than a year had passed since the infection broke out, no one could have predicted that another wave was just around the corner. The large number of people returning home in mid-May 2021 for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, ushered in a second wave of the coronavirus in Indonesia. It was exacerbated by the rapid transmission of the Delta variant. The peak came in mid-July, with more than 50,000 new cases reported each day. One-fourth of those new cases occurred in Jakarta, the capital. It wasn’t until late August that the daily infection rate began to significantly decline. Even so, the country’s case count had topped four million by August 24.

The sharp spike in confirmed cases impacted Indonesia’s medical system. The emergency room at Tzu Chi Great Love Hospital in Cengkareng, West Jakarta, was overwhelmed. Dr. Adrianus Kanasis, leader of the anti-COVID team at the hospital, said that his cell phone rang incessantly every day during that time, from early morning to midnight. Some people were calling to inquire if they could get a bed in the hospital; others were seeking help because they or their loved ones had contracted COVID-19. Kanasis worked long hours through those days, and if being overworked wasn’t bad enough, his brother and his entire family were diagnosed with the disease and hospitalized. That critical time was hard on Kanasis, but he wasn’t the only medical worker mentally and physically exhausted. The situation was typical among those in his line of work.

In response to the second wave, Indonesia Tzu Chi Hospital, a new Tzu Chi medical facility originally scheduled to open for a trial run on October 1, set up a pandemic center and started serving COVID patients on June 14. The center opened with 56 beds, all of which were occupied within a day. An even greater challenge came when one third of the medical personnel at Tzu Chi Great Love Hospital and Indonesia Tzu Chi Hospital were diagnosed with COVID, one after another. Tzu Chi Indonesia quickly offered a vacant building at Tzu Chi Great Love Hospital—slated to be used as a dormitory for the hospital’s nursing staff—to temporarily serve as an isolation facility for Tzu Chi employees and other patients with mild symptoms.

On October 5, 2021, with the help of maritime police officers, Tzu Chi volunteers in Pekanbaru, the capital of the province of Riau, distributed 300 bags of rice, each weighing ten kilograms, to fishermen and other laborers who lived along the Siak River and whose livelihoods had been affected by the pandemic.

Patients had a hard time getting a hospital bed with the medical system in Indonesia overwhelmed by the second wave. The demand for medical oxygen outstripped the supply too, resulting in patient deaths. Tzu Chi headquarters in Taiwan promptly bought 5,000 oxygen concentrators to help. The equipment was purchased in China and transported via chartered flights to Indonesia, then sent by Tzu Chi Indonesia to medical institutions across the nation.

“No one could have known that Indonesia would have suffered such a huge impact from the pandemic,” said Sugianto Kusuma (郭再源), deputy CEO of Tzu Chi Indonesia. “Master Cheng Yen has said this pandemic is like a grand lesson for us all, helping us to realize how small and insignificant human beings are. For Tzu Chi Indonesia, however, the pandemic also brought forth an outpouring of love.” Kusuma explained that when the coronavirus infection broke out in March 2020, many entrepreneurs in Indonesia responded to Tzu Chi’s appeal and donated money to buy ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) for front-line workers. “Our hearts ached when we learned that many health professionals were wearing raincoats because they were short on protective clothing,” said the deputy CEO. After buying desperately needed medical equipment and PPE, Tzu Chi worked with the military and police to deliver the items to over a thousand hospitals and 284 government health agencies in 25 provinces.

The donation of medical supplies and equipment aside, Tzu Chi Indonesia has also been helping the underprivileged weather the pandemic. In February 2021, to mark the Chinese New Year, Tzu Chi and the business sector together launched a project to give out a million gift packs, each containing a ten-kilogram (22-pound) bag of rice and 20 medical masks, to destitute families. Another aid project was started by the foundation in August to buy vegetarian boxed meals from vendors impacted by the pandemic and give them to the needy. As of October 2021, more than 32,000 meals had been purchased and distributed to those in need.

Isha, a vendor in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, was one of those who benefited from this project. “When I received Tzu Chi’s order,” he said, “I was so happy I couldn’t fall asleep. I kept wondering if this was reality or a dream. I decided to give a discount so I could help others too. I hope I can help spread happiness through this Tzu Chi activity.”

Helping With an

Oxygen Deficiency

Information provided by Huang Lu-fa and Chen Yong-hua

Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting

A third wave of the coronavirus erupted in Myanmar in mid-2021, resulting in a deficiency of oxygen supplies and causing the public to panic. Many Tzu Chi volunteers were also diagnosed with the infection. A shortage of manpower presented a tough challenge as volunteers mobilized to organize and distribute aid. Despite the challenges, they continued to help those in need.

The COVID-19 pandemic in Myanmar took a drastic turn for the worse in June 2021. Hospitals were filled to capacity in a few short days, stretching oxygen supplies thin. Some patients were forced to go into isolation at home and treat themselves with oxygen they had obtained themselves. Outside oxygen-producing factories, long lines of people, disregarding curfews and COVID precautionary protocols, waited anxiously to buy their own private supplies. A sense of panic pervaded society.

Daw Thida Khin (李金蘭), head of Tzu Chi Myanmar, recalled that difficult time. By June and July, the pandemic had pushed the nation’s healthcare system over the brink. The demand for oxygen concentrators and other equipment spiked. People were knocking on the door of the Tzu Chi office, begging for the foundation to provide them with oxygen supplies to save their family. Not long after the surge in cases, many Tzu Chi volunteers themselves were diagnosed with the infection, making it even harder for them to provide relief. “Myanmar has been plagued by natural and man-made disasters since 2008,” said Daw Thida Khin. “With support from Master Cheng Yen and Tzu Chi volunteers around the world, we’ve managed to conduct many large-scale distributions of rice and rice seeds for the needy. Never before have we encountered such difficulties as we did this time in providing assistance to the needy, because many volunteers and their family members also fell victim to the disease.”

Oxygen concentrators and cylinders donated by Tzu Chi were delivered to remote villages, mountainous areas, communities, and hospitals to help save lives. Photo above by Yi Mon Than; left photo by Nay Thura

Diagnosed cases among volunteers and staffers started popping up in late June. In response, Tzu Chi Myanmar provided isolation space for those volunteers and employees who needed it. Aye Nandar Aung (郭寶鈺), deputy head of Tzu Chi Myanmar, was among those infected. As soon as she recovered, she contacted doctors in her community and arranged treatment for her fellow volunteers who had been diagnosed with COVID-19. When the volunteers had regained their health, they would not go home but instead threw themselves into Tzu Chi’s work. They joined other volunteers to distribute food to the vulnerable. From the time the pandemic started to October 2021, Tzu Chi Myanmar provided enough food to benefit more than 100,000 households.

On July 10, 2021, volunteer U Kyaw Khin (林銘慶) personally visited Yangon Region’s Phaung Gyi Hospital, Myanmar’s largest medical facility for the isolation and treatment of COVID patients. The day after the visit, he applied to Tzu Chi headquarters in Taiwan for a large amount of oxygen concentrators and cylinders to help Myanmar ride out the challenges posed by the pandemic. The application was instantly granted. U Kyaw Khin followed up by asking Dr. Than Than Aye, the superintendent of Grand Hantha Hospital, to help take care of the import procedures of the medical equipment.

Much to everyone’s surprise, U Kyaw Khin himself was diagnosed with COVID-19 in mid-July. Many of his relatives and friends fell victim to the disease too, one after the other. Some even died. U Kyaw Khin often had trouble falling asleep at night, having witnessed firsthand the suffering caused by the disease and worried about the collapse of the nation’s medical system. He performed rapid COVID-19 testing on himself every day, hoping that the result would eventually come back negative, leaving him free to go out to volunteer and take care of other important business. He only felt a sense of relief when he learned that the medical equipment he had applied for was on its way to Myanmar. “There were no flights available when we first tried to bring in the equipment by air, so we were put on the waiting list. But because the hospitals here desperately needed the equipment, we were really worried. The difficulties we encountered in the process were numerous. It was like fighting a war. You had to be at the ready all the time.”

Even though he could not go out, he didn’t sit around idly. He phoned hospital administrators and government officials every day to determine the number of oxygen concentrators needed and arrange for their transportation. He became even busier after he recovered—constantly taking care of relief work. Though he was very busy, it pleased him more than anything that he could contribute his bit during this difficult time and help relieve suffering.

Eventually, all the 1,759 oxygen concentrators and 658 oxygen cylinders provided by Tzu Chi headquarters arrived in different shipments in Myanmar. They were then delivered to hospitals, isolation centers, and monasteries across the country. Some of the oxygen concentrators were placed in the Tzu Chi office in Yangon to be loaned out to community residents for free. People who borrowed the equipment returned it as soon as they could so that it could be used to save more people. Daw Thida Khin said, “We’ve saved nearly 2,000 people. The value of our equipment is beyond measure.”

The Taste of Rice

Information provided by Tzu Chi Kuala Lumpur and Selangor

Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting

A little girl was so happy to receive a bag of rice from Tzu Chi she used it as a pillow, falling soundly asleep.

The pandemic in Malaysia became very severe in July 2021. It peaked in August with nearly 25,000 new cases recorded in a single day. The Movement Control Order was lifted and reinstated repeatedly, impacting businesses and industries across the board. Low-income families were hit especially hard and had difficulties putting food on their table. A social movement called the White Flag emerged in the midst of these dire circumstances to enable struggling Malaysians to ask for help. Food banks were also set up to aid the needy. The Tzu Chi Kuala Lumpur and Selangor branch responded by launching a food care project for communities. From July to September, enough food to help 45,000 families was given out at more than 40 locations.

One of the mothers helped by Tzu Chi had been using flour to make various foods for her family, her rice supply long since depleted. At first her children dreamed of having rice to eat, but that dream nearly faded away as the pandemic dragged on and the family struggled to make ends meet. So, when the family received some food from Tzu Chi, among which was a five-kilogram (11-pound) bag of rice, they were overjoyed. When a volunteer phoned the family afterwards to check on them, the mother said happily, “My youngest daughter was so happy with the bag of rice, she used it as a pillow and fell soundly asleep.”

On September 10, volunteer Yap Poh Wee (葉寶蔚) received a message on her cell phone from a Burmese refugee, Samira: “Do you know of any place where I can apply for free food? We have only half a can of powdered milk left at home. My husband and I are waiting to get our second COVID shots, so we can’t go look for a job yet.” Upon receiving the message, Yap applied for Samira to a Tzu Chi food care project for refugees. As soon as she received the gift vouchers intended for Samira, she rushed to her home to deliver them.

Yap had also helped Samira obtain financial aid from Tzu Chi a couple of months earlier, in July. Since the pandemic was bad at the time, Yap knew that it would be a hassle to get food at a store, so when she and other volunteers delivered the financial aid to Samira, they also brought her food and other essentials donated from their own homes. They donated baby diapers, face masks, canned food, vegetables, instant noodles, and eggs. Samira burst into tears when she saw the gifts prepared by the volunteers.

Samira left Myanmar for Malaysia 13 years ago. She met her future husband in Malaysia and started a family with him. The couple never asked for help from others until the pandemic, which hit them hard. They couldn’t pay their rent and their children were starving. At their wits’ ends, they sought help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “An official there called me back and told me there was a charity organization that could help me,” Samira recalled. She contacted the charity organization and was surprised by how quickly the volunteers arrived at her home. She was even more surprised when she learned that the organization was the very one and the same that had provided her free medical treatment at a free clinic in Kuala Lumpur.

Samira (middle) burst into tears when she saw the food delivered by Tzu Chi volunteers. Lin Zhen Sheng

There are more than 170,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia. With no legal identity, they were hard pressed to get by, even before the coronavirus outbreak. The pandemic just added insult to their financial injury—their income was cut off when the Movement Control Order was enacted and they couldn’t go out to work.

Seeing the need, Tzu Chi and the UNHCR co-launched a program in April 2020 to help refugees cope with the crisis. The UN agency provided the relief funds and lists of potential refugees for help, and Tzu Chi volunteers assessed the refugees’ conditions and delivered cash to their homes if their aid was approved. Aid was given out every three months under the program, for a maximum of nine months.

Volunteers learned about the plight of many refugees as a result of the program. Some had been evicted from their rentals because they couldn’t afford their rent, and quite a few others were running out of food supplies at home. In August 2021, Tzu Chi Kuala Lumpur and Selangor started another care program for refugees, offering gift vouchers to be used at designated stores. Upon receiving their gift vouchers, a mother and son purchased two bags of rice along with other food. With tears coursing down their cheeks, they said, “We’ve been getting by on just one meal every other day for the last two months. Never once have we felt full during all that time. But that will change tonight. We’ll fry up some eggs to go with rice. We’ll finally be able to eat our fill.”

The Buddhist Tzu Chi Free Clinic in Kuala Lumpur has remained open during the pandemic. Dr. Foo Seay Liang (符之良), the director of the free clinic, said: “It’s not easy for refugees to get healthcare. If we closed, what would they do?” The free clinic not only continues to provide treatment for refugees during the pandemic—they also arrange for chronic condition medications to be delivered to refugees’ homes. They also offer free COVID screening and vaccinations to make it easier for refugees to return to work and sustain their livelihoods.

The Buddhist Tzu Chi Free Clinic in Kuala Lumpur offers COVID-19 shots to refugees. Zhuang Gui He

A Pictorial Summary of Tzu Chi’s Major Post-Disaster Aid in 2021

A magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck Haiti on August 14, killing more than 2,000 people and destroying or damaging nearly 130,000 buildings. In response to the major disaster, Tzu Chi combined forces with local religious organizations to launch large-scale distributions in hard-hit areas. One of the distributions was held on October 1 in Beaumont. A total of 2,100 families received rice, other food items, and family medical kits. Keziah Jean
Hurricane Ida made landfall in the U.S.A. in late August. A state of emergency was declared in New York City as the city battled record-breaking rainfall and flooding. The first floors or basements of buildings were severely flooded; some people perished before they could escape to safety. Tzu Chi volunteers in New York City reached out to victims by providing them with cash cards. This picture shows a survivor moved to tears by Tzu Chi’s aid. Hannah Whisenant
Rioting and looting occurred in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces in July. Durban was among the areas devastated. Prices skyrocketed and people lost their jobs, making getting by even more difficult than usual. Tzu Chi volunteers delivered rice and other items to 141 community hot food stations. They also visited and provided care and aid to people in dire need of help. Courtesy of Tzu Chi Durban
Days of heavy rains battered Shanxi Province in China in early October, affecting more than 1.75 million people. Tzu Chi volunteers mobilized in the immediate aftermath to assess damage and provide aid. On October 12, they delivered Tzu Chi folding beds to a temporary shelter at Fenggu Elementary School in the city of Jinzhong and helped set up the beds. They followed up with more help, including distributing supplies in Laiyuan Township in Jinzhong in late October, aiding 1,400 people. Li Lixin


January 2022