Serving the Needy During the Outbreak

How are the 700 needy households under the care of Tzu Chi Singapore coping with the COVID-19 outbreak? Read how volunteers launched the Outbreak Relief Program to serve them during the coronavirus crisis.

I need to make sure that there are sufficient supplies of daily necessities for my mother, especially food and toilet paper,” said Xu, a Tzu Chi care recipient in Singapore. “I was a little worried when I heard about the panic buying because I’d never encountered such a situation before.”

For the last 11 years, Xu has been the sole caregiver for her mother, who suffers from dementia. Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Xu must not only look after herself, but also ensure the safety and health of her mother. However, the escalation of the coronavirus situation and the shortage of face masks and hand sanitizer have posed great challenges to her.

“I am a caregiver, and I am worried.”

Tzu Chi volunteers have been caring for Xu for four years. On February 19, 2020, they arrived at her home with adult diapers and a gift pack, which included four face masks, a bottle of hand sanitizer, vitamin C, and a package of Tzu Chi instant rice. Also included in the gift pack was a handwritten blessing card for Xu and her mother.

To reduce face-to-face meetings during the coronavirus outbreak, volunteers arranged for adult diapers for the month of March to be distributed a month earlier, in February. Xu was warmed by volunteers’ thoughtfulness and relieved to have the extra diapers on hand earlier than expected. “Adult diapers are a necessity for my mother,” Xu commented. “I never thought that I would be receiving the diapers earlier. I can now focus on taking care of my mother.”

Xu has cared for her mother for a long time, so long that she has suffered impairments of her own as a result. For example, her wrist ligament has been damaged from washing her mother and cleaning up the house. Despite the resulting discomfort, Xu, 64, dared not seek medical treatment at a hospital because she didn’t have a face mask to wear. Although the Singaporean government distributed four face masks to each household in early February, it was not enough for her. Without a mask, she was worried about picking up the virus at the hospital and passing it on to her mother.

“Face masks are treasured items in a time like this,” Xu said, referring to the shortage of face masks caused by the outbreak. “I tried my best to get some online, but couldn’t find any.” Just as she was wracking her brain about what else she could do, she received a call from a Tzu Chi brother informing her that Tzu Chi volunteers would be distributing face masks. She was very relieved to receive such good news.

“I’m very grateful to Tzu Chi,” she added. “I need all the items in this gift pack.” She explained that the vitamin C could help strengthen her immune system, the hand sanitizer could help her keep clean, and the instant rice could easily be made into porridge for her mother and save her time.

Volunteers deliver gift bags to families during the Outbreak Relief Program.

Calming their minds

Singapore once had the third highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases outside of China, after South Korea and Japan. The fast spreading disease sparked unrest in local communities there, leading to panic buying for stockpiling, as mentioned by Xu. In response to mounting public anxiety, and because disadvantaged families are often the most vulnerable in a crisis like this, Tzu Chi Singapore launched an Outbreak Relief Program on February 8 for more than 700 households receiving the foundation’s long-term care.

To safeguard the health of both care recipients and volunteers, Tzu Chi Singapore cancelled most routine home visits for March. Instead, volunteers phoned care recipients to see how they were responding to the outbreak and to ask if they needed anything. They learned that some care recipients were still short of face masks and hand sanitizer, so volunteers delivered these essential items to the households themselves. Volunteers also discovered that some care recipients were receiving coronavirus prevention information from unreliable sources. This prompted volunteers to disseminate correct and positive messages to the care recipients via text.

Khoo Jyh Hao (邱志豪), head of Tzu Chi Singapore’s Charity Development Department and coordinator of the Outbreak Relief Program, said that while the government has made great efforts in containing the outbreak, Tzu Chi Singapore is doing its part to calm the anxieties of its care recipients. He pointed out that although the government has distributed face masks to households, there could still be some who were left out, “especially those who are living alone or bedridden or those who hadn’t received the information. There could also be families with sick members or those who need face masks urgently due to their occupations.”

Hello, how are you doing?

More than a hundred volunteers were mobilized to phone care recipients and check on how they were doing. Guided by a questionnaire, volunteers learned about each family’s current situation, including whether their life had been affected by the outbreak or whether any of their family members were under a Leave of Absence or Home Quarantine Order. This latter information was useful in helping volunteers assess the financial situation of the family. If it was necessary, Tzu Chi would arrange subsidies for such families.

Volunteers also asked about the sources that care recipients were relying on to get the latest updates on the coronavirus infection. Compared to the SARS epidemic in 2003, the overabundance and easy availability of information online has made it harder for people to determine what information is credible and trustworthy. To make that process easier, volunteers advised care recipients to subscribe to official channels established by the government so that they could get reliable updates on COVID-19.

Volunteers phoned a total of 521 families. In addition to assessing their needs, volunteers took note of those who preferred not to have visitors during this time. Though volunteers couldn’t visit all families personally, they still reached out to them. “We can still—thanks to advances in technology—use our mobile phones to show our care for them,” said Ong Hui Shen (王慧嫺), who has many years of experience in conducting home visits to the needy. “We can, for example, text them at least once a week to ascertain if they are all doing well.”

Different household reactions to the outbreak

Volunteers that conducted home visits during the Outbreak Relief Program were required to take special precautions. They had to wear a mask and sanitize their hands before and after a home visit. In addition, each visit was limited to under 30 minutes.

“The outbreak hasn’t affected me much,” said Mak Mis, an elderly care recipient. She has lived alone for a long time and is a typical example of an extreme optimist. Based on their experience, volunteers found it necessary to visit Mak Mis at her home instead of simply relying on phone calls. Upon their visit, they discovered that she had only three masks left and no hand sanitizer. The gift pack would come in handy for her.

The arrival of Tzu Chi volunteers made her day. “Thank you very much,” she said cheerfully to the visitors. “Gan en [Chinese for ‘thank you’].”

Unlike Mak Mis, another care recipient, Liu, appeared more cautious faced with the threat of the coronavirus. She was a former police officer but had become handicapped as a result of a car accident. She was fully aware of the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, but didn’t have enough face masks. She was especially worried about her husband, a taxi driver. He was required to wear a mask at work every day to reduce the risk of infection. Despite that precaution, she was still concerned about his safety.

Though Tzu Chi couldn’t give her many masks, she was still very grateful. She said to the visiting volunteers, “When you called to ask what we needed, I knew that it was hard for you during this time to get enough supplies for us. And yet, you were still so willing to help. For that I’m very thankful.”

Volunteers delivered gift packs to 487 households spread across Singapore under the Outbreak Relief Program, which couldn’t have happened without the volunteers’ selfless participation. Khoo thanked everyone for their help. He said about the home visits, “As long as we take adequate precautions to ensure the safety of both the care recipients and ourselves, we needn’t be overly worried [about possible infection].”

The program allowed volunteers to send their heartfelt regards and deliver much needed supplies to the underprivileged during a challenging time. Behind the concerted effort was the dedication, love, and warmth of each participating volunteer.

Khoo Jyh Hao, head of Tzu Chi Singapore’s Charity Development Department, visits a needy family. Inside the gift pack Tzu Chi prepared for each underprivileged household were four face masks, a bottle of hand sanitizer, vitamin C, and a package of Tzu Chi instant rice. Lai Tong Heng


May 2020