The First Thing They Want to Do When the Pandemic Ends

Brazil has been one of the countries hit hardest by the pandemic, suffering some of the highest coronavirus rates and deaths over the past year. Tzu Chi volunteers there have done what they can to care for the needy throughout the dark days of the disease. They hope the pandemic can be reined in as soon as possible so they can restart their large-scale free clinic services.

Early one July morning in 2021, volunteers took up their posts at several COVID vaccination centers at Tzu Chi Jing Si Halls in New Taipei City, northern Taiwan, and Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, ready to guide and assist people coming to receive their shots. Taiwan was speeding up its inoculation campaign on the island, and Tzu Chi had joined to help in the effort.

At the same moment, local Tzu Chi volunteers were busy in Brazil’s most populous city, São Paulo. They were 11 time-zones behind Taiwan, so night had just fallen there. The volunteers were busy distributing meals to street people in the city center.

From March to May 2021, the daily number of COVID cases recorded in Brazil had ranged from 30,000 to 100,000. Knowing that the pandemic must have put the homeless in an even tighter spot, volunteers started a meal distribution project for them in June. Five volunteers usually travel together in a car for such distributions, bringing with them enough food and other supplies for 70 people, then walk the side streets to deliver the food, still warm, into the hands of the homeless.

“It’s no use distributing uncooked food to them,” said Chen Sou-yong (陳守永), head of Tzu Chi Brazil, as he explained why he and his fellow volunteers do not distribute the typical food packages they usually give out to other needy people. “They can’t cook on the street, so we cook for them at home, box the food up, and deliver it to them.” The volunteers distribute the food at night because street people are usually away at work during the day, and it is easier to find them at night.

Each portion of food the volunteers prepare is enough to feed 1.5 to two people. The boxed meals include bean paste, turmeric rice, noodles in tomato sauce, and potatoes. Such a meal is hearty enough to make a street person, who often goes hungry, feel full for a day. Volunteers are hoping that the extra calories and nutrition in the meals will strengthen the immune systems of the homeless and help them  avoid becoming sick with COVID.

In addition to hot food, volunteers also distribute a special kind of “blanket” to help the homeless stay warm. Because they do not have fixed, permanent dwellings, they have to be prepared to move frequently with what belongings they have. Their stuff needs to be lightweight and portable. To accommodate this need, volunteers learned from the Internet how to make blankets for the homeless from Tetra Paks. Volunteers collect used Tetra Pak cartons, disassemble and wash them, then sew them into sheets large enough for a person to use. They sew ties onto the sheets too, so that the blankets can be easily rolled up, tied, and carried. This greatly decreases the chance that homeless persons will lose the sheets.

Even though such blankets aren’t as durable as those made from regular textiles, they can provide protection from the rain and cold, so they are popular with the homeless.

Volunteers’ weekly winter night distributions to the homeless have warmed the hearts of those in need and buoyed the spirits of the volunteers themselves. As they prepare the hot meals and sew the Tetra Pak blankets, they experience the joy of helping others. “We are night angels,” volunteer Ester Ferreira da Silva shared on a messaging app. “We have infinite love and courage.”

Tzu Chi volunteers in Brazil on their way to distribute boxed meals to street people in the city of São Paulo

Caring for underserved children

Aside from the distributions to street people in São Paulo, volunteers in Brazil also visit towns near the city to distribute packages of food items to underprivileged students and their families. For example, they held such distributions in Itaquaquecetuba, Francisco Morato, and the more remote Caucaia do Alto in April and May. Among those participating volunteers were two elementary school principals who had joined Tzu Chi and the teachers they had enlisted to help in the events.

 “All schools are closed due to the pandemic,” volunteer Chen Sou-yong said, “but principal Nadir Godoi offered her school [Escola Estadual Vereador Durval Evaristo dos Santos] for Tzu Chi to use as a distribution venue in Itaquaquecetuba.” Chen lauded the principal for her philanthropic spirit, explaining that she not only introduced Tzu Chi to teachers in her school but also led them to grow vegetables in vacant lots in the school, cook the vegetables, and make packed meals to distribute to needy families along with Tzu Chi’s packages of food items.

Claudineia Aparecida Nunes Pereira, who serves at Escola Municipal de Campininha in Caucaia do Alto, is another loving principal who cares for the well-being of needy students. Just last year, she paid a visit to Dharma Master Cheng Yen in Taiwan. She resonated with the Master’s teaching, “If suffering people cannot come to us, we must go to them.” It was in that spirit that the principal helped arrange for Tzu Chi to distribute 70 food packages to underserved students on May 12 this year, the same day the educational department was distributing textbooks to students.

The school’s deputy principal, Elaine Sandero, is another educator who exemplifies love through her actions. Volunteer Chen said of her: “She has led young volunteers to make boxed meals in their homes and then drive for two hours to the city center of São Paulo to take part in our distributions to street people.”

Brazil has ranked as one of the countries with the most confirmed coronavirus infections and deaths. Local Tzu Chi volunteers have worked hard for the past year  to strike a balance between implementing their charity work and maintaining the requirements to prevent transmitting the virus. For example, they once spent seven days distributing just 61 food packages—all because they needed to minimize the number of participants at each distribution site. Even though volunteers were taking all the necessary precautions, they had no choice but to suspend some major events. The risk was just too high. Volunteer Fang Li-zon (方麗蓉) said, “Prior to the pandemic, we’d always set out in a large convoy of more than ten vehicles when visiting rural areas to conduct our free clinics. The vehicles carried both people and medical equipment. But such large affairs are impossible now. It’s just too risky to hold them at this time.”

Online medical services

The wife of a physician, Fang explained that the Tzu Chi Brazil office was established in 1992, nearly 30 years ago, and that volunteers began providing free medical services in rural areas just two or three years later. A wide gap exists between the rich and the poor in Brazil. Private hospitals are expensive, and public ones suffer from inadequate resources. As a result, it is hard for the poor to receive quality medical treatment. It’s no surprise that the medical services offered by Tzu Chi became very popular among locals as soon as they were launched.

The medical events started out on a small scale, with one radiologist and three or four dentists seeing patients in small churches, but the scope of services has since been greatly expanded. Such events—before they were put on hold due to the pandemic—were often staffed by more than one hundred physicians and support volunteers and attended by over 500 patients. The Tzu Chi medical team provides treatment in internal medicine, gynecology, pediatrics, ophthalmology (including fitting patients with eyeglasses), dentistry, psychiatry, and traditional Chinese medicine. Over time, volunteers have had to borrow larger spaces to use as event venues due to the large number of medical workers, support volunteers, and patients at each event, plus the space required by ultrasonic machines and equipment for dentistry and ophthalmology. The aforementioned school principals who became Tzu Chi volunteers joined the foundation because they had lent their schools to Tzu Chi to serve as free clinic venues.

Since March 2020, however, volunteers have had to suspend such large-scale medical events because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though Tzu Chi Brazil has received frequent requests to resume the services, volunteers have had to regretfully decline. “People have been calling to ask when we are restarting our clinics,” said volunteer Lin Her-shing (林合省), who oversees Tzu Chi’s medical work in Brazil. “I always tell them we need to wait a while longer. The pandemic is still raging. It’d be really bad if our medical events resulted in cluster infections.”

Though the reason for suspending the clinics was valid, the services had been offered for more than two decades before they were forced to a sudden stop by the pandemic. The underserved had relied on them for a long time—what are they to do during the interim? “We started an online free clinic this April to allow people to continue accessing our services,” Fang Li-zon said. “We offer treatment in ophthalmology and psychiatry every week, and in internal medicine once every two weeks.”

Chen Sou-yong added: “Our doctors see patients via videoconferencing, then write prescriptions for them, which can be filled at a pharmacy. If a prescription involves antibiotics or other controlled medicines, we mail the medicines to the patient.”

In addition to their regular charity work, Tzu Chi Brazil has also donated personal protective equipment (PPE) to local healthcare institutions to help protect medical professionals from the coronavirus. With the help of physicians of the Tzu Chi International Medical Association, an inquiry was made at the end of March 2020 to several major hospitals in the state of São Paulo whether they needed help with PPE. The inquiry revealed that the hospitals were suffering from a severe shortage of face masks, gloves, safety goggles, and protective clothing. Among the hospitals included in the inquiry was Santa Casa de Misericórdia, founded over 400 years ago.

“Our connection with Santa Casa started a long time ago,” volunteer Chen Sou-yong said. “Our Paraguay branch once referred two patients afflicted with elephantiasis to us for help, and we sent them to Santa Casa for treatment. This time, when we were organizing the donations of PPE, we asked the hospital to help us take care of some import procedures.”

Thanks to the assistance of Santa Casa and Taiwan’s Overseas Community Affairs Council, the first batch of PPE provided by Tzu Chi headquarters in Hualien, Taiwan, was distributed to seven medical institutions, nursing homes, and government health agencies in Brazil in May 2021. Of the donated items, 90,000 face masks, 6,000 pairs of gloves, and 3,300 protective garments were supplied to Santa Casa, which, of all the hospitals in Brazil, had admitted the largest number of patients diagnosed with COVID-19. Santa Casa administrators thanked Tzu Chi for extending aid to them all the way from Taiwan, saying that the protective gear would help safeguard their staff and enhance their sense of security, thus enabling them to put up a better fight against the daunting coronavirus.

Volunteers in Brazil have since done their best to meet the local need for PPE. The world has now lived with COVID for more than one and a half years, but none of the volunteers have yet dared let down their guard—they know what they are up against. But they are beginning to face the future with guarded optimism because of the rollout of COVID vaccines.

Volunteer Lin Her-shing explained that most of the local COVID patients previously rushed to the ER or admitted into hospitals were over 60, and that they often died a few days after checking into a hospital. But the situation greatly improved after the government started vaccinating older people. Using the state of São Paulo as an example, he said that the mortality rate of older COVID patients decreased from 60 percent to 20 percent after the vaccination program was launched.

Having witnessed firsthand how the vaccines reduce COVID severity and the death rate, Lin has urged his friends and fellow volunteers in Taiwan to be sure to get their shots, and to take whatever vaccine is made available to them first.

Volunteers from Tzu Chi Brazil donated personal protective equipment to the municipal government of Cotia in the state of São Paulo on June 12, 2020. Lin Jin-man

Properly protected

Looking back over the past year, both Chen Sou-yong and Fang Li-zon felt the frustration of trying to get people in Brazil to wear masks. And it isn’t just the general public—politicians do not take masking well either.

Lin Her-shing pointed out that when the pandemic situation was at its most serious in Brazil, all the major hospitals in São Paulo were jam-packed with seriously ill COVID patients—the wards, the emergency rooms, and even the hallways overflowed with patients. The government had no choice but to set up field hospitals for people with milder symptoms. “It wasn’t until someone around them was hospitalized that they realized the severity of the situation,” Lin said of the general Brazilians’ reaction to COVID.

Lin said that at the time his relatives in Taiwan were very worried about him and his family and urged them to return to Taiwan. But considering the risks they might face if they should take the trip, they eventually decided to stay. Even so, they were full of anxiety about the uncertain future, not knowing how the pandemic was going to develop. “My wife often suffered from insomnia as a result and complained about all kinds of aches and pains,” said Lin. “She eventually had to consult a psychiatrist. But things have greatly improved since then, as we know better now how to protect ourselves against the coronavirus and as vaccines have become available to us.” Despite his optimistic tone, he said that this past year has really left a mark on them and created unforgettable memories for all the Tzu Chi volunteers in the country.

With a population of 210 million, Brazil has recorded more than 500,000 deaths from the coronavirus, second only to the United States. On the bright side, more than 145 million doses of COVID vaccines have been administered in the nation, and the rate of vaccination is still increasing. The growing vaccination coverage is helping to fight the pandemic more than anything. Lin sincerely hopes that the increasing inoculation rate can lower the number of COVID cases to such an extent that schools can reopen. When the pandemic is successfully curbed, the first thing he and his fellow volunteers want to do is restart the large-scale free clinics, bringing much needed medical care to the underserved in Brazil.

Such clinics, Tzu Chi’s hallmark of “love-in-action,” will herald a new dawn after the long, dark night of the pandemic.

Volunteers delivered daily necessities to a community in Itapevi, São Paulo state, on January 31, 2021. The community had endured a double blow of hardship from the pandemic and a flood. Chen Sou-yong


September 2021