For many years, at around August-September, the air quality in Singapore has been affected by the burning of palm plantations and other land clearing activities in neighboring Indonesia. Due to a change in wind direction this year, the haze generated by such forest fires arrived earlier and its intensity was of an even greater degree. On 21 June, the PSI reading peaked at a hazardous level of 401, exceeding the previous record of 226 in 1997.
Due to the worsening air quality, many Singaporeans rushed to purchase masks. As a result, many pharmacies ran out of stock for the item. A lot of news and information related to the haze was being spread freely via the Internet and smart phones, causing much panic among the public. The Singapore government also formed a special team to deal with the haze issue.
On 20 June, Tzu Chi Singapore kicked off an emergency campaign - “Banish the haze, welcome the light, purify our minds through vigilance & prayer,” where volunteers delivered gift pouches containing masks, etc. to the homes of Tzu Chi care recipients. The volunteers also took to the streets and distributed masks and PSI information cards to the public, in hopes of helping everyone tide over this critical period.
By 21 June, Tzu Chi volunteers had packed four hundred “care pouches,” and on the same night, they conducted the first round of distribution for Tzu Chi care recipients. Over the weekend, volunteers island-wide were mobilized to carry out care pouch distributions to bring comfort and blessings to the homes of care recipients. On Saturday, 22 June, the volunteers also proceeded to places with heavy pedestrian traffic, such as MRT stations, supermarkets and Tzu Chi community recycling points, to distribute masks and Jing Si Aphorism cards to the public, hoping to bring care and support to people.
Low Swee Seh, CEO of Tzu Chi Singapore, said that Singaporeans had enjoyed relatively peaceful lives since the SARS outbreak in 2003. But the haze hazard this time has caused widespread unease among people. Thinking back to the SARS outbreak in 2003 when Tzu Chi volunteers braved the epidemic to visit care recipients to send their love and care to them, CEO Low remarked, “Tzu Chi volunteers are always at the forefront of any disaster and will stay till the very end. Through our emergency campaign, we hope to put people at ease and also encourage everyone to pray sincerely for an improvement in the situation.”
Simple Gift Pouches Packed with Well Wishes and Thoughtfulness
The team in charge of the campaign had less than 24 hours to assemble all the necessary supplies. By the afternoon of 21 June, all the supplies, except the eye drops, were ready, and volunteers and staff at Tzu Chi Singapore began packing the care pouches.
There was a delay in the delivery of eye drops because the pharmacies had been very busy. After some coordination efforts, the eye drops finally arrived at 7pm, just in time for distribution. Volunteers in the east district began the first round of distribution, bringing care and blessings to 27 care recipients’ homes.
These care pouches contained masks, eye drops, lozenges, a PSI information card, a Jing Si Aphorism bookmark and also a hanging ornament with the Chinese character “Ping An”. It was hoped that the recipients of the well-wishes pouches would enjoy not only good health but also gain peace of mind with the blessings that the Jing Si Aphorism brought.
Bringing Love and Warmth to Those in Need
“Seeing Tzu Chi volunteers, care recipient, Ismail, exclaimed, “Recently we have been cooped up inside our house with the windows and doors all shut. We are really happy to have visitors today.”
During the haze period, Ismail’s family had avoided going outdoors due to severe air pollution, and they felt quite depressed from staying indoors with the doors and windows tightly shut.
Not only did the volunteers deliver the care pouches to Ismail’s family, they also shared with them some preventive measures to deal with the air pollution. Ismail’s grandson, who is studying in Primary 5, not only listened attentively and served as an interpreter for his grandparents, but also promised to safeguard the health of his family.
Another care recipient, Mr. Liu, beamed happily as he received the care pouches from the volunteers after knowing the purpose of their visit. Due to the high concentration of PM2.5 micro particles in the air, he felt discomfort in his throat and eyes. While chatting with the volunteers, his eyes started to turn red and sore.
Seeing that, a volunteer immediately took out the eye drops from the care pouch and helped Mr. Liu apply the medicine to ease his discomfort. Mr. Liu appreciated the care and concern given by Tzu Chi volunteers very much, and he said, “I hope to be a volunteer one day and be able to help those in need, too.”
The sudden visit by the volunteers surprised and touched Mr. Zhang, a long time stroke care recipient, and his sister. Mr. Zhang’s sister said that she had not expected that there to be people who would come and offer them care during this critical period.
Because of the poor air quality and social unease, and an unfortunate accident that left their younger brother hospitalized recently, Mr. Zhang’s sister had been worrying about her family for the past few days. But the timely concern from volunteers gradually eased her worries, moving her to tears. Finally, she was able to smile again as the volunteers had brought her much comfort and gave her hope.
Delivering Care to the Public
The following day, 22 June, happened to be the day when the regular Tzu Chi North District blood donation drive was being held at Senja-Cashew Community Club. Despite rising PSI levels, Tzu Chi volunteers conducted the blood donation drive as usual with their firm belief that “saving lives cannot wait.” But they did not solicit for donors at MRT stations like before.
Although the number of packets of blood collected at the blood donation drive this time was a quarter less than usual, there were in total, still 79 packets collected. The volunteers also seized the opportunity to distribute masks, PSI information cards and Jing Si Aphorism bookmarks to the blood donors, wishing them good health and peace.
At 1:30 pm, the PSI level decreased but remained at an unhealthy level of 263. Tzu Chi volunteers from each district put on their masks and started distributing masks at crowded areas with heavy pedestrian traffic.
Just when the volunteers arrived at the distribution venues and were ready for the distribution, the skies began to clear and the haze gradually dispersed. PSI levels began to decline and blue skies, which had not been visible for a while, were even observed from certain areas. The volunteers jokingly remarked that the mobilization of Tzu Chi volunteers clad in their blue and white uniforms had brought sunshine and wind, chasing the haze away.
Although the air quality had improved gradually, the volunteers did not let down their guard. Wearing their masks, they began distributing masks, PSI information cards and Jing Si Aphorism bookmarks to passers-by, patiently explaining preventive measures to deal with the haze and sharing Jing Si Aphorisms with people.
A Warm and Caring Society
After receiving a mask at Bukit Gombak MRT station, an elderly Malay lady, Marwiah, was impressed with the volunteers’ proactive approach to help others. She was also very interested in the Jing Si Aphorisms on the bookmarks. She appreciated the beautiful calligraphy on the bookmarks, and asked the volunteers to translate the Jing Si Aphorisms for her so that she could comprehend them. “Hopefully, Singaporeans, who have been enjoying peaceful lives, would gain some awakening from this haze incident,” Marwiah said with sincerity and earnestness.
Volunteers at Clementi MRT station also met a lady who was distributing masks to people that she had purchased out of her own pocket. She said to the volunteers, “I just knew that you (Tzu Chi volunteers) would be distributing masks, too.” Seeing that the volunteers were also distributing masks, she felt heartened that they were doing a kind deed together. The lady left her contact details with the volunteers and said that she would like to participate in Tzu Chi activities in the future. With more helping hands, more people can be served.
Outside Bukit Gombak MRT Station, Tzu Chi volunteer, Sister Qin-ji, was patiently explaining the proper way to wear a mask to a lady who had received it. Deeply moved, the lady said, “These masks are for the rich and noble. I’m just a humble worker (cleaner), why would you be so kind to me?”
Sister Qin-ji patted her on the shoulder to comfort her and said, “We cherish your life--it is very precious, too.” After the lady had put on the mask, she left feeling at ease. “I could really feel how touched and happy the lady was,” said Sister Qin-ji, who was moved, too.
In the midst of the haze hazard, there was love all around, just as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong commented, “At this critical period, we see people distributing masks and herbal drinks to the public. This shows that Singapore is indeed a warm and caring society.”
During the campaign, which lasted from 21 – 23 June, 210 volunteers were mobilized to distribute 246 care pouches to the care recipients. Additionally, 275 volunteers also distributed 19,400 masks, Jing Si Aphorism bookmarks, lozenges and PSI information cards to the public. It was hoped that the campaign could help bring peace and ease to people’s minds, and at the same time, encourage everyone to sincerely pray for the haze to dissipate completely, so we could have blue skies and sunshine again.