"I need to make sure that there are sufficient supply of daily necessities for my mother, especially rice and toilet paper. I was a little worried when I heard about the panic buying because I have never encountered such situation before," shared Madam Xu Hui Qing as she recalls how she felt when the news of frenzy buying in Singapore broke out.
Madam Xu has been the sole caregiver for her mother who suffers from dementia for 11 years. Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Madam Xu must not only look after herself but also ensure the safety and health of her mother. However, the escalation of the outbreak situation and the shortage of face masks and hand sanitizers have posed great challenges to her.
“I am a caregiver, and I am worried”
On 19 February 2020, Tzu Chi volunteers who have been caring for Madam Xu for 4 years arrived at her home with a gift pack and adult diapers. Besides a handwritten blessing card, Madam Xu also received four face masks, a bottle of hand sanitizer, vitamin C, and a packet of Tzu Chi instant rice.
To avoid recurrent meet ups, volunteers have arranged for adult diapers for the month of March to be distributed one month earlier. Relieved by Tzu Chi’s thoughtful initiative, Madam Xu said, "Adult diaper is a necessity for my mother. I never thought that I would be receiving the diapers earlier. I can now focus on taking care of my mother. "
The global virus outbreak has led to a shortage of face masks. Although the government has distributed four face masks to each household in early February, it is still not enough for Madam Xu whom is the sole caregiver in the family. The long term use of wrist muscles in cleaning up the house and bathing her mother has injured her wrist ligament at the age of 64. Despite the discomfort, Madam Xu dared not seek medical treatment at the hospital without a face mask as she was worried of cross infection which would affect her mother if ever she gets infected.
"Masks are good stuff. I tried every means to source and check every detail online, but I couldn’t get any. When I was scratching my head to look for a way out, I received a call from Brother Beng Chong (a Tzu Chi home visit volunteer) that Tzu Chi would be distributing face masks. If not for Tzu Chi, I would still be short of face masks,” shared Madam Xu with a sigh of relief.
"I am very grateful to Tzu Chi, because I need all the items in this gift pack. Vitamin C can help strengthen our immune system, the hand sanitizer can help us keep clean and the instant rice can be made into porridge easily for my mother, saving a lot of time!" said Madam Xu.
Visiting care recipients at their home to calm their minds
As of 20 February 2020, there were 85 confirmed Covid 19 cases in Singapore, out of which, 37 have recovered. Singapore is the third country with the highest number of confirmed cases after South Korea and Japan (excluding the cases from Diamond Princess Cruise).
The fast spreading Covid 19 outbreak which scientists have very limited knowledge about has sparked unrest in local community, leading to panic buying for stockpiling as mentioned by Madam Xu. In response to mounting public anxiety over the outbreak, Tzu Chi Foundation (Singapore) launches an Outbreak Relief Program for its care recipients. The program is carried out in three phases, namely phone calls, dissemination of positive and accurate information and distribution of relief materials. The beneficiaries of this program are Tzu Chi’s 700 long term care recipients.
To ensure that the care recipients are feeling settled and the health of volunteers and care recipients are safeguarded, Tzu Chi has replaced its routine charity home visit for March with phone calls. By calling the care recipients to find out about their needs and how they are responding to the outbreak, Tzu Chi found that some care recipients are still short of face masks and hand sanitizers, and that prompted the foundation to deliver these essentials to the care recipients besides their relief supplies to their home. On the other hand, Tzu Chi has also discovered that some care recipients are receiving virus prevention information from inaccurate sources. In view of that, volunteers initiated the second phase of the relief program by disseminating correct and positive information to the care recipients through the phone.
Khoo Jyh Hao, supervisor in charge of Tzu Chi’s Charity Development Department and coordinator of Tzu Chi’s Outbreak Relief Program, said that whilst 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.
Although government representatives may have gone door to door to distributed face masks to the disadvantaged households, but there could still be some who may be left out, especially those who are living alone or bedridden, or those who have not received the information. There could be a family of six who are all sick or those who need face masks urgently due to their occupation," said Khoo.
Hello, how are you doing?
"Hello, are you affected by the virus outbreak?"
More than a hundred volunteers have been calling their care recipients to check on them as home visits are cancelled amid the virus outbreak. Guided by a questionnaire, volunteers are able to find out about the current situation of each care recipient systematically, including whether their life has been affected by the outbreak and whether any of their family members is serving the Leave of Absence or complying with the government's Home Quarantine Order and also the sources they are relying on to get the latest updates on the virus outbreak.
Compared to SARS in 2003, technology has made it harder for people to distinguish the real information from the fake ones today. Depending on the care recipient’s needs, volunteers would advise them to subscribe to official channels set up by the government so that they can get accurate latest updates. By informing Tzu Chi of any Leave of Absence or Home Quarantine Order, it helps in the assessment of the livelihood of the care recipient so that necessary subsidies can be allocated to the care recipients.
Based on the survey results from 468 questionnaires on how care recipients are doing, 4% are too optimistic, while about 10% are overly anxious. At the same time, 0.5% of the care recipients are solely relying on their friends and relatives for updates on the outbreak. In the process of shortlisting households that require the most care, volunteers have also took note of those who prefer not to have volunteers visiting them during this period of time.
"Thanks to technology, we can use our mobile phones to show our care and text them at least once a week to ensure their well-being,” shared Ong Hui Shen, who has many years of experience in conducting charity home visits.
From 18 February to 23 February, a small number of volunteers were mobilized to deliver the gift packs to 155 care recipients scattered throughout the island. The second round of distribution is scheduled to be completed between 24 February and 1 March.
Households react differently to the outbreak
Compared to the usual home visits, volunteers are required to comply with additional rules under the Outbreak Relief Program. Besides ensuring accurate count of relief supplies and wearing a mask before they are ready to leave for home visits, volunteers are to limit each visit to 30 minutes and wash their hands before and after each home visit.
“The virus outbreak does not affect me, because I am used to coughing and having fever, so everything is as usual for me.” said Mak Mis, an elderly care recipient of Tzu Chi.
Mak Mis, who has been living alone for a long time, is an example of a typical extreme optimist. Based on their experience, volunteers find it necessary to visit Mak Mis at her home and not relying on phone calls. Upon their visit, the volunteers discovered that Mak Mis only has two pieces of masks given by her friend and she has no hand sanitizer at home. The arrival of Tzu Chi volunteers have made her day.
Unlike Mak Mis, care recipient Madam Liu, who became handicapped due to a car accident, appeared more calm and cautious. As a former police officer, she is fully aware of the impact of an outbreak, however, she was faced with the challenge of not having sufficient face masks. Her husband who works as a taxi driver needs to wear a mask every day to reduce the risk of infection. Despite so, she was still worried that her husband might come across infected cases who do not show any symptoms.
Madam Liu is still grateful to Tzu Chi despite not being able to provide her with significant face masks. She said gratefully to the volunteers, "When you called to find out what we need, I knew that you are also having a hard time gathering sufficient supplies for us, and yet you are so willing to help, for that I am really grateful."
The Outbreak Relief Program requires selfless and timely participation of volunteers, which Khoo is grateful of. He said, “As long as we have taken adequate precautions to take care of ourselves and each other, we don't need to be overly worried."
The timely Outbreak Relief Program allows volunteers to continue serving the needy while DORSCON alert level is still at orange. After all, receiving the relief supplies personally from Tzu Chi volunteers do make a difference as it comes from the dedicated love and warmth from each volunteer.