Stories Behind the Masks

14 Equity Initiative Fellows Share Their COVID-19 Experiences: Firsthand Impressions Across the Health Equity Spectrum in Southeast Asia and China

Produced by Kotchakorn Voraakhom (2018 Equity Initiative Fellow)
Edited by Ana P. Santos (2018 Equity Initiative Fellow)

Across Southeast Asia and China, from the shores of Timor-Leste, to the urban jungles of Singapore, to the wide expanse of China, the coronavirus pandemic has left no country untouched. In solidarity, 14 Equity Initiative Fellows from 12 countries across the region offer a panoramic perspective of COVID-19, sharing their insights as doctors, nurses, health policymakers, researchers, activists, and frontline medical staff. All of these firsthand stories are illustrations of emergency response, compassion, and empathy. Each story highlights the significance of health equity. 

This post contains responses from Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Timor-Leste, Thailand, and Viet Nam. The Fellows’ responses were collected from mid-April through mid-May 2020.

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1

Brunei


Noor Affizan Rahman
Deputy Head of Ophthalmology
Ministry of Health

“Our vulnerable communities are daily wage earners and migrant workers whose families depend on their remittances. If they lose their jobs, they will be trapped in a precarious limbo between border restrictions and their inability to get any financial support.”

“I hope to see a global shift in attitudes to address the health inequalities that have been highlighted during this difficult time. We must strive towards having workable and affordable universal healthcare.

Where are you living right now?
Brunei

How would you sum up the situation in your country?

Calm and stable. 

Brunei’s small size has proven to be a strength in this time of crisis. The government has acted quickly to limit the spread of new cases and released an initiative to relieve the financial stress on small businesses by requesting banks to allow a grace period on loan repayments. Local NGOs and youth groups are running several initiatives to help bring food and necessities to vulnerable groups.

How has the pandemic changed your daily life?

I have had more time for reflection and have been able to focus more on our patients in the ophthalmology department. However, restrictions on some diagnostic tests and surgery make more serious cases difficult to manage. 

For my youth development and community work, I’ve adapted much like everyone else, to a new world of online meetings and file sharing. I’m confident that this experience will help make future overseas collaborations more effective.

In your role, what are you doing to address the COVID-19 situation in your country?
We have had to be creative about the redistribution of manpower across treatment centres, while minimizing risks and ensuring effective staff deployments.

In ophthalmology, we implemented strict clinic visit rules that included a pre- and post-registration screening and limiting the number of elective treatments. The latter has led to an increase in surgical backlog that we are keen to reduce once it is safe to do so. 

What has this pandemic taught you
It has made me think a lot about the future and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The rise of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, is set to transform the field of medicine. Hopefully, these new technologies will bring positive change to those who have less, and not just those who have more.

I have realised the importance of maintaining a strong support group and keeping your spirits up. The positive stories show me that despite this tragedy, our communities are full of people willing to extend themselves to help others.  

What would you like to share with the world?
I am so proud of how effective and transparent Brunei’s response has been so far. The Ministry of Health held emergency meetings ahead of our first confirmed COVID-19 case. This gave the government time to prepare a national health strategy and departmental action plans. Clear communication at all levels allowed for effective manpower planning and helped allay fears. At a time of so much uncertainty, it is evident that empathic leadership with clarity, humility, and kindness is key.

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2

Cambodia

Koung Lo
Director
Preah Vihear Provincial Health Department, Cambodia

“Even when there were no COVID-19 cases in my province, I knew that raising awareness about COVID-19 was crucial. Our immediate focus were those living along the border and in the areas where Chinese companies are located. Then we scaled up our efforts in schools and other districts in the Preah Vihear province. We walked from house to house, educating people through loudspeakers, social media, mass media and radio programs, posters and leaflets. As a result, people in 260 villages were educated about COVID-19.”

 “The most vulnerable communities are the ones with migrant workers returning home. After I received the strategic plan from the Inter-Ministerial Committee to Combat COVID-19 , I conducted a meeting with the provincial committee fighting COVID-19 to set up the quarantine strategy with them. This helped curb inequality on two fronts: in receiving information and in adopting protective measures.”

Where are you living right now?
Preah Vihear province, Cambodia

How would you sum up the situation in your country?
Things are getting better.

How has the pandemic changed your community and daily life?
When the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed in my community, people panicked. Public spaces were unusually empty because people stayed home. Market, shops, and restaurants closed because there were no sellers and buyers.

In your role, what are you doing to address the coronavirus situation in your country?
Early awareness raising gave people the information they needed to protect themselves and their families. They were informed about the Rapid Response Team (RRT) and its role in the referral system for treating a suspected COVID-19 case. We also prepared the isolation building for patients in the provincial hospital and the district hospital. I organized the Doctor of Philosophy technical working group for fighting COVID-19 into four small teams working as one: Rapid Response Team, Case Management Team, Educational and Dissemination Team, and Logistics and Warehouse Team.

Under quarantine guidelines we developed, 35 migrant workers stayed at Quarantine Level 1 (for active cases); 5 migrant workers at Quarantine Level 2 (suspected cases); and hundreds of migrant workers who isolated stayed at home and were monitored by health staff.

What has this pandemic taught you?
To combat COVID-19, we really need solidarity and unity so that everyone moves in the same safe direction. COVID-19 taught us to have a preparedness plan in place and stimulated our response system. 

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3

China

Fan Jiang
Vice Chancellor
Shanghai Jiao Tong University, School of Medicine

“The One Health concept is a worldwide strategy to expand interdisciplinary collaborations and communications in all aspects of healthcare–for humans, animals, and the environment.

“China has experienced a high incidence of COVID-19 but is now in control of the epidemic. We are fully aware that in many parts of the world, the development of the epidemic is still fraught with uncertainty and people are living in anxiety. We are willing to offer any support we can.”

Where are you living right now?
Shanghai, China

How would you sum up the situation in your country?
Getting back to normal.

How has the pandemic changed your community and daily life?
Personal hygiene is highly valued in the local community. Although there have been no domestic cases in Shanghai, people still have to make it a habit to wear masks, wash their hands, and practice social distancing. There are fewer meetings and much less travel. People are moving at a slower pace. 

In your role, what are you doing to address the coronavirus situation in your country?
As vice-chancellor of Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, one of the best medical schools of China, I believe it is of great importance to learn from this experience and reform the response system for public health emergencies. To move towards this goal, we surveyed experts and scholars in related fields with a problem-oriented, goal-oriented, and outcome-oriented principle. 

A report was developed to address problems in the existing system by putting epidemic prevention and control into perspective, strengthening the weakest links, and filling in the gaps. We systematically analyzed the current weaknesses and loopholes and drafted fundamental principles for the basic framework for reforming the system. We hope that the related government agencies will organize additional expert surveys and consultations and include the findings in the general national plan for improving other systems and mechanisms. Such systems and mechanisms include the regulations and legal structure of the public health, disease prevention and control system; critical illness insurance and treatment policies; as well as emergency resources support systems. 

Together with my colleagues, I co-authored a correspondence in The Lancet entitled, “Mitigate the Effects of Home Confinement on Children During the COVID-19 Outbreak”.

In the paper, we highlighted the risks of home confinement among children and made recommendations that government, schools, communities, and parents can take together protect our children from the adverse effects of this outbreak. 

Moreover, we aligned with the Shanghai Education Committee to solicit educational materials about healthy eating, eye hygiene, physical activity, parent-child interaction, and mental health. In the end, we collected around 1,000 different types of educational materials. After a review by an expert panel, the best educational materials were made available to the public through a website. Additionally, as an expert of World Health Organization (WHO) Lifestyle Guideline Working Group, my colleagues and I provided some translated educational material for the world to use.

What has this pandemic taught you?
This pandemic has taught me that health is not only essential for a person’s life and success, it is also the foundation of a society. If health needs cannot be met, everything else will have to wait. Second, it takes the consolidated effort of the whole society, whole nation, and whole world to combat this pandemic. Nobody stands alone in this battle. 

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Rui Deng
Associate Professor
Kunming Medical University

“Bottom-up social mobilization is a powerful way to prevent and control the virus.” 

“Most Chinese people perceive the coronavirus as a common enemy so they believe we should work together to fight this pandemic. We have heard and witnessed many touching stories of how people help each other to overcome difficulties. Social mobilization has been quite successful in China.”

Where are you living right now?
Kunming City, China

How would you sum up the situation in your country?
Conditional movement control with a happy life.

In your role, what are you doing to address the coronavirus situation in your country?
I have been involved in three activities: (1) I helped translate some useful English guidelines into Chinese and disseminated them to Chinese medical doctors. (2) I worked with my colleague to develop a handbook related to COVID-19 prevention for primary school students. The Yunnan provincial government then translated this handbook into five languages and disseminated it to communities in the Mekong sub-regional countries. (3) I participated in a research project funded by the provincial government to study the effectiveness of the public health emergency system.

What has this pandemic taught you?
Teamwork is the most supportive and effective way to address the pandemic. 

What do you hope will happen in the future?
I hope Fellows will cooperate to help more vulnerable communities.

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Jin Xu,
Lecturer on Health Policy and Systems Research
Peking University, Beijing, China

“We need to contribute to the strengthening of public health systems across the region and maintain a strong focus on social determinants of health.” 

“China was the first country to be hard hit by COVID-19. Initially, there was fear and confusion. From late January on, things quickly became more organized. Decisive actions of the Chinese government quickly contained the virus within China. My wife and I welcomed our second through a safe delivery. The healthcare system is working very hard to ensure preparedness in the prevention and control of COVID-19.” 

Where are you living right now?
Beijing 

How would you sum up the situation in your country in a word or phrase?
Resilient

In your role, what are you doing to address the coronavirus situation in your country?
As an institution, we are advising the Chinese national government and the Beijing municipal government. At the moment, we are working on technical reports on modernizing the disease-control system for China. I have been participating in the consultations and research.

What has this pandemic taught you?
In this part of the world, we have some of the best examples of COVID-19 containment and suppression. There is much potential for cross-learning within the region.

What do you hope will happen in the future?
I hope lessons will be learned and a strong public health system that is resilient for similar disease outbreaks will be built.

What would you like to share with the world?
Solidarity and trust are critical.

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4

INDONESIA

Rennta Chrisdiana
Hospital Supervisory Board of Yogyakarta
Indonesia

As a social activist, I try to embrace the situation in a very social, empathetic way. Social distancing is challenging, as it is not familiar to our culture. The idea of a lockdown is a nightmare, as most Indonesians work daily for the food they need.

“There are so many things to be done, prepared and discussed. We are furious. We have no clear direction from our leaders from the national to the provincial levels. The cost of doing nothing at this time is tremendous.”

Where are you living right now?
I live in Yogyakarta, a city in Central Java that is home to almost 4 million people. Java is the most densely populated island in Indonesia, and while Yogyakarta is the second-smallest province, its density is high, with 2,000 people per square metre. That is why Yogyakarta is in the red zone for COVID-19 right now.

How would you sum up the situation in your country in a word or phrase?
It is a time of awakening. It is a moment of truth. We must understand our strengths and weaknesses as a nation. We must strengthen our ability to adapt to the situation.

How has the pandemic changed your community and daily life?
The pandemic has changed our way of interacting with each other. We used to be a communal society that loves to have social gatherings, festivals, and meetings. This is part of our culture, but due to the physical distancing measures, we have limited our social activity. Some of us have adapted and now meet online. So many social activities have turned into online activities such as weddings, choir, musical performances, Arisan (it’s a famous women’s monthly gathering), seminars, online classes, and many other events.

The marginalized community has to struggle to understand what is happening, and is confused with all the new terms such as social distancing, lockdown, physical distancing. At the same time, they have to find a way to survive job losses. It is a difficult time for many Indonesians.

In your role, what are you doing to address the COVID-19 situation in your country?
Indonesia was quite late in managing COVID-19. It was only mid-March when we started taking this issue seriously. As a social activist, I try to embrace the situation in a very social, empathetic way. 

I turned to Equity Initiative Fellows who are experts in diverse issues in health and social justice from Southeast Asian countries and China for advice. I have gotten valuable insights from friends in countries that started the work to fight COVID-19 earlier, such as China and Singapore. From all of them, I learned that leadership with empathy can save lives.

As one of the commissioners for the hospital supervisory board in Yogyakarta, I have been joining diverse groups and following countless webinars to gain clarity and understanding, as well as try to adapt to the situation with agility. 

What has this pandemic taught you?
I am struggling with the relationship with authority. My expectations were high, hoping that there would be responsible movements from the government to handle these issues in a correct and timely fashion. Since that’s not happening, I know that we have to keep doing what we have to do. We can’t just rely on one stakeholder to make things work. Everybody has to chip in, starting with ourselves.

I feel sad that so many doctors and nurses are suffering or have died. I hope that the hospital needs for personal protection equipment will be fulfilled. Although we are still far from 100-percent fulfillment, there are so many doors of opportunity and collaboration that have opened. I just need to connect the supply and the demand. I hope one by one the needs of hospitals will be fulfilled. 

I also believe that we have to create COVID information in the Javanese language. I will continue learning every day from all the people around me who have beautiful hearts and work together to help others in need. 

What would you like to share with the world?
I encourage each one of us show compassionate to others and ourselves. Build solidarity around the circles of influence you have and contribute to society. We cannot walk alone, and we shall continue to work together so we can all be well, healthy, and at peace. These are tough times for everyone. As usual the ones who live at the bottom layer of the society will be affected most. I hope this will pass and that children will be healthy at all times. 

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5

LAOS

Dr. Soulivanh Pholsena
Chief Medical Officer
The Lao Medical Center

“I hope that the solidarity between countries around the world will flourish in response to this pandemic.” 

“Over 70 percent of the population are informal workers such as farmers, street vendors, day laborers, and tuk tuk driversthese are the most vulnerable as they have no social safety net. Most of them depend on their daily income for their survival. With the possibility of a long-term economic recession, they would suffer most.”  

Where are you living right now?
I am currently living and working in my hometown, Vientiane, Laos. 

How would you sum up the situation in your country in a word or phrase?
Frustration

How has the pandemic changed your community and daily life?
Laos has only COVID-19 cases with no fatalities, which is in the lowest number in the ASEAN region. However, Laos suffers from the socio-economic consequences of the government’s strict, one-month, nation-wide lockdown. People have become very fearful of the disease and avoid daily life movements. The cost of masks and alcohol gel has increased nearly 10-fold, which puts a huge burden on ordinary people, especially the poor, who comprise 22.7 percent of the population (World Bank Poverty & Equity Data, 2020) who earns less than $2 a day. Due to lack of tourism, many hotels, restaurants, and related service SMEs continue to close, even after the end of the lockdown. The workers in these enterprises were simply got laid off.     

In your role, what are you doing to address the coronavirus situation in your country?
Following the initiation of the lockdown in April, there was confusion about the list of essential services. The Ministry of Health decided to close all private clinics and hospitals during the lockdown. In response to this, my team and I convinced our former colleagues at the Ministry that it is vital to keep both public and private medical services available for other non-COVID-19 patients, like cardiovascular patients, cancer patients, pediatric patients, and antenatal service. The recommendation was approved 24 hours later, and my medical centers with a few other private providers continued to provide service throughout the critical time of the lockdown.   

What has this pandemic taught you?
The response to the pandemic has been government-led planning and execution under the guidance of public officials. It is a more top-down approach. However, I believe that the private sector and the public should participate in informed decision making.  

What do you hope will happen in the future?
I hope that people would see the importance of health and lead a more healthy lifestyle. Moreover, I hope that the government and the public will give more attention to the need for social protection. 

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6

Malaysia

Raudah Yunus
Lecturer and Public Health Specialist
Department of Public Health Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University Teknologi MARA

“This pandemic has tested the human conscience. We see that in times of crisis, people show their true colors. Such a crisis can either bring out the best or the worst in us. The most important thing I learned so far, besides showing empathy and generosity to the less fortunate, is to build resilience and remain optimistic in the face of uncertainty.”

“This crisis has made me realize that we are all one, interconnected and interdependent in a global brotherhood. Let that be translated into a more equitable and fairer world in the future. I hope the COVID-19 pandemic will change our relationship with the environment, by making us more committed to protecting the Earth and fighting climate change.”  

Where are you living right now?
Kuala Lumpur

How would you sum up the situation in your country?
The pandemic has affected Malaysians across all strata. The whole country is fiercely battling COVID-19 at the moment. We are all under partial lockdown (movement control order, or MCO) until 12 May. The Ministry of Health and all frontliners—as well as their support teams—have been doing a good job, as Malaysia is currently seeing a steady decline in the number of new cases and deaths. But there is a huge concern about the outcomes of the lockdown being lifted. 

No doubt, the MCO has severely impacted the economy and many people. The vulnerable groups—migrant workers, refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless people—have been affected more severely than others. Many of them are day labourers and informal workers, whose earning depends on daily work. Sadly, but not surprisingly, some refugees and migrant workers have been scapegoated. Recently, a boat carrying roughly 200 Rohingya was turned away by the Malaysian navy. This has sparked a mixed response in the country, with one group condemning and another applauding the action. This incident was followed by a surge of fake news and sensationalist reporting by the local media, which sparked anti-Rohingya sentiment at a scale rarely witnessed in a society known for its tolerance and welcoming attitude toward refugees. 

How has the pandemic changed your community and daily life?
The most important change in our lives is how we spend Ramadan this year. The month of fasting is usually accompanied by family gatherings during “iftar” time (fast-breaking when the sun sets) and the congregational night prayer “tarawih” at the mosques. It feels very strange that this time, mosques are closed, and people are celebrating quietly at home. Last but not least, we have seen how society has come together and helped the less fortunate during this crisis. This, in particular, has been very heartwarming.  

What are you doing to address the coronavirus situation in your country?
As a researcher, I am currently embarking on a study to explore the impact of this pandemic on older adults’ mental health and understand their coping mechanisms (as older people are more prone to social isolation due to MCO) and level of resilience. Other than that, I am assisting an institute that is producing educational materials on COVID-19 for children across the globe. Last but not least, I am a parent who is trying to bring up 3 children during this pandemic and trust me, it’s not easy! 

What has this pandemic taught you?
This pandemic has tested the human conscience. We see that in times of crisis, people show their true colors. Such a crisis can either bring out the best or the worst in us. The most important thing I learned so far besides showing empathy and generosity to the less fortunate is to build resilience and remain optimistic in the face of uncertainty. 

What would you like to share with the world?
I’d like to share my sense of hope and optimism, that we can walk out of this storm together more resilient than ever. 

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7

Myanmar

Bawi Mang Lian
Assistant Director National Health Plan Implementation and Monitoring Unit
Ministry of Health and Sports, Myanmar

“Our government has very limited resources, and most of us are living in poverty. Our first priority is to protect people from getting the disease even without having the best quality treatment. Therefore, the role of each and every person is very critical to overcome the COVID-19 crisis.”

“Community involvement is also one of the most important points in transmission control. Community leaders, civil-based organizations, volunteers, and health and local authorities should closely collaborate in risk communication. Building community trust is the key to providing people’s basic needs and psycho-social security. Their participation will enhance the community’s capacity to tackle this COVID-19 pandemic.”

Where are you living right now?
Kaptel, the first lockdown village in Myanmar where the first case of COVID-19 was found, in Tedim Township, Chin State, one of the most remote areas in Myanmar.

How would you sum up the situation in your country?
Insecurity—especially among marginalized communities about their daily lives. The situation has already disproportionately hurt them due to loss of livelihood and lack of access to food, healthcare, and other basic needs.

How has the pandemic changed your community and daily life?
Initially, people overreacted or blamed the positive patients for the transmission to others. However, most of the people later changed their attitudes and have since contributed as volunteers in social work to lend a helping hand to frontline healthcare workers and to encourage their people not to panic but to practice safety precautions.

On the other hand, we saw that our health system has challenges and it definitely needs to have a plan to respond to this pandemic situation. The current donation health system with a volunteer health workforce is not enough to control the unpredictable situation of disease spread. In the long run, timely response and decision making by the government and strong involvement of the community to maintain disease control precautions should operate in parallel to create a synergistic outcome.

In your role, what are you doing to address the COVID-19 situation in your country?
I am happy that I have had a chance to lead my team of 5 volunteer doctors to this remote area to respond in a timely manner not only in terms of patient care and isolation management in this 100-bed township hospital, but also in disease control and active surveillance and fever surveillance activities. Moreover, we have prompted others to volunteer and respond to the COVID-19 crisis. We are supporting them with relevant information and precautionary measures as our government has very limited resources. All people in Myanmar need to come together to fight this crisis.

What has this pandemic taught you?
We need collective action—meaning inclusion of the poor or rich, medical or non-medical specialists, technicians and people from other sectors—and all people in the country need to come together. If any one of these groups or any person breaks the rule, all will suffer. The strong collaboration of each and every person is crucial, as even just one person staying at home saves lives by stopping the spread of infection from oneself to others. 

What would you like to share with the world?
Stay at home! I strongly believe that “Stay at home” is our first line of defense to combat COVID-19. This is especially important for a resource-limited setting like Tedim Township and similar places throughout the world.

Synchronized collective action by all individuals is crucial to overcome this COVID-19 crisis, so wash your hands, use a mask, and do physical distancing. Don’t wait for a drug or vaccine. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

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8

The Philippines

Beverly Lorraine C. Ho
Director, Health Promotion & Communication Service,
Department of Health of The Philippines

“The Filipino people are inherently resilient and the spirit of communal unity (bayanihan) is more alive than ever. We will beat this virus, together!”

Where are you living right now?
Manila, Philippines

How would you sum up the situation in your country?
Fast-evolving, inspiring (the public-private cooperation), hopeful (the prospects for improving the health system, particularly investments in the health system), grateful (sacrifice of all frontline service providers).

How has the pandemic changed your community and daily life?
The pandemic has brought the country’s capital to a standstill, although I have to go to work 6 or 7 times a week. The streets that were previously crowded are now empty. Traffic is amazingly light. Food delivery services/choices are limited. Almost all people outside wear masks. All meetings are online. There is less air pollution although more use of disposable materials.

 In your role, what are you doing to address the COVID-19 situation in your country?
Beginning in late March, I was tasked to lead the communication arm of the Department of Health. In this capacity, our office crafts the behavioral change messages to the public, provides the daily updates as to the COVID-19 response of the health department, and produces materials that health workers and local government units can use to engage communities to act responsibly during the pandemic. 

What has this pandemic taught you?
There is a silver lining to everything!

What do you hope will happen in the future?
More investments in the health sector! More appreciation of the science behind health! Improve health literacy for the people!

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9

Singapore

Jeremy Lim
Co-director of global health at the National University of Singapore (NUS)

“COVID-19 has changed the world for most people and I’m not any different. Living in Singapore, which has had major outbreaks amongst the migrant worker population, I’ve been able to see how vulnerable populations can be impacted by SARSCo-V2. Let me focus on one large but hitherto ‘invisible’ community—the migrant workers.”

Where are you living right now?
Singapore

How would you sum up the situation in your country?
At the time of writing, almost 18,000 out of Singapore’s just over 20,000 cases are dormitory residents. The government has acted swiftly and decisively to bring the outbreaks under control by locking down all the dormitories and mandating quarantine for all construction workers. The migrant workers in truth are locked down less for their safety and health and mainly to isolate them from the rest of Singapore, and protect the older Singaporeans and those with chronic conditions that put them at high risk for COVID-19 infections and complications.

Almost a million low-wage migrant workers are living and working in Singapore., Given that Singapore’s total population is only 5.6 million, this is a substantial number. Over 300,000 of them live in dormitories of varying sizes (12-20 workers are typically fitted in one room with hundreds sharing communal facilities like bathrooms and kitchens for cost efficiency) and sophistication (the largest dormitories have their own cinemas, supermarkets, gymnasiums, etc. to cater to well-being). They then commute from the dormitories to their workplaces, where they interact with workers from other dormitories in the course of their work. 

How has the pandemic changed your community and daily life?
The lockdown has had a profound impact on the migrant workers. They are effectively confined to their quarters, unable to work, facing difficulties in remitting money back to their families, and sometimes even having to manage food insecurities. 

In your role, what are you doing to address the COVID-19 situation in your country?
I’ve been volunteering with HealthServe, a health-focused migrant worker charity for over 7 years now, and currently sit on the board. Through this vantage point, I’ve been privileged to see how Singaporeans have opened their hearts and wallets to the migrant workers, as well as advocate for improved living conditions and care for them. Because of the complexity and scale of the public health crisis, some migrant workers inevitably fall through the safety nets the government has set up, and NGOs such as ourselves help to “plug these gaps” in the provision of personal protective equipment to the dormitories, and supporting migrant workers with meals and other daily essentials. 

Beyond those steps, HealthServe has also emphasized the importance of psychological health and well-being and to this end, has established a national tele-counselling/ befriending service for all workers. We have also set up a comprehensive website with useful tips and information on stress, resilience, and coping strategies. In both of these efforts, we have been hugely privileged to be supported by hundreds of volunteers with relevant language and professional skills.

What would you like to share with the world?
It’s still early days in this challenging situation but I’m quietly optimistic Singapore will pull through this crisis. Beyond the immediate issues, I do hope we don’t “waste a good crisis,” and that we harness the momentum of goodwill and “social solidarity.” We as a country need to ask ourselves fundamental questions about the type of Singapore we want to be, the sort of society we aspire to, not just for ourselves as citizens but for everyone who lives in Singapore.

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10

Timor-Leste

Carmeneza Dos Santos Monteiro
Adviser to Ministry of Social Solidarity and Inclusion, Timor-Leste

“COVID-19 may push millions of people in the world back into poverty. This would be true for the majority of people in my country. I want to say that this situation calls each of us to be kind and care for one another.”

“This pandemic has deepened social inequity. Less than 20 percent of the people in my country can afford to live a life of social or physical distancing. More than 80 percent of the population needs physical contact and social activities to be able to earn a living. People in the informal economy, or small businesses of which the majority are operated by mothers, have lost their income and are unable to provide for their family. The most important action required is to fill the gap of their lost income.”

Where are you living right now?
Dili, Timor-Leste

How would you sum up the situation in your country in a word or phrase?
Struggling

How has the pandemic changed your community and daily life?
Our community has moved from life with very little means to none at all. With COVID-19 and the measures taken by the government to prevent further transmission of the virus, many business activities are closed and the majority who earned their living through informal economic activities suddenly lost their source of income. I fear this leads to hunger. COVID-19 takes up most of the attention and resources, forcing the country to overlook other important diseases that also kill people, such as dengue.

In your role, what are you doing to address the COVID-19 situation in your country?
As an adviser to the Ministry of Social Solidarity and Inclusion, one of my roles is to contribute to policy measures for government adoption. As part of this, I advocated for a universal cash transfer to households to fill the income gap due to COVID-19 and measures introduced to prevent further transmission of virus in the community. This proposal was approved by the Council of Ministers on April 20, 2020, and will be implemented in May.

As an activist, I hold a national TV talk show, bringing people together to discuss COVID-19 and its implications beyond health. The show aims to ensure that communities understand the complexities of the issue at hand and encourage more solidarity and care towards one another. It’s also intended to raise awareness among policymakers about how communities are impacted by the measures taken by the government and how to address them.

As a humanist, I work to mobilize individuals within society who have resources to provide for people in need; this includes providing rice and basic needs to families in need.

What has this pandemic taught you?
A few things: First, it makes me realise that my health system is not ready to face the pandemic. Second, if we don’t shift our development policy to address COVID-19 and its implications, we might lose all the hard work of the last 20 years to bring people out of poverty. Third, it calls for individuals and families to play their part if we are to win this battle. Fourth, it increases solidarity and passion to help others.

What would you like to share with the world?
COVID-19 may push millions of people in the world back into poverty. This would be true for a majority of people in my country. I want to say that this situation calls each of us to be kind and care for one another.

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11

THAILAND

Rapeepong Suphanchaimat
International Health Policy Program, Ministry of Public Health 

“The disease will subside, but it will not be easily eliminated. There will be several new normals. The informal sector is collapsing, and some people in that sector are inequitably supported by the government. Slums or migrant populations may not be able to receive services easily compared with the economically well-off groups. We all agree with physical distancing measures. However, such measures are difficult to implement given certain circumstances, especially in crowded areas and on public transport.

“Self-quarantining is a ‘privilege’ for the well-off. How can we change it, from being a privilege to a societal norm? Not all people own a private car. Not all people have separate bedrooms. When we find people who cannot conform to this measure, we may hunt them as if they are villains who do not care about others. Such negative feeling within a society is not healthy and perhaps worse than the virus.”

Where are you living right now?
Bangkok, Thailand

How would you sum up the situation in your country?
Silently panicked

How has the pandemic changed your community and daily life?
I still have the same responsibilities to work at the ministry to deal with the pandemic, so my daily life does not change much, except that more and more work is coming. However, I have seen several changes in many people around me. Many nearby offices are locked down. The street is empty of vehicles. Being in self-quarantine is a privilege. Witch-hunting those who do not comply with the lockdown measures is quite scary.

In your role, what are you doing to address the COVID-19 situation in your country?
I am part of the investigation team which performs contact tracing after a confirmed case to mitigate an outbreak. I also appreciate many people around me (and in society) who try to use the power of volunteerism to help alleviate all of the problems of daily life that originated from the pandemic.

What has this pandemic taught you?

  • Self-quarantining is a “privilege” for the well-off. How can we change it, from being a privilege to a societal norm
  • Economic and health concerns must go in tandem.
    • Social capital is a strong (but mostly overlooked) weapon to tackle epidemics—such as the use of health volunteers to stay vigilant against the epidemic.

What do you hope will happen in the future?
The disease will subside but will not be easily eliminated. There will be several new normals. But I am still optimistic that people will yearn for human interaction and be more respectful in daily life than the pre-outbreak era.

What would you like to share with the world?
I think we should value ourselves. We are part of the collective effort in the society that helps halt the outbreak. So we must be proud of ourselves and help each other to adapt to the new normals of the society. The disease provides us an opportunity to nurture inner growth, both spiritually and intellectually.

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12

Viet Nam

Bui Thi Thuy
Head of Nursing Office, Viet Nam National Children’s Hospital

“Successful COVID-19 pandemic control requires solidarity, good multidisciplinary coordination, and adaptive leadership in difficult situations.”

“The slogan of the Vietnamese Government in this pandemic is ‘No one is left behind’. Therefore, people of all ages and occupations can receive equal treatment if they are positive for COVID-19. Even though Viet Nam has specific governmental support policies for people like the elderly, disabled, and unskilled labors, we can still extend our help by coordinating with the government, finding more vulnerable individuals. and calling for public support.”

Where are you living right now?
Even though I work in a hospital, I still can go back home with my family, in Hanoi.

How would you sum up the situation in your country in a word or phrase?
COVID is under control.

How has the pandemic changed your community and daily life?
Daily activities are in a dramatic disarray. Since the governmental directive of social distancing, the daily life of almost all citizens has been affected. The COVID pandemic has affected our country significantly, mostly in these fields:

  • Economy: heavily affected in all aspects.

More and more organizations, including companies, hotels, restaurants, etc., have been shut down due to the lack of income. The unskilled laborers also have experienced great difficulties in living with a lower income.

  • Education: almost 3 months of online learning.

In Viet Nam, the method of distance education is not yet official, thus it has been challenging for both teachers and learners. Also, there have been quite a number of preschool teachers who have become unemployed.

  • Health care sector: very intense throughout the country.

An intensive strategy of screening, detection, treatment and care, and prevention of transmission has been carefully observed and set up for this pandemic. Many medical staff who directly treat and take care of COVID cases have had to stay in the hospital and have been away from their homes and families for a long time.

In your role, what are you doing to address the COVID-19 situation in your country?
As the Head of the Nursing Office of Viet Nam National Children’s Hospital, I joined the hospital’s anti-COVID team and coordinated the implementation of the following:

  • Guidelines of the Government and the Ministry of Health on COVID epidemic prevention.
  • Establishment of a safe environment for patients and medical staff in our hospital
  • Screening of suspected or infected COVID cases for proper channeling and isolation
  • Conduct of a “Taking care of infected or suspected positive-COVID patients” strategy
  • Ensured personal protective equipment is available for patients and medical staff
  • Provided training for hospital staff and assisted other hospitals when needed
  • Provided health education for patients and their families

I am also participating in the writing of the Guidelines and Procedures on caring for infected or suspected COVID-positive pediatric patients for the Ministry of Health.

What has this pandemic taught you?
To become a better adaptive leader

To become a more capable wife and mother

To become a better balanced me!

What would you like to share with your community, your country, the region or the world?
“Nothing is impossible”. When we predict epidemics early, properly prevent and coordinate, we will win the COVID-19.

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