COVID-19: Fostering Wisdom and Community in Uncertain Times

Published by TODAY on 6 April 2020. See published article.

They say that in every crisis, there is an opportunity.

The weekend of February 7th, when Singapore raised its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level to Orange, we witnessed fear-driven actions that took many of us by surprise. Supermarkets across the island saw snaking queues as consumers rushed to buy sanitisers, toilet rolls and groceries in large amounts — hoarding them in anticipation that the situation will worsen

Yet amidst this, there was an outpouring of generosity and care, with many ground-up initiatives rapidly emerging by active citizens to respond to community needs. That ‘DORSCON’ weekend birthed a groundswell of community responses which inspired us at A Good Space — a collective of diverse changemakers — to take the lead in creating a live Covid-19 community “noticeboard” of needs and offers, with just a Google sheet. National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre also followed suit with a special Covid-19 Community Response Facebook page.

Philanthropic organisations like The Majurity Trust set up the Singapore Strong Fund to support these community efforts while government agencies such as MCCY facilitated fast track applications for Our Singapore Fund.

Every citizen, and resident, can be a changemaker

Indeed, COVID-19 presents each of us an opportunity to either turn inwards in fear (and hoard) or step up and contribute to safeguarding our communities, regardless of our background and abilities. Anyone and everyone can be a changemaker — if we choose to appreciate each other’s strengths instead of seeing only deficiencies.

Ms. Suprihatin Nengsih, an Indonesian foreign domestic worker, noticed that unlike the resident population of Singapore who were given four free masks per household, the migrant worker population did not have such access. This put them at greater risk of infection for COVID-19. Suprihatin reached out to her family and friends in Indonesia to source for masks. She collaborated with Ang Huan Ting, co-founder of the local ground-up initiative Lingua Singapura, who then arranged for sponsors of other hygiene items and helped to coordinate volunteers for the distribution of these masks and other items to migrant and foreign domestic workers across Singapore.

I cannot be prouder of the entirely differently-abled team at Hush TeaBar. Despite the cancellation of all our corporate projects for 3 months and running, they came up with the idea of preparing special self care kits for healthcare workers to support their emotional and mental health needs through a crowdfunding campaign. Low Kok Hwa (Deaf) and Dr. Edwin Ng (a person who lives with mental health conditions) led the effort to distribute these self care kits to healthcare workers at TTSH and IMH. They also began to experiment with bringing the Hush experience online with Zoom Into Hush to facilitate self-care sessions in silence to support so many connect with their emotions during this crisis.

For Suprihatin, Edwin and Kok Hwa, having a space to contribute allows them to feel valued and affirmed. Scaling this allows us to tap on our collective gifts and encourages an abundant mindset. This sets the stage for wider community action to take place.

Understanding ground needs, spurring community innovation

The famous Professor Brene Brown once said, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change’.

Indeed, other than Suprihatin and the Hush TeaBar team, I continue to be in awe of the creativity of ideas and community responses that were filling up the Google sheet for A Good Space’s Covid-19 live community noticeboard.

Given how hard the F&B sector has been hit as well as the impact of Covid-19 on vulnerable communities, Project Belanja by Blossom World Society and the Restaurant Association of Singapore was a call to ask Singaporeans and residents alike to ‘belanja’ a meal for someone in need and in doing so, also help our local restaurants and eateries.

With the panic buying at supermarkets then, baby essentials like formula milk and diapers were not available. Nursing Muslimah, a support network for mothers, started a sharing initiative among mums for baby essentials on a giving or lending basis. The mum will return the same amount of items when she gets her stock. I especially like that this was based on trust and takes us back to the good old days when neighbours would ask each other for salt or sugar when they run out.

Since then, we have seen many needs-based community responses using simple Google sheets and forms like we did with that community ‘noticeboard’ at A Good Space. There is the listing of Summer Internship Opportunities for students affected by Covid-19 cancellations, initially started to help Yale-NUS students affected by the recalls and later made public for all. Recently with the sudden Malaysian lockdown, we saw another community response called Love Our Malaysian Neighbours using Google forms to ask Singaporeans to come forward to to host the stranded Malaysians at their homes.

We don’t always get it right but I do believe needs-based responses tend to spur more community innovation whilst at the same time, deliver more effective outcomes.

Conclusion: #SGTogether need not be Government-led

I believe that this Covid-19 crisis is just but a glimpse of the kind of complex situations that we will increasingly face as a society that even an efficient Government like ours cannot resolve on its own. As much as #SGTogether is about the Government engaging with citizens to propose ideas and co-create Singapore’s future, I believe it can and must also be about community-based organisations taking the lead given that we often know the needs and gaps sooner and better because we are closer to the ground but we must engage the Government where we can in crafting a systemic community response together — beyond just grants.

The sheer number of 1 million migrant workers, including foreign domestic workers, meant that they and their employers must be involved in preventing more local spread in this Covid-19 crisis. A group of changemakers at A Good Space who work with migrant communities, both NGOs and ground ups, came together in mid February to discuss how we can encourage employers of migrant workers to better support their employees with tips to protect themselves and others. We knew from the onset that this wasn’t just a Covid-19 response but must be the start of a longer term project that supports more meaningful engagements between employers and migrant workers. Focusing on employers of the 250,000 foreign domestic workers first, ‘Healthy Helpers, Healthy Homes’ is a digital campaign in the form of a colourful comic strip that outlines the five S.H.A.R.E steps for employers to work with their helpers. Other than MCCY, we asked MOM’s foreign manpower unit for their support in disseminating the information to the individual employers of these domestic helpers. Apart from the digital campaign, posters will also be sent to embassies, employment agencies, Town Councils, MOM service centres and other organisations that interact with the workers. An extended focus will look at working with dormitory operators. I must also make a special mention that the illustration was lovingly done by three Deaf artists so this is truly a 3P collaboration of different abilities.

The Covid-19 crisis has given us an opportunity to see the nation as a single community. We cannot change society unless we take responsibility, unless we see ourselves as belonging to it and being responsible for changing it. Only then can we unlock the true potential of the Singapore Together vision of meeting the challenges of an increasingly complex world. Because no one knows all the answers, but we can all learn from an emerging future, together.

Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament, social entrepreneur (Founder — Hush TeaBar, A Good Space, WorkWell Leaders Workgroup) and author of 50 Shades of Love.

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.