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Commentary: Don’t forget the vulnerable in the fight against COVID-19

In moments of fear, we need to focus on others and not just ourselves, says Martin Tan.

Commentary: Don’t forget the vulnerable in the fight against COVID-19

Health officers screen arriving passengers from China with thermal scanners at Changi Airport in Singapore as authorities increased measures against coronavirus. (Photo: AFP/ROSLAN RAHMAN)

SINGAPORE: It looks like the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) will be with us for longer than we hoped.

These are uncertain times, but Singapore is facing the novel coronavirus outbreak more prepared than most.

Our government, medical institutions, and employers have applied lessons learned from previous outbreaks such as SARS and the H1N1 flu, and they continue to act decisively and with measured responses as events unfold.

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An equally important concern is about a different kind of “health”– the health of our community bonds, what keeps us together as a community.

The health of our community is an essential weapon in the fight against this and any future viruses – how much we care for our fellow residents, rather than just family and friends.

Failing which, our individual actions may drive us apart precisely when we should be coming together. This could be detrimental and worsen the crisis that stares us in the face.

So while we fight the virus we should also be aware of some possible unintended consequences, and continue to look out for those may need more help than we realise.


People are seen wearing protective face masks at Orchard Road, Singapore on Jan 28. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

Home quarantine orders are undoubtedly necessary, and it is reassuring to know that, in the current scenario, the Government will give an allowance of S$100 daily to aid those affected, covering the employed and self-employed.  

However, I am concerned that for some low-income families, their work to make ends meet might not be captured as formal work that is compensated by the allowance. Much low wage work is cash-based.

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For instance, we know from Ray of Hope – one of The Majurity Trust’s grantees – that some families in need do freelance work paid in cash, or bake cookies and cakes. Being quarantined and the resulting loss of income, could be dire for such families.

So should a low-income family have to serve a quarantine, I hope the Government and community will together do our best to mitigate the financial impact for them, for instance via the Courage Fund.


Another group that needs more help are parents and caregivers who have to stay at home to look after their children or the elderly at short notice.

With the current outbreak, we may see longer medical leave for children with flu-like symptoms so that they have ample time to recover. This means longer work disruptions for parents.

There is also a distinct possibility that schools, childcare centres, and elderly day care centres may eventually close, if things get more serious than this.

During the SARS outbreak in 2003 for example, schools were closed for a few weeks.

In such a scenario, parents and caregivers would have to scramble to arrange care alternatives and reorganise schedules.

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It would be helpful if employers could find ways to accommodate such affected staff during this period, for instance flexible work arrangements and telecommuting. This would go a long way to ease their burdens.


Third, there are those who are more vulnerable to the outbreak itself. These include seniors, children and those with existing conditions such as diabetes and heart ailments.

A woman stands by the roadside with bags of surgical masks on Jan 29, Singapore. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

While the Government will do its part, as a community we should also think more often about others in the community. For instance, we could ensure that we only buy or take what face masks we need, and use them only when needed. If we deprive those vulnerable to the virus – seniors, children, and those with existing conditions – of masks, then we also risk more people becoming infected.


The fact is that viruses do not care about our race or nationality, and neither should we. Instead, we should focus on our shared sense of decency and humanity, no matter where we come from.

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Recent days have seen some negative reactions, even vilification of those who were panic buying. This behaviour is not helpful and we should say so. However, some go too far in mocking or denigrating them.

Amid the negativity, I was heartened to read how those in the community went out of their way to help others in need. This includes people who brought food to frontline healthcare workers, helping provide transportation, and distributing free masks and hand sanitisers.

I am personally excited to see so many ground-up efforts blossoming in support of our community. The Majurity Trust is chipping in with our SG Strong fund for ground-up initiatives, and I hope we will see more such efforts as we come together to help one another.

Our best weapon against this virus – and future ones – is our ability to act as a community: to make sure no-one falls through the cracks, to grow our bonds with everyone who calls Singapore home, and face tomorrow together. 

Martin Tan is the Executive Director of The Majurity Trust, a philanthropic organisation in Singapore.

Source: CNA/ml


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