KUALA LUMPUR: November has arrived, and the seemingly longest year ever is finally approaching its end.
In the malls, the mannequins of a casual wear chain have donned cold weather gear, even though it is unlikely that any of us will jet off for a wintry holiday soon.
In fact, as the third surge of infections took root across Malaysia - total number of cases surpassed the 30,000 mark in late October, having just reached 10,000 in mid-September - several states and localities have been placed under a partial lockdown again.
In Selangor, where I live, residents are prohibited from leaving their districts, let alone the state. Originally enforced for two weeks, the restriction known as conditional movement control order (CMCO) has been extended until Nov 9.
Personally, the return to CMCO, schools closure, police roadblocks, masked faces everywhere and the social distancing reminders in shops no longer induce a jolt of fear or distress, unlike back in March when a nationwide lockdown was first imposed.
Instagram posts of friends hitting the beach in Penang or cafe hopping in Ipoh made me feel as if we are living in alternate universes. But other than that, life pretty much goes on as usual for now - after factoring in the unusual changes to our lives in this post COVID-19 world, that is.
We can still get groceries and dine in restaurants, although such out-of-home activities are few and far between since we began receiving news of infections in neighbourhoods nearby. As of late October, active cases in Selangor have topped 1,000.
Malls in the Klang Valley have gone quiet, most probably due to a cluster reported in a popular mall which eventually spread to the sixth generation, while cinemas nationwide are shuttered from November onwards.
The economy is so badly hit that think tank Malaysian Institute of Economic Research had revised down its real gross domestic product growth projection for the year to -5.5 per cent, after forecasting a 1 per cent contraction under the worst case scenario in April.
The gloomy outlook is particularly distressing for the vulnerable and less privileged groups. Some 800,000 people have lost their jobs due to COVID-19, said Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in a recent live address.
Anecdotal accounts from non-governmental organisations showed that financial donations have slowed, while requests for aid have gone up. As kind-hearted as Malaysians are, donor fatigue has kicked in and no one is to blame.
While battling these challenges, people are also unnecessarily wearied by the prolonged political drama and uncertainty.
But Malaysians can take heart that quietly, healthcare providers are working round the clock to fight against the virus, as charitable organisations carry on with their missions to help the needy. Not forgetting also the good Samaritans, be it individuals or companies, who still contribute in their own ways.
The spirit of “kita jaga kita” (we take care of each other) is more important now than ever.
MORE NEED HELP, LESS COULD AFFORD GIVING
Many Malaysians have recovered from the initial shock of the country plunging into lockdown. As COVID-19 worsens, the bubbling enthusiasm to contribute money to those in need has also waned.
Hassaan Izhar, the project manager of Charity Right Malaysia, can attest to a slowdown in the amount of donation raised. From March until July, the project under Mercy Mission Malaysia had received RM600,000 (US$144,382) to put together 4,000 food boxes containing staple items like cooking oil and rice for needy locals and refugees.
Fast forward to October, it is only halfway to its goal of collecting RM100,000 of donation. Meanwhile, the team has received requests for 1,000 food boxes all over Malaysia in just one month.
“A lot of people have already given a lot, so we can’t really push them. A lot of them have experienced (salary) cuts at their jobs … People who were previously giving out money to charities are now in trouble.
“We do not know how long the pandemic is going to go on. There is a need to save for themselves, rather than giving to others. So definitely there is a slowdown in terms of donations coming in, while there is a huge increase in terms of demand,” he shared, adding more families now need help after the breadwinners lost their jobs or businesses.
About 60 per cent of Charity Right Malaysia’s donations come from individuals, while the rest are from corporates. Corporate funding is usually more available in the early part of the year, so that has compounded the problem as well.
Hassaan noted that they could not verify each request for aid due to the movement restrictions, but Charity Right Malaysia still sent the food boxes, hoping that the requests were genuine and the items would come in useful for the recipients.
He recalled one particularly heart-wrenching story of a disabled single mother of three young children who lost her source of income as a helper. Her family only has one mattress in a dilapidated home in Kuala Lumpur, and barely anything else.
“That is one of the times that made me cry. At that point when you looked at the situation, and then you looked at yourself, you realised how lucky you are,” he said.
For now, Charity Right Malaysia is reaching out to corporates and running social media advertisements to raise awareness and hopefully convince people to come forward and help.
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PROTECTIVE SHIELDS FOR THE FRONTLINERS
Also experiencing a decline in donation funds is Tan Ean Nee, a volunteer in the personal protective equipment (PPE) support group of Sungai Buloh Hospital, the designated main COVID-19 hospital in Malaysia.
Tan is a council member of the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement, home to former leprosy patients and their descendants and a vibrant horticultural hub. She was recruited to be part of the support group at the start of the pandemic, when hospitals scrambled to mobilise staff to sew PPEs.
Tan helped to crowdfund donations in her personal capacity, and hunted down factories that manufacture non-woven fabric and workshops that could sew PPEs (hood, isolation gown and boot or shoe cover), surgical scrubs as well as disposable bedsheets and pillow covers. These supplies helped address urgent needs before government resources reached the hospitals.
Tan’s accounts of tackling the uphill tasks on Facebook were a comfort read during the early gloomy days of the pandemic. There was heartfelt appreciation for the kind-hearted donors who made the production possible, and the mission was particularly meaningful as it meant frontliners would get adequate protection while they treated COVID-19 patients.
“The community was raring to save the country. The donation plea was passed from one person to another. We were warmed by the response. Sponsors, in turn, said they were honoured to play a part,” she recounted.
The PPE support group took a hiatus in September when the COVID-19 situation eased and local cases even reached zero at one point. However, it is now back in full swing with the third wave of infections.
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The goal now is to stockpile three months worth of PPEs and other items for Sungai Buloh Hospital. Excess will be delivered to hospitals in Sabah, an outbreak epicentre with 15,000 cases registered so far.
“In the beginning, everybody was very anxious about the pandemic and many forked out huge amounts of donations.
“Now, with no official word of a PPE shortage, it is indeed more difficult to convince people to contribute,” Tan shared.
Tan is understanding about the situation. With the extended uncertainty, companies and businesses have to plan for rainy days ahead while individuals are experiencing donor fatigue.
Appeal for donations is shared via WhatsApp among the social circle of Tan and other volunteers. Meanwhile, Tan noted there is no shortage of in-kind contributions - food, toothbrushes, soaps and other everyday items for patients checked into the facility.
Tan is realistic that as long as the COVID-19 vaccine has not been produced, everyone has to stay in battle mode.
“Everyone’s cooperation is needed. While the PPEs protect frontliners, it is most important that people stay at home, practise 3W and avoid 3C and break the infection chain, so that we can reduce the burden on our medical system,” she said. 3W refers to wash, wear and warn; while 3C is crowded places, confined places and close conversation.
“The people are at the frontline of prevention,” she said.
THE SUPERHEROES AMONG US
With more people staying home and the resulting lower foot traffic in offices and malls where blood donation drives are usually held, the country’s blood stocks have dipped.
Appeals for blood donors to step forward began making their rounds on social media in early October.
A bag of blood could save three lives and one bag of blood is needed every 43 seconds in Malaysia, according to the National Blood Centre. “Come and be the next superhero,” it urged on Facebook.
Ng Ying Hui was one of those who answered the call of duty and braved a visit to the mall near her to donate blood on a recent Sunday. “I was wary of going to the mall, but I did and quickly left for home as soon as I was done,” she said.
The 35-year-old has been a proponent of blood donation since her first experience in university days in 2005, when she made a conscious effort to gain weight in order to qualify as a donor. She was not going to ignore the urgent plea this time.
And she was not alone. “At a glance, six or seven of some 10 chairs were occupied when I left,” Ng, who works in the IT industry, said.
Contributing financial aid is another act of kindness that some people are still silently doing. A friend of mine, who has been donating money to charitable causes since the start of MCO, said she carried on because she could afford to.
“I think some people may be worried about their jobs, so they cannot donate or are donating less, and hopefully I can help to fill some gaps,” she said.
Among others, she has contributed to a foundation for medical funding and a home for rescued pets. She also has a soft spot for those that do not provide tax-exempt receipts. In Malaysia, cash donations are tax deductible if the contribution is made to approved institutions or organisations to inculcate philanthropy.
“I’m worried that they may not be able to generate enough funding, so I prioritise them,” she said.
It is stories like these that provide a ray of sunshine when the pandemic sometimes makes us feel as if we are in the darkest of days.
Tan prepares protective equipment for the frontliners and Hassaan helps feed the underprivileged - both supported by the largesse of ordinary Malaysians - while Ng provides a lifeline for three possible beneficiaries.
These are the very epitome of “kita jaga kita” (we take care of each other), as the war against COVID-19 rages on in Malaysia.