What Covid-19 taught us about making the world better

This is the last of 12 primers on current affairs issues under the news outreach programme by The Straits Times and the Ministry of Education.

Sisters Nishka (left) and Ayesha Menon, who created a website to help those who had lost their jobs, are among young people who stepped up to help the vulnerable during the pandemic. PHOTO: AYESHA MENON

A chance encounter with a man sleeping rough in Tiong Bahru moved two Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) students to galvanise friends to help the homeless.

In May last year, Harrison Chong and Sricharan Balasubramanian, 18, started ground-up initiative Comm.UnitySG. The group, which grew to about 40 students, cleaned 37 flats and repainted the doors and gates of two units over the school holidays.

That same month, sisters Nishka Menon, 21, and Ayesha, 17, created a website to help those who had lost their jobs, by linking them with mentors and other sources of information.

These spontaneous efforts by young people were part of a tide of compassion that swept across Singapore, rising to meet the needs of vulnerable groups hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Both here and around the world, social issues like the digital divide, domestic violence and mental distress emerged centre stage as schools and workplaces closed, and millions of people were confined to their homes as nations struggled to contain the spread of the virus.

While many struggled to cope, others rose to the challenge of providing help to their communities, in an inspiring show of generosity, innovation and sheer hard work for the sake of others.

Moved to help, many Singaporeans gathered their resources and rallied their friends, families and networks to provide food, laptops, broadband access and even shelter.

Philanthropic organisation The Majurity Trust funded 150 ground-up initiatives last year through its SG Strong Fund, supporting these informal groups of volunteers whose efforts focus on specific causes, such as low-income families or people with disabilities.

As the pandemic stretches well into its second year, questions arise about how best to sustain support for the vulnerable, and coordinate efforts by citizens, businesses and government so as to ensure no one who needs help falls through the cracks.

New needs, swift action

When schools switched to home-based learning during last year's circuit breaker, it made plain the reality of a digital divide even in a rich and highly wired nation like Singapore.

Many low-income families struggled as they did not have enough digital devices to support their children, who had to attend school remotely.

Among the groups that swung into action was a non-profit called Engineering Good. Its members began refurbishing old laptops and distributing them to families in need. More than 3,000 pre-loved laptops were donated in two months.

Those on lower incomes were also more vulnerable to job loss as many of them work in sectors such as retail or food and beverage, which were among the hardest hit by the pandemic.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), which provides financial aid to families, saw a big rise in the number of applications for help last year.

Many also suffered job or pay cuts. Some 95,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents applied for and received financial help through MSF's Covid-19 Support Grant last year. The grant provided up to $800 a month, for three months, to full- or part-time employees who lost their jobs, were placed on involuntary no-pay leave or suffered significant salary loss.

Seeing struggles once unseen

The pandemic also cast a spotlight on problems once invisible to those not directly affected - domestic abuse and mental health.

As more people stayed home for long periods, some became more aware of their neighbours' struggles and family conflicts. This was reflected in a sharp increase in the number of calls and inquiries to MSF's Child and Adult Protective Services.

The number of child abuse cases investigated by the authorities last year - 1,313 - was the highest in a decade, and 20.7 per cent more than the 1,088 cases in 2019.

A new 24-hour National Anti-Violence Helpline, which began operations in January this year, saw about 450 calls in its first month.

In July last year, social service agency Pave began testing a new mobile app which volunteers and grassroots leaders can use to report abuse. When a report comes in, Pave's administrators use the app - which can detect locations - to find volunteers nearby to investigate.

People's mental health struggles also became more visible as more began feeling the stress from the disruption of daily routines, and the uncertainty brought on by the crisis.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international organisation that works to improve policies and lives, carried out research on the mental health impact of the pandemic. It found that from March last year, the prevalence of anxiety and depression increased, and in some countries, even doubled.

The highest rates of reports of mental distress correlated with periods of intensifying Covid-19 deaths and strict confinement measures.

In Singapore, public awareness of mental health issues grew, and there was a swell of efforts to reduce stigma and normalise seeking help.

Mental health organisations saw overwhelming demand for services such as counselling and therapy, both from new and existing clients.

"Quite a number of our existing clients deteriorated because they lost access to coping activities and social support, or were stuck at home in an unconducive environment, such as (one with) poor family relationships or abusive parents," says Mr Asher Low, executive director of Limitless, a charity dealing with youth mental health.

Samaritans of Singapore, which focuses on suicide prevention, received 26,460 calls for help from January to August last year, up from 21,429 in the same period the year before. It is upping its efforts to help those struggling with mental health, in particular young people.

In June, it embarked on a new digital campaign aimed at 75,000 users. It asked young people to reflect before posting on social media, and provided guidelines on how to identify and help those harbouring thoughts of suicide.

The Youth Mental Well-being Network, launched by MSF, has over 1,500 members working on over 30 projects covering topics like emotional resilience and consolidating mental health resources.

One of them is Project It'll Be Alright. It is by six young people who want to gather the stories of those who have experienced mental health struggles, and compile them as well as advice from healthcare professionals into an e-book for youth. The aim is to assure young people they are not alone, and help them take steps to improve their mental health.

Tech and social innovation

Technology has become part of the new normal for the social service sector, says Care Corner's deputy director of family and community services Ian Peterson.

The sector was among those that sped up its push to digitalise, amid the pandemic. The change yielded some surprise benefits.

Care Corner's youth outreach, for example, used to take place on the streets, but with that halted, it began using social media and messaging platforms Instagram and Telegram to reach out to youth.

"We found that not only can we engage them, but in particular for mental health issues, the digital option provides anonymity, so we could reach out to a group that we would not have without the pandemic," says Mr Peterson.

Touch Community Services chief executive James Tan says social issues constantly evolve, according to the demands on the ground.

"Efforts by the various community groups will last only if they are regularly reviewed and tweaked to be made relevant to the existing needs of the community," he says.

Many of the efforts by social service agencies have been remedial work, as many of the pandemic's challenges came on fast and furious, says Mr Peterson.

He hopes that in future, intervention can take place earlier to tackle issues at the onset and mitigate their effects.

The pandemic has also shown that there is a need for ground-up initiatives by volunteer groups that are not tied up in as much red tape as established organisations, and can thus move more quickly to address fresh needs on the ground.

The groundswell of compassion during the crisis has shown that Singaporeans do care.

But compassion alone is not enough to help in a lasting manner and have a sustained impact on vulnerable groups.

Says Mr Tan: "We need to be part of a larger ecosystem that brings community, government and other corporate partners together.

"Through the 'many helping hands' approach, social service agencies and other community groups closest to those in need can deliver a range of social services and assistance programmes."

One example is the work group set up under the SG Together Alliance for Action to help hawkers take their businesses online. Its members include representatives of hawkers, food delivery platforms, Instagram page WheretoDabao and the Telegram bot SaveTheHawkersBot, and even a journalist who has long championed local hawkers in her writing.

Mr Peterson adds that forming a nationwide ecosystem of help will allow organisations, groups or individuals to plug in and render support in a more timely, coordinated and comprehensive way, as compared to when everyone is just doing their own part.

This can be seen in the Community Link initiative, which brings government agencies, companies and community partners together to better coordinate and manage families' different needs and offer customised services and support.

"Plugging every person into a neighbourhood ecosystem," says Mr Peterson, "is the way to reach out to those who fall through the cracks and ensure they are accounted for."

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