Bukit Merah's Covid-19 guides

Mr Hussain Rondi (right), and his wife Mdm Alehan Endon, at the Thong Kheng Seniors Activity Centre, on Oct 22, 2021. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH
Mr Hussain Rondi (centre), and his wife Mdm Alehan Endon, giving out lunch to senior residents outside the Thong Kheng Seniors Activity Centre, on Oct 22, 2021. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH
Mr Hussain Rondi (right), and his wife Mdm Alehan Endon, at the Thong Kheng Seniors Activity Centre, on Oct 22, 2021. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - They were the "backbenchers" of Bukit Merah, eating, smoking, and arguing - sometimes loudly - about issues important to them, while jealously holding on to their seats.

But eventually they were ousted.

Two of the four brown-tiled benches they claimed as their own at the void deck of Block 3 Jalan Bukit Merah were removed because the senior residents were not following Covid-19 rules.

They, and some members of the public, would also leave rubbish there after meals, said Mr Jayaprabha, treasurer of the Queenstown Hock San Zone Residents' Committee (RC).

This was when dining in restrictions were introduced during the pandemic.

More than 400 seniors live in Block 3, which comprises one-room rental units. It is next to the ABC Brickworks Market and Food Centre.

"The mess (at the benches) attracted pigeons and other birds," added Mr Jayaprabha, 73. He goes by one name.

Sometimes, the seniors would also not sit 1m apart, and a few would smoke and chat without their masks on, said Mr Hussain Rondi, 73, a volunteer at Thong Kheng Seniors Activity Centre - which is next to the RC at the void deck of Block 3.

He is a resident there as well.

But the final straw was when a quarrel broke out a few months ago, when one of the seniors did not allow another elderly person to sit at the benches.

The argument was so heated, the police were called in, recounted Mr Hussain.

Soon after, two benches were removed.

Two of the remaining four brown-tiled benches at the void deck of Block 3 Jalan Bukit Merah. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Mr Hussain said: "I told them (the seniors) to be careful. The other two benches are for them to use. I told them to make sure to keep it clean, and no arguments. Sit far away with their masks on."

Mr Hussain and his wife, the seniors activity centre's programme coordinator Richard de Roza, as well as Mr Jayaprabha have been helping the elderly at Block 3 and nearby Housing Board blocks navigate the changing Covid-19 measures.

Bukit Merah is one of a few neighbourhoods with a larger number of residents aged 65 and above, according to data from this year's edition of Population Trends, released by the Department of Statistics.

At least one in five residents in Bukit Merah falls into that age group.

Before the pandemic, Thong Kheng Seniors Activity Centre was bustling with 80 to 90 residents playing Bingo, singing karaoke, exercising, and chatting.

Now, with a handful of staff and volunteers, the centre's main role is to provide breakfast and lunch for the seniors, and do weekly check-ins with Block 3 seniors, especially the housebound.

Mr Richard de Roza, programme coordinator at the Thong Kheng Seniors Activity Centre, on Oct 22, 2021. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

Mr de Roza, 73, is kept busy each day translating HDB and hospital letters for some of the seniors who cannot read English.

Some residents have also asked him how to use the antigen rapid test (ART) kits that were sent to their mailboxes.

By early December, every household nationwide will receive a pack of 10 Covid-19 self-test kits.

To ensure that the regulars at the benches take social distancing and mask-wearing seriously, Mr Jayaprabha has put up a chart at a wall next to the benches.

Written in all four national languages, the chart highlights the daily Covid-19 cases, deaths and hospitalisation figures.

Mr Jayaprabha's chart highlighting the daily Covid-19 cases, deaths and hospitalisation figures. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

"I want to let the people know, and instil the fear in them about the pandemic," said Mr Jayaprabha.

At times, some elderly residents' lack of compliance with pandemic measures perplexes Mr de Roza and Mr Jayaprabha.

Once, a general practitioner in Bukit Merah had informed Mr de Roza that an elderly resident had to stay at home for three days until her swab test results were out.

"I was surprised because I saw the lady walking to the market earlier that day. Fortunately, she tested negative," he said.

Mr Jayaprabha recounted another incident: "A while back, I asked another elderly woman why she was not wearing a mask. She said: Very panas (hot in Malay)."

Over at Mei Ling Street in Queenstown, volunteers from ground-up initiative Project Hills have been distributing pamphlets about vaccination and booster shots to rental flat residents while bringing them meals and masks every weekend.

Since the start of the national vaccination drive, volunteers have been helping seniors register for their jabs, and taking them to vaccination centres, said Ms Zulayqha Zulkifli, 27, co-founder of Project Hills.

Although many seniors in Mei Ling Street are vaccinated, there were a few at Block 151 who were more reluctant, said Ms Zulayqha.

Block 151 comprises one-room rental flats mainly occupied by older residents.

"They don't know the Delta variant. So, if they cannot understand how the virus works, we will then have to show them how being unvaccinated will change and affect their lifestyle," she added.

Volunteers from Project Hills handing out hot meals to residents at Mei Ling Street on Oct 23, 2021. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Ms Zulayqha's older brother - also a co-founder of Project Hills - knew three unvaccinated seniors from Block 151 who enjoy spending time at the Mei Ling Market & Food Centre.

Before the vaccination-differentiated measures at hawker centres started last month, her brother tried to convince the seniors again.

"My brother said: Uncle, if you don't go for your vaccination, you can't sit at the coffee shop. Then you're stuck at home. If you want to meet your friends outside, you must get vaccinated."

Her brother's persuasion worked, and the seniors went for their jabs a few weeks ago.

The number of unvaccinated seniors in Singapore has more than halved since early August, from 175,000 then to fewer than 64,000 now.

But Covid-19 continues to affect the unvaccinated disproportionately, especially the elderly, noted Senior Minister of State for Health Janil Puthucheary in Parliament last week.

Nearly 95 per cent of those who died in the last six months were aged 60 and above, and 72 per cent of all who died had not been fully vaccinated, he added.

A coffee shop at Block 57 Lengkok Bahru has been providing weekly free meals for 500 needy seniors in the area.

S17 community kitchen founder Raymond Khoo decided to feed seniors for three days after each jab, so that they can focus on recuperating from their side effects. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

Three months ago, S17 community kitchen founder Raymond Khoo was doing his routine check-ins with various rental flat seniors in the Lengkok Bahru area, when he realised that many of the elderly have not been vaccinated yet.

"More often than not, their concern was not being able to cook food for the family or get food if they feel ill after the vaccine. Seniors told me: 'I heard my neighbour got vaccinated and her arm cannot lift up, can't cook for the family.'"

To allay their concerns and get more seniors vaccinated, Mr Khoo, 58, decided to give meals to seniors for three days after each jab, so that they can focus on recuperating from side effects.

Seniors queueing for lunch outside the Thong Kheng Seniors Activity Centre in Jalan Bukit Merah on Oct 22, 2021. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

The initiative started three months ago, and the seniors can collect their lunch and dinner - comprising nasi padang or porridge - at S17 or have them delivered. So far, 78 seniors have benefited from the initiative.

As a social enterprise, the coffee shop's free meals for seniors are covered by its nasi padang and drink stalls' business, as well as through profits earned from Mr Khoo's restaurant, The Peranakan.

"But with heightened alert periods and tightened social restrictions this year, The Peranakan has been very badly affected. I don't know if we can survive through the end of the year."

Footfall to S17 has also plunged by 70 per cent since the middle of the year, when stallholders and residents of Blocks 55, 56, and 57 in Lengkok Bahru had to undergo mandatory Covid-19 testing. At the same time in June, the Bukit Merah View Market and Hawker Centre cluster was raging.

Mr Raymond Khoo speaks to diners at S17 community kitchen on Oct 28, 2021. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

"Sales at S17 have not recovered since then as many shy away from this area," said Mr Khoo.

The restaurateur has also been dipping into his own pocket - $15,000 to $20,000 a month for the past few months - to keep the social enterprise going.

Since 2011, Mr Khoo and volunteers under his organisation - The Saturday Movement - have organised weekly communal meals at a void deck in Lengkok Bahru.

He is now planning to distribute one-litre atomiser disinfectants to the seniors, after noticing that some seniors have been cleaning their homes more frequently because they fear catching the virus.

"They keep cleaning until their hands are dry, and skin peeled. An elderly lady accidentally cut her finger while cleaning the house."

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