Coronavirus: Facing tough times, freelancers swop gigs for roles in coronavirus fight

Freelancers have found themselves taking up roles they never thought they would fill on the front lines of the pandemic. PHOTOS: LIM CHUNJIA, MAX ALAKH, HORUS I
MR MAX ALAKH: Does maintenance work at a hospital. MR GARRY TEO: Serves as a safe distancing ambassador at a supermarket. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF LIM CHUNJIA, MAX ALAKH, HORUS I MR LIM CHUNJIA: Distributes food to foreign workers in a dorm.
MR LIM CHUNJIA: Distributes food to foreign workers in a dorm. PHOTO: COURTESY OF LIM CHUNJIA
MR MAX ALAKH: Does maintenance work at a hospital. MR GARRY TEO: Serves as a safe distancing ambassador at a supermarket. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF LIM CHUNJIA, MAX ALAKH, HORUS I MR LIM CHUNJIA: Distributes food to foreign workers in a dorm.
MR MAX ALAKH: Does maintenance work at a hospital. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MAX ALAKH
MR MAX ALAKH: Does maintenance work at a hospital. MR GARRY TEO: Serves as a safe distancing ambassador at a supermarket. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF LIM CHUNJIA, MAX ALAKH, HORUS I MR LIM CHUNJIA: Distributes food to foreign workers in a dorm.
MR GARRY TEO: Serves as a safe distancing ambassador at a supermarket. PHOTO: COURTESY OF HORUS I

Once, a day in the life of Mr Lim Chunjia would have involved hosting a glitzy dinner-and-dance function or pumping up the crowd at community outreach events.

But then the coronavirus pandemic struck, and the freelance emcee, like so many others in the hard-hit events and entertainment sector, saw all his gigs vanish and his income dwindle to zero. Today, he distributes food to foreign workers at S11 Dormitory, the biggest Covid-19 cluster in Singapore.

He is one of many freelancers who, because of their dire financial straits, have found themselves taking up roles they never thought they would fill on the front lines of the pandemic.

Mr Lim, 32, started out as a temperature taker at S11 at the beginning of this month. Two days later, the dormitory in Punggol went into lockdown.

"I was afraid," he told The Straits Times over the phone. "I am still afraid now. But I feel there is a calling for me to continue this job."

He coordinates the delivery of packed meals to thousands of workers, assisted by 10 to 20 volunteer dorm residents per block. At the outset of the lockdown, he worked nine days non-stop. His fitness tracker calculated that he was walking 20km a day.

Since he started, he has not seen his wife and two young children who are now staying with his mother-in-law, as he does not want to risk infecting them. "I miss my family, but so do the workers in the dorm who can't top up their SIM cards or contact their loved ones in the lockdown," he said.

Besides giving him feedback on the food, workers approach him for help on other matters, from Wi-Fi issues to missed flights home.

"It is a privilege to be able to choose to have a job, to use my skillset to help foreign workers who have been forgotten by the rest of Singapore during normal times," he said.

His fellow emcee Catherine Yap has packed away her glamorous gowns under her bed and donned a surgical mask instead.

These days, the 41-year-old does triage at a kidney dialysis centre. In between shifts, she rushes to snatch up delivery jobs on Lalamove. She earns $80 a day, a far cry from the $7,000 to $8,000 a month she would make before Covid-19.

The single mother of two is not eligible for the $9,000 disbursed by the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme as the condominium unit she lives in exceeds the scheme's annual value threshold of $21,000.

She is still servicing her housing loan. "I may have to put up our home at the end of the year to survive," she said. "But I don't want to be one of those people sitting at home hoping that the industry will bounce back in June or July. That is wasting time. I don't want false hope."

Events DJ Max Alakh, 49, now does maintenance work, such as fixing patients' beds, at a community hospital. He earns half of what he used to. "It may be high risk," said the father of four, "but nowhere is safe any more".

Now, he uses the people skills he learnt as a DJ to bring smiles to the faces of elderly patients. "I used to be full of fear," he said. "But I look at the patients, at what they are going through, and it gives me strength."

Audio engineer Patrick Lai, 44, has had to get used to being shouted at over the phone after he became a call agent for the Ministry of Manpower, checking that those on stay-home notice and leave of absence are not out and about. He also does video calls to check on foreign workers' living conditions.

"I never thought I would miss my job so much," he said. 'I miss playing with music; I miss my equipment. For sure, I am frustrated, but in times like this, you can't wait around for sunshine."

Videographer Garry Teo, 47, has put away his camera. Now a safe distancing ambassador at a supermarket, he reminds shoppers to keep their distance and breaks up queue-cutting disputes between disgruntled customers.

"Last night, I had to escort out a drunk guy with no mask who tried to barge in three times," he recalled.

He earns half of what he used to doing video work.

"If we need to extend the circuit breaker, I have got to carry on without my old income," he said, growing emotional. "It is very hard right now. But I just want to play a small part for society so that we can all get out of this situation faster."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: Facing tough times, freelancers swop gigs for roles in coronavirus fight. Subscribe