frontlinersThe COVID-19 Frontliners: Soldiering against the Pandemic

by Nabilah Mohammad

This commentary was also published in Karyawan, A Magazine by AMP, July 2020, Volume 15, Issue 3

 

THE WORLD REMADE BY COVID-19
Just a few months ago, the Coronavirus Disease 2019, or COVID-19, was unheard of, but now, almost every continent is battling the virus. The disease is an infectious one caused by a newly discovered coronavirus and has taken almost half a million lives worldwide at the time of publication.

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the viral disease which was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, has reached the level of a global pandemic[1]. Citing concerns with “the alarming levels of spread and severity,” the WHO called for governments to take urgent and aggressive action to stop the spread of the virus.

As of 18 June, there are about 8.24 million cases reported and about 446,000 deaths globally[2]. Singapore has reported more than 41,000 cases, with 8,130 active cases and 26 deaths[3].

On 3 April, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced a much stricter set of measures, collectively known as a “circuit breaker”, amid concerns over escalating COVID-19 infections in Singapore[4]. Some of the measures included the closure of most workplaces and students moving to full home-based learning.

“Social distancing”, “quarantine”, “essential services” are buzzwords that often pop up in conversations among Singaporeans these days. Face masks and hand sanitisers have been highly sought after with many shops and online sites running out of stock[5] during the early stage of the outbreak.

The coronavirus has spread around the world, halting industry, bringing flights to a standstill, forcing the postponement of social events and even sent several countries into lockdown. Everything has been impacted: how we live and interact with each other, how we work, how we move around and how we travel. For many of us, we’re battling a loss of normalcy in our daily lives, especially those who have to work in the frontlines.

Like in any other country affected by the coronavirus, here in Singapore, frontline workers are keeping the population safe from COVID-19. They are those, who in the course of their employment, experience a high level of physical contact with the public, such as healthcare workers as well as those in other essential services such as security officers and cleaners.

The Karyawan team interviewed three frontline workers to get a glimpse of how their lives had changed, been disrupted, and upended by the pandemic.

The Karyawan team spoke to Mr Farhan (not his real name), 30, who is a certified Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) with 7 years’ experience in pre-hospital emergency. Farhan is an EMT with a private ambulance company dealing with non-emergency ambulance calls through the 1777 hotline. He also provides hospital transfer services for both stable and unstable patients.

Many frontliners like Farhan have to deal with the mental strain of having to keep up with constantly changing protocols and definitions of suspect cases as the COVID-19 situation rapidly evolves. According to Farhan, additional protocols include the usage of full personal protection equipment (PPE) and responding to ambulance calls, to convey both suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases.

“Some of the new measures include a temperature check of the crew every six hours in our 12-hr shift, and social distancing measures such as the restriction of crews of different ambulances from physically interacting with one another,” Farhan shared.

We also spoke to Rizal (not his real name), who shared the same sentiments. Rizal, 29, is an enforcement officer assigned to one of the foreign worker dormitories here. He shared that his work site has been classified as one of the red zone areas in Singapore, which means that there is a high number of COVID- infected cases reported in the area. His job scope during this pandemic period includes patrolling the dormitory area to make sure the migrant workers do not wander around or loiter near the barricade that surrounds the affected dormitories.

“The first day of my assignment was very hectic and stressful due to the environment of the dormitory. There are a lot of measures implemented. I have to work twelve hours per day for five days before I get a day off. It’s very tiring,” Rizal shared.

The Karyawan team also interviewed Nazri (not his real name), 35, who is a staff nurse at a local hospital. According to him, additional procedures and health screening have been implemented at his workplace, including conducting COVID-19 swabs for those who are considered high risk. He also shared that contact precaution and infection control practices such as the “5 Moments for Hand Hygiene” are maintained. The 5 Moments for Hand Hygiene approach defines the key moments when healthcare workers should perform hand hygiene procedures[6]. In addition, PPEs such as N95 masks, surgical masks, gloves and protective gowns are easily accessible to the ground staff.

Our interviewees shared that, besides juggling busy work schedules, they are also grappling with lost time with family members and disruptions to their personal routines and plans.

“I am a divorcee and was supposed to spend time with my kids every weekend. However, I had to sacrifice my time with my kids and have not met them ever since the pandemic started as I was called to be on the front line due to the nature of my job. To prevent putting my kids and my parents at risk, I have not met any of them since,” Farhan shared.

Rizal concurs. He says, “The current pandemic and my busy work schedule have affected my family time. I’ve got no time for my family.”

As frontline workers who are constantly exposed to the virus, our interviewees also shared that they often worry about bringing the virus home to their family and children.

As a father of two young children, Nazri shared that he is deeply concerned about the well-being of his kids.

“There are fears and concerns about bringing any viruses home. This is especially so as my children are young and are usually clingy with me; they would always want to be hugged and carried when they see me at the house gate.

Although I observe strict infection control protocols at work, as a precautionary measure, I will always take a shower at work before changing to clean clothes before heading home. I am thankful that my family is very supportive of what I do and is proud of it,” Nazri shared.

THE OTHER COVID-19 BATTLE
Since the early days of the pandemic, the frontline workers have gone above and beyond to ensure the community’s safety. Yet, a number of them, instead of being accorded the hero’s treatment they deserve, are being subjected to discrimination[7], stigmatisation, harassment and violence, mainly due to unfounded COVID-19 fears[8].

All our interviewees spoke about instances where they felt that they were subjected to discrimination by the public.

“Although the majority do look up to the healthcare team as ‘heroes’, we are bound to encounter those who might look at us in a different way. Some might avoid us, not wanting to take the same lift as us when we are in our uniform and will give us an unwelcoming look. My family and I have been subjected to some discrimination and harassment. Although it can be upsetting, especially when we are putting ourselves and our family at risk to help others, we choose to be understanding and know that they are just worried about the well-being of their family,” Nazri shared.

Farhan also shared that he wasn’t spared from the discrimination by the public.

“Twice, private hire drivers cancelled my call upon arriving at the pick-up location and knowing that I’m a frontline worker with the ambulance. However, I would like to emphasise that not everyone is like that,” Farhan said.

It’s not just hospital workers who are facing the stigma. Rizal shared that there were instances when he was discriminated against when he took the public bus which he boards near his work location.

“I also face a lot of issues when taking public transport. The public stares at us as we take the public bus from the dormitory. Some of them alight from the bus to take another bus. Some even change seats when they see us approaching them,” Rizal shared.

Foreign worker dormitories are one of the largest COVID-19 clusters in Singapore. Reports of infections among migrant workers in Singapore trickled in from 30 March 2020, when 35 new cases of COVID-19 were detected in 24 hours[9]. It took only 10 days for that figure to double to 2,000, and another three days for it to top 3,000 as the number infected at the dormitories shot up.

Nazri felt that the discrimination and stigmatisation may stem from the misconception that their profession makes them virus-ridden. Nurses, for instance, disinfect themselves thoroughly before leaving the hospital, only to encounter paranoia from the very people they are protecting.

“Some misconceptions I came across are that nurses are the cause of the spread of the virus to others. What people might not be aware of is that as healthcare workers, we follow strict hand hygiene guidelines and infection control protocols at work. Those in high-risk areas don the PPEs and hospital-laundered scrubs rather than our own uniform. On top of practising safe distancing at work, we too go through a thorough disinfection routine before heading home after our shift. Once I end my shift, I will take a shower immediately before leaving the ward and will change back to my home clothes. I will wash my uniforms separately from my family members’ clothes too. We take more precautions to protect our family members and those we encounter,” Nazri said.

“Secondly, there are views that we are doing it just so that we can be recognised as healthcare heroes. However, our commitment to care for patients who are ill and in need of help goes beyond this pandemic period. We are here to care for all patients because we sincerely care for them,” Nazri added.

The Karyawan team asked what has kept them going, despite the discrimination they face.

“The main thing that keeps me going is the support and understanding from my family.Without their support, I may not even have the motivation to leave home for duty in the first place. Secondly, it is the strong support from the hospital – from the upper management down to my colleagues. We support one another through our ups and downs, and we are always there for each other, be it when we are struggling with our work or our personal lives.

 Lastly, the patients who need our care. They are sick and unwell. I believe that anyone can be qualified to do the job of a nurse. But what makes a great nurse is the passion in caring for others,” Nazri said.

“The thought of getting rid of the virus to keep my parents and kids safe is what keeps me going,” Farhan shared.

CELEBRATING THE FRONTLINE WORKERS
As the government, health agencies and local officials work hard to contain the pandemic and its effects, we also see the community coming together in support of each other, especially for the frontline workers who are sacrificing the most. Amid the instances of discrimination and ingratitude, there are many Singaporeans who have made it a point to honour our medical workers.

At 8pm on 30 March 2020 for instance, the sound of applause burst out from windows and balconies across Singapore. The ovation was part of Clap For #SGUnited, a campaign to get the public to show their appreciation for those on the front lines in the fight against the pandemic[10].

Messages of hope and encouragement are also sent to medical workers through food and sweet treats. Home-grown bakeries have had baked goods sent to medical workers, either as their own initiative or from individuals wanting to show their support for frontline workers[11].

A NOTE FROM THE FRONTLINE WORKERS
With COVID-19 cases having reached staggering numbers in a relatively short time globally, it is easy to understand why some are feeling a creeping feeling of panic. Even with frontline workers working tirelessly around the clock, it seems as if the virus is outrunning us. Yet, it’s not just the virus itself that is causing global harm; there is something else that is adding even more to the pandemic: misapprehension and misinformation.

“It is often forgotten that healthcare workers who are on the frontlines battling against COVID-19 are humans too, just like you and me. We eat, breathe, and bleed the same way as everyone, and we are not differentiated by our race, religion, gender or nationality. Regardless of our job, we are all contributing to society, no matter big or small, especially during this challenging time and we should maintain our mutual respect for one another. Everyone has a part to play in this battle. Let’s fight together, not each other,” Nazri shared.

“Please stay at home whenever possible and maintain social distancing. This virus is no laughing matter and we need everyone’s cooperation to get this over and done with so that we can go back to our family,” Farhan shared.

Indeed, the sweeping impact of the coronavirus is unprecedented in this lifetime and we are nowhere near knowing when the pandemic will end or how bad things will get. In fact, the world may never be the same again.

These are sensitive times, with a deadly virus coupled with a plethora of misconception and discriminatory attitudes. Yet, with the hard work of the frontline workers, growing knowledge of the virus, and support from the society, the storm will soon pass, and sunnier days will come.

 

1CNA. COVID-19 OUTBREAK ‘A PANDEMIC’: WHO CHIEF. 2020, MARCH 12. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://WWW.CHANNELNEWSASIA.COM/NEWS/COVID-19-CORONAVIRUS-PANDEMIC-WHO-CHIEF-12528328
2 WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION. CORONAVIRUS DISEASE (COVID-19) SITUATION REPORT – 150. 2020, JUNE 18. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://WWW.WHO.INT/DOCS/DEFAULT-SOURCE/CORONAVIRUSE/SITUATION-REPORTS/20200618-COVID-19-SITREP-150.PDF?SFVRSN=AA9FE9CF_2
3 MINISTRY OF HEALTH. SITUATION REPORT – 18 JUN 2020. 2020, JUNE 18. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://WWW.MOH.GOV.SG/DOCS/LIBRARIESPROVIDER5/2019-NCOV/SITUATION-REPORT—18-JUN-2020.PDF
4 CNA. COVID-19: SINGAPORE MAKES ‘DECISIVE MOVE’ TO CLOSE MOST WORKPLACES AND IMPOSE FULL HOME-BASED LEARNING FOR SCHOOLS, SAYS PM LEE. 2020, APRIL 3. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://WWW.CHANNELNEWSASIA.COM/NEWS/SINGAPORE/COVID19-DECISIVE-MOVE-WORKPLACES-CLOSED-LEE-HSIEN-LOONG-12606614
5 THE STRAITS TIMES. MASKS, HAND SANITISERS SUBJECT TO USUAL GST RULES: S’PORE CUSTOMS. 2020, FEBRUARY 18. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://WWW.STRAITSTIMES.COM/SINGAPORE/MASKS-HAND-SANITISERS-SUBJECT-TO-USUAL-GST-RULES-SPORE-CUSTOMS
6 WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION. MY 5 MOMENTS FOR HAND HYGIENE. ACCESSED 2020, JUNE 26. HTTPS://WWW.WHO.INT/INFECTION-PREVENTION/CAMPAIGNS/CLEAN-HANDS/5MOMENTS/EN/
7 CNA. DISCRIMINATION OF HEALTHCARE WORKERS DUE TO CORONAVIRUS ‘DISGRACEFUL’: AMRIN AMIN. 2020, FEBRUARY 12. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://WWW.CHANNELNEWSASIA.COM/NEWS/SINGAPORE/WUHAN-VIRUS-CORONAVIRUS-COVID19-DISCRIMINATION-HEALTHCARE-WORKER-12426528
8 THE STRAITS TIMES. STIGMATISATION OF CORONAVIRUS FRONT-LINE HEALTH WORKERS APPALLING: INQUIRER. 2020, APRIL 10. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://WWW.STRAITSTIMES.COM/ASIA/STIGMATISATION-OF-FRONTLINE-HEALTH-WORKERS-APPALLING-INQUIRER
9 CNA. TWO WEEKS AND A 70-FOLD INCREASE: A LOOK INTO THE COVID-19 OUTBREAK IN SINGAPORE’S FOREIGN WORKER DORMITORIES. 2020, APRIL 17. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://WWW.CHANNELNEWSASIA.COM/NEWS/SINGAPORE/COVID-19-SINGAPORE-FOREIGN-WORKER-DORM-OUTBREAK-INCREASE-12649472
10 THE STRAITS TIMES. SINGAPORE GIVES THOSE ON CORONAVIRUS FRONT LINES A ROUND OF APPLAUSE. 2020, MARCH 30. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://WWW.STRAITSTIMES.COM/SINGAPORE/SINGAPORE-GIVES-CORONAVIRUS-FRONTLINERS-A-ROUND-OF-APPLAUSE
11 THE STRAITS TIMES. CORONAVIRUS: BAKERIES, INDIVIDUALS OFFER SWEET TREATS TO MEDICAL WORKERS. 2020, APRIL 3. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://WWW.STRAITSTIMES.COM/LIFESTYLE/CORONAVIRUS-BAKERIES-INDIVIDUALS-OFFER-SWEET-TREATS-TO-MEDICAL-WORKERS

 

Nabilah Mohammad is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a Specialist Diploma in Statistics and Data Mining.

Photo Source: The Karyawan

 
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