Everyone is affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the impact may be felt by some more than others. In addition to the elderly and those with underlying conditions, there are other populations who are also vulnerable.
In Hong Kong, these vulnerable populations include domestic helpers, many of whom come from the Philippines and Indonesia. There are approximately 210,000 Filipinos and 180,000 Indonesians working in Hong Kong. For them, this is the problem: do they fully understand the information about how to protect yourselves and others from COVID-19 infections, what symptoms are most likely to occur, and when and where to seek medical attention if it is in Cantonese or English?
Filipino domestic worker Nherieda said, “There is limited information on COVID-19 written in Tagalog. I mainly receive them from the Philippines. I would like to find more reliable sources of information. I am afraid of the disease, but I want to be a responsible person to protect myself and others.”
Suci, an Indonesian domestic worker, shared that her employer was worried that she would be infected with the virus and was advised against going out of the house. She was also concerned that if she becomes ill, she will just bring trouble for her employer.
People like Nhereida and Suci cannot protect themselves if they do not understand the available information about the disease.
To address this, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has been conducting health education activities—distributing leaflets in Tagalog and Bahasa Indonesia and other languages, organising learning sessions and answering questions. An MSF emergency medical team has arrived in Hong Kong late January which started reaching out to the elderly, street cleaners, visually impaired people, the homeless people, ethnic minorities, migrants and asylum seekers. In addition to sharing health education information, a special question and answer session is allotted to respond to the most immediate concerns.
Eliza Chang, an MSF nurse responsible for infection control and prevention, said, “Everyone has a role to play in in maintaining a healthy environment, protecting not just yourself but others too, and must be taken together to ensure maximum effectiveness.”
Filipino domestic worker Bessie has been working in Hong Kong for nine years. “With cases increasing here, it’s hard to tell if we are infected or not. Previously, I would receive information about COVID-19 online. It is better to learn about it face-to-face, with more interaction. I want the facts, like, is COVID-19 an airborne disease?”
With COVID-19 spreading around the world, many people are also experiencing frustrations, fear and anxiety.
An elderly person who has participated in one of the MSF activities shared, “I am very confused and afraid of infection. Wearing two masks at the same time can protect me, even if I know it is not correct.” Another person said, “I disinfected my hands until they were about to crack. I don't worry about myself, but I worry about my baby."
This is normal, but many people may not know how to deal with these feelings. “Our team’s approach is built upon human connections, the value of face-to-face interactions," said Gert Verdonck, emergency coordinator of MSF in Hong Kong. "By being there with vulnerable people in the society, we can help ease their stresses and anxieties, answer their concerns and doubts, as well as listen to their worries," he adds.
To date, MSF has conducted over 20 health education sessions with vulnerable communities in Hong Kong and aims to ramp up its mental health activities.
"The lessons and our experiences in Hong Kong serve as basis for MSF projects in other countries where we have existing medical activities. It may sound simple and a small contribution to the immense overall response to the outbreak but it makes a difference as we face this pandemic," Verdonck said.
MSF and COVID-19
In most countries where MSF works, we are coordinating with WHO and ministries of health to see how we may be able help in case of high numbers of COVID-19 patients and are providing training on infection control for health facilities. So far we have initiated support in Italy, Spain, Belgium, France, Iran.
A key priority for MSF is to keep our regular medical programmes running for the extremely vulnerable communities we are supporting around the world.
To learn more about how MSF is responding to COVID-19, click here: https://msf-seasia.org/2019coronavirus.