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#DealingWithIt in DB: COVID-19 and domestic helpers

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How is the COVID-19 outbreak affecting the lives of our domestic helpers? Leny Ysulan and Severina Malazarte share their experiences with Suveera Sharma.  Photo by Baljit Gidwani

These past months, we have all had to adapt to a new way of living, with working from home, social distancing and home schooling becoming the new normal. COVID-19 has thundered into our homes and lives like a tornado, blowing away the frills and leaving us with just the essentials. Helping us keep it all together in Hong Kong is an army of 400,000 foreign domestic workers, working tirelessly in the background. The virus has hit them hard and disrupted their lives in many ways, more so with the added stress of being away from their own families.

HelperChoice has been closely monitoring the situation, amid early reports of pay cuts and job losses, travel bans and new regulations. The agency, which provides a transparent and ethical platform for employers and helpers to match with each other, has carried out an online survey in which 921 domestic workers share how the virus situation is affecting their daily lives. Without denying the plight many helpers find themselves in, regional manager Mahee Leclerc says that “the testimonies collected are surprisingly positive.

“Despite the situation, 90% of the foreign domestic workers remain optimistic about Hong Kong and do not wish to move out,” Mahee says. “This is a good outcome for Hong Kong society, as today one out of seven families rely on their help.”

Mahee has this advice for helpers as they deal with both the situation in Hong Kong and their concerns for families back home: “It is very important to be well informed and not to believe everything that you see on social media. A concerning result from our survey was that 84% of the respondents declared social media to be their primary source of information. We advise that the best practice is to follow your consulate web page for information. HelperChoice also tries to provide verified information and updates every day on its Facebook page.”

Adjusting to the new normal
The COVID-19 lockdowns have been tough on all of us, more so for helpers who don’t have their  immediate families (and in some cases even their employers) around them. Talking to Leny Ysulan and Severina Malazarte, two DB-based Filipina helpers, sheds some light. Leny arrived in Hong Kong a year ago. She has been with her employers in DB the entire time, helping them cope first with the civil unrest, and now COVID-19. Severina, who first came to Hong Kong in 2003, has worked in DB for the past four years. Her employers left for Australia in January at the very beginning of the virus outbreak. In their absence, she takes care of their apartment and pet cat.

Until just a few months ago, Severina was busy caring for two little boys aged five and three, and she admits to feeling lonely without them. “I miss the boys and my employers. It’s boring being here all by myself. Even though I get busy when they’re around, I don’t care. I really want them to be back. The boys are now in school in Australia so I am not sure when that will be.”

As a single mother, it’s natural that Severena’s thoughts turn to her two daughters living in the Philippines. “I miss them all the time,” she says. “But they’re grown up, so even though I do think of them, I am not incredibly worried as I know they can take care of themselves.”

Unlike Severina, Leny at least has her employers here with her in DB to keep her busy, and provide support and companionship. But how is she coping? “It is nice to be with a family here when we are mostly stuck indoors, but I often feel sad and think of my family back home, particularly my nine-year-old daughter,” she says. “I am worried for them as now there are so many people infected even in the Philippines. Luckily my family is in a small town far away from the city and the crowds, so hopefully they are relatively safe. It is very stressful to be away from them during these times, and sometimes it’s tough to concentrate on my work.

“My employers have been very supportive,” Leny adds. “They have provided me with masks and sanitisers. They always remind me to be careful when I go out and to stay away from crowded areas.”

Being ‘home’ alone since January, Severina has had a tougher time. “My employers try to take care of my needs but since they are not here it gets difficult,” she says. “They did give me a few masks but they ran out very soon. Friends have shared masks with me when they had a few surpluses. Thankfully I have a few masks with me now.”

Staying home and hopeful
Living in lockdown isn’t easy. In our darker moments, we’ve all experienced feelings of insecurity, helplessness and fear. How are Leny and Severina dealing with their anxiety? How are they keeping their sanity and finding some sense of normalcy in their lives? “I don’t feel very safe these days, especially as there are cases in Discovery Bay,” says Leny. “Before the outbreak it was great, as I would go and spend my day off with my friends; we would sing and dance at the beach and have a picnic, but now it’s so different. Before this virus situation, I would go to church with my friends on Sundays. But now everything is closed, so there’s not much to do. I just go down to the plaza to buy my food, go for a walk and then come back to my room to relax for the rest of the day. In my room, in my free time, I watch shows and news on my phone. If I’m stressed, I like to sing and pray. Talking to my family also makes me happy.”

Severina echoes these feelings: “It is difficult now to be outside. I am scared of the virus and do not want to catch it. It is not good to meet friends, I feel. I do not go to Central unless it’s absolutely necessary. I mostly stay in the house to be safe and come out to shop for food for myself and the cat. The only time I am able to meet friends in small groups is on Wednesday night when we have a prayer meeting. I look forward to that.”

Returning to the Philippines is not on the cards for either Severina or Leny, at least for the foreseeable future. “Now in the Philippines there is a 14-day quarantine for all arrivals. It is not worth going at this time. Also, there is no guarantee of flights coming back,” says Severina. Leny feels the same way: “It is not safe now to travel. I would rather avoid it as I don’t want to put my family at risk too.”

Indeed, staying home and staying hopeful is the best way forward for all of us. Like many other challenges that we have faced in the past, this too shall pass, and we will come out the other side much stronger than before.

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