Kindness in the Face of Covid-19 by Dr Chern Ein Oon, Winner of 2018 WOF Southeast Asia, Science, Technology & Digital Award

My heart palpated as I slumped into a chair, breathless and unable to focus. I remembered texting my husband, who was banned from flying into Malaysia, asking him if he thought I was having an onset of COVID-19! The shortness of breath worsened in the next days as my brain struggled to concentrate on simple tasks. In the background, my infant was crying for attention; next to me was my toddler clinging onto me tightly- also wailing for attention! Malaysia was declared on COVID-19 lockdown since the middle of March 2020. Day-care centres and universities were forced to close. That meant I had to take on the role of a career woman, and a full-time mother simultaneously, while my husband was stuck overseas, having just lost his job. I happened to have also enrolled myself in a course as a student, just prior to the lockdown. I felt overwhelmed. It took me a while to understand that I was having an episode of anxiety attack.

It often struck me that there is never a perfect time to settle down with a family. It seemed really difficult juggling between work, and the kids, let alone finding the time to study. The sleepless nights from attending to the kids when they were unwell, and the sudden change in lifestyle took a toll on my mental health. Yet, we were expected to deliver at work all the same. Besides work, I am active in science outreach activities and work together with various organisations to serve the community. During this trying time, I badly needed options. I was at my wits’ end. Was quitting my voluntary position an option? So many mothers are guilt-stricken, as I found out after sharing my experience with others. In the midst of all this craziness, we hear that somewhere out there, couples had to delay on their chances to conceive through assisted reproduction due to the risks associated with COVID-19. Just close to home, I had friends sharing with me their heartbreaks on suffering from multiple miscarriages. These made me realise the importance of not taking for granted the blessings of two healthy children, a home and loving parents. Perhaps, I should brave through the challenges with a thankful heart.

The television did not help put our mind at ease either, with the hourly news reporting updates on increasing death tolls due to COVID-19. It was a depressing time for many. The newspaper told the stories of people taking their own lives due to the negative cascading effect of COVID-19 on their daily lives and mental health. As hope and optimism slowly seeped away, some did not manage to see how things could get better. We are expected to live a new norm. But is the new norm kind to everyone? What if we personally knew someone who had the plan to take his/her own life?
Single mothers were also severely affected. Perhaps few could understand the silent struggles that they went through. I knew a single mother who migrated to Malaysia with her two children. She owned very little but carried big bags of hope, for the sake of providing a better life for her children who would otherwise be forced to fight alongside the military back in her country. ‘The kids would have no access to formal education. Every now and then, we had to run and look for cover during air raids’. Here, she was doing many underpaid jobs to make ends meet. That was before the lockdown began. However, living the new norm means she has lost a significant portion of her income and had to look for new jobs to sustain her son’s education. Motherly love prevails. There was only so much I could do during the lockdown. I called her to ask how she was coping and asked if she needed any food aid. The happiness and gratitude in her voice made my day. At times when I thought I was stressed with the demands of raising two young kids and doing my job well, I paused to draw inspiration from her.

At a morning market, a young mother and her infant were banned from entering the premise due to stringent standard operating procedures- no kids allowed. As she was plucked out of the queue, I saw her helpless face. She had no one to help her watch her infant at home, but she still had to buy and put fresh food on the table. I deeply empathised with her, I wanted to help, but I was not able to due to social distancing. One could suggest doing grocery shopping online, but from my experience having done that and if unlucky, consumers would have to make do with near-expired food or stale groceries. A sense of gratitude washed over me. At least while my husband was unwillingly stuck elsewhere, I could go to my parents when I really needed them.

Now, as the lockdown eases, my mind instantly becomes clearer and calmer. I had the time to reflect and be thankful that despite what I went through, I have a beautiful family to go home to every day, a job to go back to and a life to live to the fullest. The sun always shines after the rain. Luckily, my anxiety attack was rather short-lived. Many things are a matter of perspectives. We can opt to nourish our hearts with love and hope instead of feeding the virus of negativity. I believe that small acts of kindness resound in our lives and can make a big difference. I got better because I was on the receiving end of empathy and compassion. I pulled through because being kind to others is therapeutic on its own. We often under-estimate how far a little kindness can go. In depressed individuals, kindness can advance the will to live. Kindness can lift the dampened spirits of those who need motivation. Kindness connects people. Most importantly, beautiful acts of kindness may bring a sense of realisation that we are actually more similar than dissimilar in our life experiences.

Written by:

Associate Professor Dr Chern Ein OON
Winner of the Women of the Future Southeast Asia 2018 – Science, Technology & Digital category
Universiti Sains Malaysia