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With more than 81% of Singapore’s population being fully vaccinated against Covid-19, Singapore is a global pace-setter in the fight against Covid. But life is still tough in our “new normal”. In fact, with Covid cases on the rise recently, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung has stressed the need for Singaporeans to stay vigilant to avoid cases from spiking even further.

Most recently, as Singapore reported more than 800 new cases, calls have gone out for seniors especially to minimise social interactions where possible.

Through all this gloomy news, there are tireless frontliners who are still toiling away without much fanfare, ensuring that we have all our swabs and jabs. Here are some of their stories:

Branden: “Swabbing kids isn’t easy but their parents’ relief gives me great satisfaction”

Thomson Medical Swabber
Branden (left) says he feels a sense of pride playing a part in keeping people safe from Covid. Image source: Thomson Medical

Branden Tan, 22, served national service onboard a warship when he was in the Navy. Now he fights a different battle on land. 

After completing national service, while waiting to start his university course in Pharmacy at Curtin University in Australia in February next year, he was given the opportunity to work as a swabber at Thomson Medical Centre’s 24-hour family clinic in June this year.

He accepted it without hesitation.

Branden tells The Pride: “I enjoyed my polytechnic internship at pharmacies very much, and I feel a sense of pride knowing that I am helping the community through my work in healthcare.”

“I work 12-hour days performing swabs on patients, or registering them and preparing the swab kits. In one day, our team of eight (six during the day and two at night), can swab between 90 to 100 patients.” 

Branden says that he quickly learned that there was more to the job than just swabbing noses. Workstations have to be constantly cleaned and disinfected against the virus; paperwork has to be carefully prepared so that swab results are delivered accurately and punctually.

After working as a swabber at Thomson Medical Centre for four months, Branden has been given increased responsibilities. Now a team leader, he plans the swabbers’ roster, and guides new team members in their swabbing duties.

As Thomson Medical Centre is also a paediatric swab centre where children below the age of 13 may be sent for government-funded polymerase chain reaction (PCR) swabs, Branden gets to see his share of paediatric clients — the youngest he has seen was only 3 months old. 

“Working with young children is not easy and while there are some who are calm and extremely pleasant, there are those who cry and refuse to be swabbed.” 

Branden has learnt to work with his little clients by telling them to close their eyes and count to ten. “I’d promise them that I’d be done by then!” 

He also offers small rewards such as allowing them to paste sticker labels with their names on the swabbing documents. Unfortunately, incentives such as sweets or snacks are not allowed due to infection control protocols. Sorry, kids!

Branden says: “Although swabbing children is difficult, it gives me satisfaction as a frontliner when I see relief on the faces of the parents and children when they realise swabbing isn’t that scary after all.”

Shahrul: “I didn’t tell my parents I was a swabber because I didn’t want them to worry”

Swabber Singapore
Shahrul has been working as a swabber since the start of Covid. Image source: Health Promotion Board

Shahrul Nizam Mohd Shalihin has had a fascinating career path — after eight years as a chef, he joined Jetstar as a cabin crew member for three years. 

When the pandemic struck, air travel came to a halt and he had to go on furlough from the airline. Looking for silver linings, Shahrul saw this as an opportunity to contribute to Singapore as a swabber. He took on this role in May 2020 when Covid-19 numbers were high and looked to increase.

Shahrul, 32, tells The Pride, “I was a medic in NS and enjoyed what I did. As a cabin crew, I also received training in first aid. Since I had some background in medical care, taking on the job of a swabber was ideal. I needed a job and I could do something for Singapore at the same time.”

Despite being adaptable and enthusiastic, Shahrul found some aspects of the swabber’s job unexpected at first. For starters, when Covid-19 numbers peaked, he found himself swabbing patients practically non-stop.

“Swabbing was new to everyone when I started this job. It was challenging,” he acknowledges. “It was hot under the personal protective equipment (PPE) and I perspired a lot. It was also fasting month when I started work, so the physical discomfort was pretty intense.”

Not only that, during that period, there were many Covid clusters that formed in the foreign worker dormitories and Shahrul and his colleagues spent long hours in full PPE swabbing the workers and making sure safety protocols were followed.

Even though the job was tough and the conditions were stressful, Shahrul says that it was made easier by the camaraderie among the health workers.

“We looked out for each other, making sure that we were not exposed to the virus, whether through a gap in our PPE or through torn gloves. It was heartwarming,” he recalls with a smile. 

“It was satisfying when we saw the numbers start to go down. We felt good that we played a part in fighting the pandemic.”

Nevertheless, it was a tough period and Shahrul says his wife was a pillar of support for him.

“My wife had no objections to my decision to be a swabber. From being a chef to flying as cabin crew, and then as a swabber, she has always supported me,” he says.

However, Shahrul kept his job as a swabber a secret from his parents for a few months, not wanting to worry them. He eventually revealed his job to them, and was pleasantly surprised when they turned out to be more supportive than he’d thought. Nowadays, they would constantly send him text message reminders to stay safe.

In April, Shahrul was promoted to be a procedural supervisor at a regional screening centre in the west of Singapore. In this new role, he oversees a team of 30 swabbers and assistants, and ensures that they are properly trained and equipped to do their jobs.

As his work now involves a lot more interaction with colleagues and clients from different backgrounds and age groups, Shahrul’s cabin crew experience comes in handy. He shares the secret of his approach: “I see the person behind the job. I prefer to build a relationship first.”

Having spent more than one year at the frontlines, Shahrul says: “The most heartwarming thing was to see how people from all walks of life came together in the swabbing operations. It’s risky but people are still willing to come forward to help. 

“I used to think Singaporeans are always thinking of themselves but when I see so many of us coming together, I am encouraged. It has brought out a softer side of me, to be more open and receptive to my fellow citizens.

Veronica: “Patients ask their family members to look for me for vaccinations!”

Senja-Cashew CC Vaccination Centre
Veronica works 14 hour days. Image source: Thomson Medical

After working as a nurse in a public hospital for five years, Veronica Khor switched to becoming a real estate agent. But when MOH sent out the call for medical professionals to offer their services as vaccinators, Veronica stepped forward and started working at the Senja-Cashew CC vaccination centre in February.

Veronica, 50, tells The Pride that she had always enjoyed working as a nurse. And since her two children were in their early 20s and independent, after discussing it with her husband, she felt that it was appropriate for her to respond to the request for vaccinators.

She says: “My family is supportive of my decision to be a vaccinator. They trust that I will be responsible for my safety and will take good care of the patients and those around me.” 

These days, Veronica works as a vaccinator three days a week and fulfils her responsibilities as a real estate agent on days when she is not rostered on vaccination duty.

The hours are long. Veronica starts her day at 7.30am at the Senja-Cashew CC vaccination centre, collecting the vaccines and sanitising her workstation and the surrounding area. By 8am, the first patients start to arrive and from then on, it is a never-ending stream of patients.

For every patient, Veronica verifies their identity, explains the vaccination process and the possible side effects, and shows them the vaccine that she is going to use. She makes it a point to engage the patient in some light conversation before and during the vaccination process to put them at ease.

It’s a straightforward process and not too demanding, but Veronica does that for every single patient she meets throughout the day till the centre closes at 9pm, with just two rest breaks in between.

“As a trained nurse, I want to make the vaccination experience a positive one for the patient.” Veronica explains, “It is about the whole vaccination experience and not merely the act of administering a shot. This is why I try to engage them in conversation.”

And it works. Veronica shares about how she met a woman who was terrified of getting a jab. That woman only agreed to take the jab after her own family members who got vaccinated by Veronica told her of their positive experiences. The woman finally turned up at the centre looking for Veronica and insisted on getting the vaccination only from her!

Says Veronica: “I feel content when I know that patients go home happy, having experienced as little pain as possible. I enjoy my work as a vaccinator as I am able to care for and share medical knowledge with my patients.”

Raja: “My family is happy that I am playing a part in the fight”

Vaccination Centre Singapore
Raja at work at the vaccination centre at Senja Cashew community centre. Image source: Thomson Medical

For those of us who have been vaccinated, we probably recall how easy it was making our way from the entrance of the vaccination centre to each of the stations within and finally emerging at the exit, freshly vaccinated. 

It seems to work like, well, clockwork, but this is made possible with the help of people like Raja Jayasak Govindaraju, who works as an usher at a vaccination centre.

Originally a hotel manager in Kuala Lumpur, Raja transferred to a branch of the hotel chain in Singapore before Covid-19. When Raja was retrenched from his job, the 36-year old decided to apply his skills in the hospitality industry as an usher at the Senja-Cashew CC vaccination centre. 

“I feel that everyone needs to do their part for the safety and progress of this country,” says the father of four young children, aged 3 to 11.

Before the vaccination centre opens its doors for the first patient at 8am, Raja is already there to sanitise the area and set up SafeEntry devices. Throughout the day, Raja would be at the entrance of the vaccination centre, checking if people entering have acute respiratory infection (ARI) symptoms, such as a runny nose, cough or sore throat. Once he clears people to enter, Raja and his colleagues will usher them to their seats to reduce the likelihood of them wandering around.

“My job is interesting and I have met people from all walks of life here,” Raja says with a laugh. 

He relates an incident in which a man declared that he had a cough at the vaccination centre. When he realised that this meant that he couldn’t get in unless he got tested for Covid-19 at a clinic, his cough “magically” disappeared. Needless to say, Raja and his team told the man to come back for his vaccination another day. 

But isn’t the job dangerous, especially since he has four young children at home?

Raja’s response is simple: “My family is happy that I can play a part in helping the community achieve a high vaccination rate. Before I took on this job, I discussed the risks with my wife. We know that with the operating guidelines that we follow, the vaccination centre will be a safe and clean place to work in. 

“I am glad that more people are coming forward to be vaccinated. It is fulfilling to see the number of Covid-19 cases go down.”

It is people like Raja and Branden, Veronica and Shahrul, who work tirelessly and thanklessly to make a difference in the fight against Covid-19. Even as we deal with Covid fatigue and the disappointment of having to live with restrictions, let’s also remember that there are those among us who are stepping up to make a positive difference in society.

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