In Solidarity

A regular government subsidy scheme has kept at least some of the social service institutions up and running amid the current pandemic, but this does not exempt them from troubles and challenges.

The on-going global pandemic of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has taken Jennifer Chau Wai I for a walk down memory lane, all the way back to 2003, when the Fuhong Society of Macau was inaugurated. One of the largest non-profit social service organisations in the city, serving persons with intellectual disabilities and providing mental health rehabilitation, the Fuhong Society debuted nearly two decades ago when the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) brought economic activities in southern China — including Macau — to a standstill.

“We had about 40 staff and [regular] service users [at the beginning of the operation], and I still remember I was anxious at the time how we could support this number of people amid the outbreak and the dismal economic climate,” Ms. Chau, director of the organisation, recalls. These bygone days have popped up in her mind again: the Fuhong Society and others are now facing an even grimmer prospect triggered by COVID-19, which has had a far more profound impact upon the global economy than what happened nearly twenty years ago.

Furthermore, local social service institutions are especially vulnerable to fluctuations in the economy, as their operating income relies on donations from the private sector and subsidies from government entities, mainly the Social Welfare Bureau. These make them as vulnerable as — if not more so than — other businesses during this public health crisis, but they hold their heads high to remain committed to serving the society as long as possible.

“I don’t dare say we are stuck in a particularly difficult situation when this pandemic has affected everybody,” remarks Paul Pun Chi Meng, Secretary-General of Caritas Macau, the charity outreach division of the Catholic diocese in the city. Boasting over 60 social service and education service facilities for the elderly, children, and disadvantaged individuals in the community — including a food bank and a medical clinic for low-income individuals like migrant workers — Mr. Pun says Caritas Macau “continues to provide as much service as we could since the virus outbreak” in late January.

For instance, the organisation has distributed so-called “livelihood supply packs”, namely food and medical supplies, to over 1,000 disadvantaged families, as well as about MOP250,000 (US$31,250) among about 120 families experiencing financial difficulties since the outbreak of COVID-19. Caritas Macau has also assisted at least 1,300 migrant workers who have lost their job or run out of money amid the predicament, providing food supplies and cash relief ranging between MOP1,000 and MOP1,500. 

“I don’t dare say we are stuck in a particularly difficult situation when this pandemic has affected everybody”, Paul Pun, Caritas Macau

Delayed plans

Emphasising that the government has been supportive of them in this difficult time, Caritas Macau has also received donations in the form of cash and medical supplies from local corporations and associations to aid in the fight against this crisis. Mr. Pun acknowledges, however, that there are fewer donations from the private sector in general for other charity initiatives, pointing to cancellations and delays of fund-raising activities. “We originally scheduled a few charity galas in February and March to raise funds but they have all been cancelled,” he illustrates. 

This means Caritas Macau has to juggle priorities. Last year, the organisation unveiled that a philanthropist had donated a 600-square-metre land site at Avenida do Coronel Mesquita near Mong-Ha to the group. Given the surging demand of elderly care here due to the aging population, Caritas Macau has planned to raise funds for the construction of a new five-storey elderly home on the site. “This initiative has to be delayed as we need to put our resources first to help those in need,” the secretary-general explains. 

Although the territory has only reported 45 COVID-19 cases and no deaths, with the last case dating back to 8 April, Macau and many other governments have imposed strict lockdown measures and travel restrictions, wreaking havoc upon the economy worldwide. Visitor arrivals to Macau plunged by 76.6 per cent in the first four months of 2020, with the figure further plummeting 99.7 per cent in April, according to the latest official figures. Reliant on tourism and gaming, the city’s gross domestic product (GDP) tumbled 48.7 per cent in the first quarter of this year — the worst performance since quarterly figures were first made available in 2002 — on the heels of a 4.7-percent decline last year.

Government subsidies

Despite the drastic fall in revenue, the government has pledged its unwavering support for disadvantaged groups among others in society; for instance, the Social Welfare Bureau has granted an additional two months’ allowance to disadvantaged families. Moreover, in a bid to stimulate local economic activities and provide financial relief for residents and local businesses, the government has proposed numerous initiatives, including a one-off financial assistance between MOP15,000 and MOP200,000 for local enterprises through the Macau Foundation. But the financial assistance scheme does not cover social service institutions among other entities like schools, universities and public firms, because most of the operations of social service institutions have been suspended until June, and have already been subsidised by the government through a regular scheme. 

According to figures from the Social Welfare Bureau, 212 social service facilities here received regular government subsidies last year under a new financial support scheme. Compared with the beginning of the new scheme that was inaugurated five years ago, the local social service facilities were granted a total of MOP1.387 billion in 2019, representing a hike of over 40 percent from MOP928 billion in 2015. In the first quarter of this year, the Bureau gave out a total of MOP365 billion to social service institutions and other organisations for undertaking social service and other activities, rising 4.8 percent year-on-year.

Challenging year

Nerissa Lau, director of the Macau Deaf Association, says their units and services that are directly subsidised by the government have largely remained unscathed during this pandemic. “But a social service institution like ours offers a wide range of services, some of which might not be covered by the government’s subsidy scheme and are interrupted by this pandemic,” she advises. For example, the consulting service for parents of children with hearing disabilities provided by the association — which runs a service centre for the hearing-impaired in the community — has been halted due to the virus outbreak.

The group also has some migrant workers to assist in part of its day-to-day operation, but stepped-up border measures imposed by the territory and nearby Zhuhai over the pandemic have prevented some of them from returning to the city — before, Mainland Chinese workers staying in Zhuhai were allowed in mid-May to travel to and fro between the two sides without a mandatory quarantine period. “Some large social service institutions that have more financial resources could arrange temporary accommodation for their migrant workers to stay in the city. But we, with limited financial resources, could not do so and some of our migrant workers were not able to come back to work [in earlier months],” Ms. Lau illustrates.

Ms. Lau thinks expects that this will be a challenging year for her association, as well as for other parties here. “We were basically not able to carry out any activities like Flag Day to raise funds and awareness in the first half of this year. We might undertake some campaigns in the second half, but we will probably do so via an online format, heeding the government’s calls to minimise social contact,” she explains. With the effectiveness of online campaigns remaining to be seen, she only hopes the society and the local economy will rebound soon.

“We were basically not able to carry out any activities to raise funds and awareness in the first half of this year”, Nerissa Lau, Macau Deaf Association

Social enterprises

The Fuhong Society has several social enterprise projects that rely less on government subsidies, operate more like ordinary businesses, and provide job opportunities for people with disabilities, including Happy Laundry Social Enterprise, Happy Market Social Enterprise and Happy Corner Social Enterprise. The first mainly provides laundry service to local beauty salons, gymnasiums and other businesses, while the latter two sell handiworks and creative artwork created by the service users of Fuhong.

“Many of the facilities under the Fuhong Society serve as vocational training units for people with disabilities, which makes us more vulnerable to fluctuations in the economic climate [than other social service institutions],” Ms. Chau illustrates. “We provide vocational training for over 300 regular service users, who work in our social enterprises, helping to pack [plastic] utensils for local hotels, participating in cleaning service for the Macau airport, and so on.”

Furthermore, most of Fuhong’s training operations have been suspended. “For instance, our Happy Laundry Social Enterprise had stopped operation for a month earlier this year due to COVID-19, incurring a loss of about MOP100,000. Though the laundry facilities have reopened since then, we still have very few orders, and have to keep calling beauty parlours, salons and others to look for business,” she illustrates. “Not to mention, the packing service for hotels and cleaning service for the airport are basically non-existent at the moment.”

Despite the suspension, the Fuhong Society continues to give monthly allowances to its training service users so they can support themselves. “We are not small- and medium-sized enterprises, and we could not discharge our users from duty or cut their allowances; otherwise, what else could they do, and how they could support themselves?” she remarks. 

Despite the current hardship, Ms. Chau remains upbeat. “I believe we will live through the predicament, just as we did in the SARS period,” she says resolutely.

“Many of our facilities serve as vocational training units for people with disabilities, which makes us more vulnerable”, Jennifer Chau, Fuhong Society