Sri Lankans have been contending with its worst economic crisis since 1948. Households were unable to purchase necessities and basic first aid kits. They had limited access to necessities such as shelter, clean drinking water, hygiene and sanitation facilities. Residents often fell ill as they did not have access to proper sanitation facilities and hygiene education. Nine Singapore Red Cross (SRC) volunteers, trained in the Overseas Disaster Deployment Training (ODDT), were deployed on an Overseas Humanitarian Programme (OHP) to Sri Lanka from 31 July to 6 August 2023. They visited four schools, distributed food, installed water filters, and provided basic training in first aid, good oral hygiene, proper handwashing techniques, mosquito control and humanitarian principles.
Since 2019, Sri Lanka has been grappling with its worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948. Stoked by compounding factors such as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, tax cuts, money creation, nationwide policy to shift to organic or biological farming, and the 2019 Sri Lanka Easter bombings, Sri Lanka has been straddled with foreign debt.
Sri Lankans Reeling from the Economic Crisis
Sri Lankans have inevitably borne the repercussions of these economic predicaments. They contended with unprecedented levels of inflation, near-depletion of foreign exchange reserves, shortages of medical supplies, and a spike in prices of basic commodities.
"The economic crisis in Sri Lanka has left many households unable to purchase necessities and basic first aid kits. They have limited access to necessities such as shelter, clean drinking water, hygiene and sanitation facilities. Residents often fell ill as they did not have access to proper sanitation facilities and hygiene education. Children helped out with manual labour and had limited access to learning materials," said Desmond Ang, Singapore Red Cross (SRC) Executive, Global Engagement.
Cognisant of this, nine SRC volunteers, trained in the Overseas Disaster Deployment Training (ODDT), embarked on an Overseas Humanitarian Programme (OHP) to Sri Lanka from 31 July to 6 August 2023. As part of the OHP, the volunteers visited four schools; the Sri Lanka - Singapore Friendship College and Keppitiyawa Primary School in Weeraketiya, Kusum Sevanva Preschool in Columbo D15, and Sripathi Maha Vidyalaya in Ambalangoda. Approximately 640 students from various schools benefitted from this OHP.
"We visited four schools, distributing food, installing water filters, and providing basic training in first aid and humanitarian principles. I was focused on teaching students about good oral hygiene, proper handwashing techniques, and mosquito control. In some instances, I reinforced things they already knew. In other instances, I introduced these vital topics," said Nadim Van Der Ros, 46, a volunteer who volunteered in the OHP.
By imparting proper handwashing and teeth-brushing techniques, the volunteers safeguard the students against infectious diseases while preserving their dental health.
Equipping Communities with Basic First Aid Skills
Besides that, the volunteers also equipped the students with useful basic first-aid skills.
"Basic knowledge of first aid is fundamental to avert the loss of lives when an emergency occurs, particularly in areas where inadequate medical infrastructure crippled access to medical services. The volunteers conducted sessions with the community sharing improvised techniques by leveraging makeshift medical devices and the dual purpose of everyday items such as handkerchiefs, which could be used as a bandage," said Desmond.
Apart from that, the volunteers also went the extra mile by distributing food and installing water filters. They also underscored the importance of mosquito control to stave off mosquito-borne diseases while accentuating the significance of physical movement.
Provision of Stationery and Books for Enriched Learning
The volunteers provided 200 students with essential stationery and books for enriched learning.
"Through distributing educational materials, we motivate the children to learn and receive a proper education. Education is indispensable to providing them with opportunities to advance in life," Desmond said.
Touched by the Warm Welcome
The team of volunteers were touched by the warm welcome they received at every school they visited.
"Children and teachers spent hours practising and rehearsing for the dance and song performances at the Sri Lanka - Singapore Friendship College. Though I am not a Singaporean, I felt so proud of SRC. I felt like a "Singaporean" at heart. The joy and enthusiasm of the children made us feel that the hard work we put in before and during the OHP paid off," said Marie-Aimée Tourres, 54, one of the volunteers mobilised for the OHP.
Developing the Synergy as a Team
Volunteers shared their experiences volunteering in the OHP.
"Comprising nine members from four different nationalities, walks of life and dispositions, our team had a good balance of seasoned OHP volunteers, new volunteers and an SRC employee. Yet, the camaraderie we forged through the SRC training and the adequate preparation prior to the deployment laid the groundwork for a good OHP. The team spirit was evident. Besides sharing the workload by delegating different tasks to different team members, we also lent a helping hand whenever required. There was no selfish interest in any of the team members. Instead, the esprit de corps, sincerity, and humility of the team members brought balance to the team," said Marie-Aimée Tourres, 54.
Echoing similar sentiments, Nadim said, "The OHP taught me the value of teamwork, leadership, flexibility, and decisive action."
Both Nadim and Marie-Aimée pointed out humanitarian missions often require on-the-spot adaptability.
"For instance, when we arrived in Sri Lanka, the lesson and training plans conceived in our comfortable offices had to be modified to meet the realities on the ground," Nadim said.
Sharing similar sentiments, Marie-Aimée said, "Often, we had to deal with unexpected last-minute changes."
Insights Gleaned from the OHP
The OHP attested that volunteers who participated in the rigorous Overseas Disaster Deployment Training could also help communities overseas, not merely in disaster circumstances.
"Sometimes, we may take access to first aid knowledge in Singapore for granted. Through this OHP, we learnt that it is a blessing to these teenagers in Sri Lanka to learn first aid," said Marie-Aimée
Something that the hosts told Marie-Aimée struck a chord in her heart. The hosts told her that while monetary donations were useful, nothing replaces a physical visit, where volunteers spent time engaging them in meaningful activities on the ground.
"I will register for more OHPs if my work schedule permits," said Marie-Aimée, a regional lead economist.
By Sondra Foo, Marketing & Communications
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