Leow Yangfa, Executive Director of Oogachaga, Singapore
Leow Yangfa (pronouns he/him), registered social worker & Executive Director of Oogachaga, gives his perspective from Singapore. Oogachaga is Singapore’s most established community-based, non-profit, professional organisation working with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, queer and gender-diverse (LGBTQ+) individuals, couples and families in Singapore since 1999. www.oogachaga.LGBT
We are currently run with 4 full-time staff, alongside more than 60 trained volunteers.
Pre-COVID-19 pandemic, our services include:
- Professional (face-to-face) counselling
- Hotline & WhatsApp counselling
- Email Counselling
- Community outreach
- Corporate engagement
- Professional training workshops
Please feel to find out more about our services here:
The first case of COVID-19 was reported in Singapore on 23 Jan 2020. Since February, the Singapore government was gradually announcing measures to be implemented, including:
- Health & travel declarations: Requiring visitors to buildings and offices to declare their travel history, contact with suspected or confirmed cases, and reporting of any clinical symptoms.
- Limits on the number of people gathering for work, social or other purposes.
- Encouragement for more staff to work from home.
On 3rd April, the Prime Minister announced that the country would enter a period of “circuit breaker” – the impact on Oogachaga, as a non-essential service provider – was the requirement to close the office and take all our services online.
The impact on each service as follows:
- Professional (face-to-face) counselling – this was suspended, until provisions could be made to conduct professional counselling through online video sessions.
- Hotline counselling – the phone counselling service was temporarily suspended
- WhatsApp counselling – instead of doing this in the office, volunteers were rostered to work from home, with support from staff. To cope with increasing demand, service hours were extended.
- Email Counselling – volunteers running from home.
- Community outreach – temporarily suspended.
- Corporate engagement – onsite workshops suspended, engagement through online platforms.
- Professional training workshops – last round of in-person workshops was conducted in early March.
Before COVID-19, the top 3 most common presenting issues from counselling clients include:
- Sexuality, gender identity
(includes concerns about coming, transitioning etc.)
(with family, partners, co-workers, wider community etc.)
- Mental health
Since March, we have seen an increase in such calls, many of which have been exacerbated by the circuit breaker measures, for example:
- closeted LGBTQ+ youth experiencing tension with non-affirming family members while staying at home instead of going to school
- transgender persons having to stay at home with non-affirming members finding it challenging to explore social transitioning (e.g.: expressing their gender to others through dress & hair)
- persons already with pre-existing mental health conditions (e.g.: depression & anxiety) finding it even more challenging to cope, sense of social isolation
- small numbers of new clients to our counselling services talked about the impact on employment & finances; & also fears of violence at home from non-affirming family members
Counselling statistics (Jan – May 2020)
# No. of counselling units refer to:
- WhatsApp chat sessions
- Incoming emails
Recognising that volunteers may also be isolated while working from home, staff have continued to make themselves available to provide support for individual volunteers. 1 or 2 volunteers have indicated that they were dealing with personal issues related to the pandemic, and requested a break. We are definitely supportive of that.
We have also been using existing free apps – G-Suite and Zoom – to continue staying in touch with each other.
Since June, as a “permitted” service provider, Oogachaga has been allowed to re-open our office. However, we have decided to take a more conservative approach and only partially re-opened our premises, with the staff taking turns being in the office once a week, and working from home during the rest of the week.
The health & safety of our staff, volunteers & clients are paramount, and instead of exposing everyone to face-to-face contact & possible community transmission of the virus, we have decided to continue providing online video counselling sessions to more clients, in addition to email and WhatsApp counselling. The face-to-face counselling sessions are only provided to a small number of clients where online sessions may not be an option.
The effect of COVID-19 has definitely challenged and reminded us to continue being more creative in how we work, and adaptable and nimble to changes, and always be mindful of having access to online resources, and as far as possible, to go paperless!
Understandably, there are volunteers & clients who worry about their livelihoods – employment opportunities in many industries have been impacted in many industries.
As to the lessons learnt from COVID-19 – it’s a lesson we are already aware of, and yet is it useful to be reminded of it again: that people are indeed our greatest resource.
In particular, on behalf of Oogachaga, I would like to express our extreme gratitude to the following groups of people:
Our volunteers, who have very quickly and readily taken to operating our counselling services from their homes.
Our clients, including:
- Professional face-to-face counselling clients, many of whom had their face-to-face counselling appointments cancelled or postponed
- Hotline clients, whom we are now unable to support as we are unable to divert phone calls to volunteers’ homes
- Email & WhatsApp counselling clients, who have been patient with us while we deal with an increase in volume
Our donors, many of whom have continued to support us through these difficult times for everyone.
The staff team, who have had to adjust to working from home, amidst all the changes happening around them!
What has guided me through this, as the head of the organisation, has been:
- Peer support, from friends & other contacts I’ve made in the LGBTQ+ community locally & internationally, & knowing that no one is having to do this alone
- My previous experience in the civil service, during the SARS epidemic where I was part of a bigger team helping to draft & disseminate Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) – that experience has taught me the importance of putting in place guidelines & communicating them early to key stakeholders. In our case, it was staff, volunteers & clients.
- My professional counselling experience gained from previously working in a suicide crisis centre – & learning the necessity of staying calm and relying on facts, as well as attending to one’s feelings & emotions.