MSF re-focuses its response from the homeless to mental wellbeing in Hong Kong

The temporary shelter and primary healthcare project for the homeless initiated by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) was handed over to the local non-governmental organisation “ImpactHK” on 15 September 2020. The project was collaborated with “ImpactHK” since June 2020 and was set up at a time when the tightened COVID-19 restrictions were in place, limiting the access of people experiencing homelessness to resources and support. The MSF team has now refocussed its attention towards spreading awareness in Hong Kong communities about mental health and offering self-care tips to improve people’s ability to manage in these difficult times, amidst the long-term uncertainties the society is facing.
 
The collaboration with the ImpactHK, started in June 2020, was intended as temporary support as homelessness increased because of high unemployment and the economic downturn caused by COVID-19. The focus has been on arranging temporary shelter, free basic medical consultations and health education.
 
MSF’s experience in outbreak response around the world has shown that it is essential to pay attention to groups who are particularly vulnerable and exposed to contagious viruses, as they are often otherwise neglected. 
 
“Every homeless person has a story behind them. We have to put ourselves into their shoes when delivering help, said Ryan Ko, one of MSF’s doctors. “We observed that with the various challenges ahead, health is often not their priority. So, motivating them to get their chronic diseases treated is important. Our caseworkers followed-up on their needs and accompanied them to attend the MSF free medical consultations. We are happy to learn that such arrangements did help the homeless to get their treatment and motivate them to get back onto the public health system. The temporary shelter that we provided also help reduce their risk of getting infected during the outbreak.  
 
 

To motivate the homeless to prioritise their health, MSF caseworker Wing Tam accompanies them to attend the medical consultations. Over a period of three months, MSF has conducted 51 free medical consultations for the vulnerable individuals.©MSF

 
ImpactHK supports Hong Kong’s homeless and was one of the few NGOs to continue its services during the outbreak. They were a valuable partner as the MSF medical team chose to work with the increasing numbers of homeless people during the COVID-19 outbreak.  
 
“The MSF team has delivered a number of training sessions for ImpactHK staff and volunteers on medical and mental health topics to improve their knowledge and understanding in these areas.  A number of MSF volunteers we have trained with health education skills and basic medical knowledge will continue to support the organisation and the people they are helping,” said Lucy Lau, MSF’s project coordinator in Hong Kong.
 
Over a period of three months, the MSF team has conducted 51 free medical consultations and arranged temporary shelters for 35 vulnerable individuals. Visits were made to the homeless in Tsim Sha Tsui every Tuesday and Thursday nights and there were distributions of food, drinking water and essential hygiene kits such as masks and hand sanitisers to protect them from infections. 
 

Basic medical trainings were conducted for the volunteers who will continue to support the homeless after the handover of the project to local organisation ImpactHK.©MSF

 
After the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions for more than two months now, the government and some of the other local organisations are gradually resuming their services and facilities for the vulnerable groups. However, the social distancing measures and uncertainties have affected people’s mental health.
 
“Although we are seeing a decline of COVID-19 confirmed cases in Hong Kong, the impact of the pandemic is expected to last for an uncertain period of time”, says Lucy Lau. “For example, the challenges of COVID-19 on health are shifting from mostly physical signs to mental wellbeing. This concerns the MSF team and that’s why we have introduced a website for the Hong Kong general public, providing simple psychological knowledge and simple skills to cope with the stress and anxiety. Ignoring these feelings that come from a prolonged experience of uncertainty can affect our daily lives and physical health, and may even lead to an illness.  Our team has also been continuously conducting workshops for vulnerable groups on self-help techniques to stay well. Our team will continuously explore alternative ways to respond to the needs of the public.”
 
Since the COVID-19 first broke out in Hong Kong in late January 2020, MSF has been reaching out to the vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, street cleaners, the visually impaired, refugees and foreign domestic helpers. In total, we have conducted 39 health education sessions and mental health workshops, sharing important medical information and answering their questions that the outbreak has generated. We have also created a website for the general public, offering tips and tools to help cope with the stresses and worries coming from the prolonged exposure to uncertainty: https://howareyou.msf.hk/en/

 

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