Yesterday’s normal

What can we learn from this coronavirus pandemic to create a better future for our world?

We’ve all been in isolation for – how long now?

At this point we’re all thinking about the end of lockdown and social distancing. We just want it to be over and for life to get back to normal.

But… do we really? Is yesterday’s normal something that we aspire to?

Or do we dare to ask: Could we do better?

There will be many discussions about how we should shape the future as we recover from COVID-19. Today I want to share my thoughts on the lessons we can take from this global crisis, because what we learn is critical in deciding what we will do next.

Lesson 1: The most important people are often the least recognized.

Who has been out on the frontline of this crisis? Nurses, teachers, journalists, doctors, cleaners, social workers, couriers, ambulance drivers, shopkeepers… Some of these people are well paid and many are not. They’re all people who serve others in one way or another. In some countries, these jobs are likely filled by immigrants. They’re also more likely to be women.

As we work our way out of this crisis, these people cannot be forgotten. The structural inequality that rewards some and leaves others in poverty, despite how vital they are to a functioning society, has to be addressed.

Lesson 2: Everyone has something to offer.

When we’re all equally in trouble, the normal power imbalances among us become blurred. As I wrote some weeks ago, a boy who has been living under a bridge suddenly assumed the role of an important leader among the kids at Blue Dragon. And this weekend, one of the Blue Dragon ‘old boys’ who is now a (temporarily unemployed) hairdresser offered to go to the shelters and give free haircuts for everyone. His wife is 8 months pregnant, but he doesn’t want any payment – this is a gift that he wants to contribute.

On a global level, Vietnam made headlines this week for donating more than half a million facemasks to Europe. Normally the recipient of aid, Vietnam found that it has been able to give to others who usually aren’t in need, but now are.

We too easily categorise each other – and ourselves – by the strengths we see on display in everyday life. But a crisis reveals the strengths we may have never even known existed. Let’s not forget these as we rebuild in coming months.

Lesson 3: We can rise to any occasion.

You may have seen the heartwarming clips of Italians singing from their balconies during the worst of their lockdown. Then a German community raised their voice in solidarity. And around the world, the joy spread.

There have been more practical displays of communities making the most of their struggles. Here in Vietnam, volunteers have set up free ‘rice ATMs’ so that families without enough can simply go and get the rice they need, no questions asked.

Right now, life is hard. And the response from people the world over shows that when we act as a community, we can face even the greatest challenges.

Lesson 4: People are wonderful.

As a charity, all of us at Blue Dragon have been worried about the future. Calls for our help have increased significantly, but a global crisis inevitably means that resources will be more scarce.

Through these terribly dark times, I have received so much encouragement and support from people, many of whom I have never even met. One person wrote to say that if we had any urgent needs, I could just ask. Slightly embarrassed, I wrote back to say that actually yes, we do indeed have some families who are desperate… and within minutes I had an assurance of a donation to help.

Others have not been in a position to help but have taken the time to write and let me know. One amazing person told me how she’s been knitting and making baby swaddles for new mothers who are doing it tough. How beautiful is that?

I could fill the blog with similar stories. It feels like the generosity and kindness of people around the world has somehow blossomed in the midst of all the sorrow and hardship.

Lesson 5: There is always hope.

I’m not trying to sugarcoat this situation or ignore the reality. The world is in a mess. For many millions of people, there’s not going to be a quick recovery and the coming months are going to be bleak.

And yes, I could equally write about the displays of selfishness we’ve seen on the news: the hoarding, the breaching of rules which have been implemented for our own wellbeing, the leaders who have told citizens to do one thing while they go off and do another.

But the displays of exceptional goodness that we can see far outweigh these. We’re seeing communities, cities, and even nations rally together in ways that we rarely do. We see people sacrificing themselves, going to work even knowing the dangers, to help others.

If we can do all this in the face of a global pandemic, then we can it when times are more stable.

We will get through this difficult time. And we have a chance to consider who we want to be, what sort of world we want to live in. We don’t have to revert to yesterday’s normal.

Let’s learn from what has happened and take the chance that’s before us.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis. We are continuing to work throughout the coronavirus pandemic to rescue victims of human trafficking and get street children to safety.

A leader in the making

There’s really only one good thing about a crisis. It shows us who we really are.

Do we rise to the occasion, or fall into a heap? Do we keep smiling and working toward better days, or do we give up and expect the worst?

For 19 year-old Viet, this global crisis has been his turn to shine.

Not that he knows it. Not that he was looking for it. But a teenager who was living under a bridge just a few months ago, with a metal bar tucked away for protection, is now playing an important role in how Blue Dragon faces the COVID-19 pandemic.

Late in 2019, Australian Masterchef Adam Liaw met Viet under a bridge in Hanoi. Liaw was with SBS Dateline, learning about what life is like for homeless young people in Vietnam. This short clip shows the extraordinary hardship of Viet’s life at that time. And yet, he was stoic and accepting.

Viet has long known Blue Dragon. Sometimes he lives with us, and sometimes he wanders back to the streets when he needs the open sky and the space to be alone.

Shortly after filming, Blue Dragon helped Viet find work on a farm outside the city, where he loved getting his hands dirty, building with stone and bamboo and farming the fields. It was not only great for Viet: most of that food ended up on the plates of children back at the Blue Dragon centre in Hanoi.

Viet at work on the farm

And then the coronavirus started making headlines. As it spread through China and then the world, a crisis enveloped us all.

Blue Dragon has continued working through these months. The children and families in our care are reliant on us at a time like this. They are girls and boys who have been trafficked and sold; children who have escaped violence at home and made their way to the city, only to face exploitation and further abuse.

Caring for so many children is a challenge while schools are closed, public events cancelled, and now all non-essential businesses shut. At the very same time that Blue Dragon’s work has become even more critical for the welfare of children, the nature of this global crisis has meant that donations are drying up and resources are more limited.

And so, many of the Blue Dragon children from our Hanoi centre have moved out to the farm with Viet to be in a safe and healthy environment. They’re helping in the fields a few hours and in their free time they enjoy swimming in the dam or just being in nature. In the evening the kids do their school study online and group activities. 

In this way, they’re safe from the spread of the virus in Hanoi, and able to contribute to Blue Dragon and their own wellbeing at the same time. Had they stayed in Hanoi, they would be largely locked into homes with little to do all day or at high risk of being exposed to the virus if still on the streets with no safe place to stay. 

Suddenly, Viet’s knowledge and experience is tremendously valuable. As the number of other teens on the farm has grown, Viet has quietly stepped into a role of supporting everyone to know their way around, to know what needs to be done, and to know how to cope with the inevitable challenges.

Viet has taken on the special role of being responsible for keeping the farm equipment. Every evening his job is to make sure the hoes and the shovels are back in place; the wheelbarrows are clean; and all the gloves are dry and dirt-free.

What Viet is doing is important. He has a purpose, and he’s passionate about farming. He has the respect of everyone around him.

Has he blossomed into a flawless leader? Of course not. This is no fairytale. Viet is still struggling with his own past trauma and has much to learn in his new leadership role.

But he is learning, and he’s making the most of a very bad situation. Right now, Viet is needed as a leader: and a leader he has become.

Your help is needed to keep essential services going for Viet and children like him. If you can donate the cost of a couple of cups of coffee a month, please consider joining Dragon Wings, an online community of people giving monthly for this important work. Thank you! 


Rescue in the days of coronavirus

It took Lan more than 4 years to find a chance of escape.

In the end, it was the coronavirus that gave her the opportunity to call for help.

Trafficked from Vietnam into Hunan province, she was sold to a violent Chinese man who treated her as an object and beat her mercilessly. But as the world panicked over COVID-19, he became distracted.

With their city in lockdown, the husband saw no reason to be paranoid that Lan might escape. His inattention allowed her to steal a mobile phone, and she called her family back in southern Vietnam.

Word reached Blue Dragon, and we contacted Lan immediately in the knowledge that for now, there’s almost nothing we can do other than plan. Heavily enforced travel restrictions in China have been successful in stopping the spread of the virus, but they have made rescue operations virtually impossible.

In recent weeks we have succeeded in getting several women and a 5 year-old girl back into Vietnam (they’re all in quarantine now), but nobody can get into or out of Hunan.

Tragically, the very reason that Lan could call for help is the same reason she can not get to safety.

There are almost 30 women and girls in this exact situation right now: in contact with us but waiting, waiting. We are on the phone daily, giving assurances and constantly evaluating whether or not someone can be reached.

But Lan can’t. Not yet.

On Wednesday night, Lan was pushed beyond her limits. With rescue still possibly weeks away but with the epidemic starting to pass, her husband again took to beating her.

And she couldn’t take any more.

Lan rang the Blue Dragon rescue team with a request: Please say sorry to my family. Tell them I love them, but death would be better than one more day of this.

She couldn’t wait one more night. Lan had decided to take her own life.

When the phone fell silent, we were left helpless and shocked. COVID-19 is devastating millions across the world. But something about this is an even greater depth of injustice.

The next day, after countless unanswered calls and messages, Lan rang back.

Her voice was weak and low, but recognisable: she is still alive.

We’re all waiting for this hated epidemic to pass. For so many, it means lost jobs, financial ruin, being trapped in a foreign country, or maybe just inconvenience.

For Lan, the passing of COVID-19 is everything. Her life depends on it.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis. Right now we are in urgent need of funds. If you can donate any amount, please head to the website and send a gift. It will be sincerely appreciated.