By Fr Anthony Le Duc SVD
Ever since I arrived to Thailand as a missionary in 2007, I have and continue to be engaged in many different ministries. One of my ongoing ministries is with undocumented Vietnamese migrant workers in this country. Being a migrant worker anywhere is quite difficult, but the undocumented status adds even more hardships to one’s life. As expected, life as an undocumented migrant worker in Thailand has been extremely challenging during these times when the coronavirus pandemic has put a stop to the livelihood of a tremendous number of people. Most Vietnamese migrant workers in Thailand are facing a situation of joblessness, lack of income, and no way to go home because all the ways of leaving the country have been closed by the Thai government in order to fight the pandemic.
If all of this was not difficult enough, one young Vietnamese couple is facing an extraordinary hardship because the wife was forced to give birth prematurely at a Thai hospital on 5 June because they were not able to return to Vietnam. Giving birth in itself would not be a matter of hardship if everything went smoothly. However, this was not the case. On 6 June, I received a phone call from the father of the newborn telling me that his infant boy had severe health issues, could not breathe on his own and had to be transferred to the Udon Thani provincial hospital for treatment in the ICU. The first day of treatment resulted in a bill of nearly 3,000 USD, and the costs just multiplied by the day.
For undocumented Vietnamese migrant workers in Thailand, this is an awesome amount of money that they could not fathom how to pay on their own. The father asked me to help him publicise his plight on my social media page in order to ask for support from other Vietnamese migrant workers in Thailand. Empathising with his situation, I decided to put out a post on my Facebook page, which is widely followed by Vietnamese migrant workers in Thailand.
Within minutes of the post, I could hear beeping sounds on my phone as support money was coming into the bank account which I listed to receive donations. It was coming from other Vietnamese migrant workers whose situations were themselves dire, but they could sacrifice 10 dollars, 20 dollars or 30 dollars to help an infant fighting for his life. Many sent me receipts of their transfer accompanied with messages such as: “I don’t have much, but I would like to help the poor baby;” or “Although my donation is small, my heart for the family is big”.
Indeed, during this COVID-19 pandemic, these are not hollow words. Many Vietnamese migrant workers have shared with me that they are unable to pay their rent. Some are only having one meal a day. Others are living on instant noodles. Yet, many have managed to spare something to share with someone who is even in a more dire situation than themselves. Of course, the total amount of donations can only pay for a fraction of the total bill, which is expected to be as much as $30,000 USD. Nevertheless, the fact that there was such an outpouring of love and support was both amazing and heart-warming for the parents of the unfortunate newborn.
As the person who served as the bridge between the newborn infant struggling for his life and the Vietnamese migrant community struggling to survive the COVID-19 pandemic, I realised that no matter what difficult situation people might be in, there can always be a place in their heart to share, to reach out, to empathise with the suffering of others. People can see beyond their own hardships, needs and security when they allow their hearts to feel the pain of others as if it was their own. This is precisely the meaning of mercy and compassion. Being merciful results from the ability and willingness to make others’ suffering our own suffering, so that when we extend the gesture of love and compassion to others, it is truly loving another as loving ourselves.
More than any other time, the global coronavirus pandemic has taught us that we are interconnected in numerous ways. As governments, organisations and individuals try to find ways to resolve the pandemic, and as we try to flatten the curve by keeping social distance, we are to be reminded that social distance does not have to mean spiritual and emotional distance. Spiritual and emotional interconnectedness does not depend on physical space. Where the body faces limitations, the heart and mind can overcome walls and cross boundaries.
As we adjust ourselves to the “new normal,” just because we are asked to wear masks on our faces to protect one another from the virus, it doesn’t mean that we must also close our hearts and every other way that unites us together in love and charity. More than ever, social distances imposed upon us by the reality of the pandemic reminds us that we must pay more attention to other ways that build relationship and help us to be present to one another. More than that, the suffering that people everywhere are experiencing, both due to the pandemic and other ongoing systemic issues in human society, reminds us that there is no time to stop bringing food to those who are hungry, clothes to those who are naked, water to those who are thirsty, air to those who are suffocating, and justice to those who are abused and mistreated.