Coronavirus: Marginalised ethnic minorities in Hong Kong struggle to obtain masks during the outbreak


NGOs like The Zubin Foundation have stepped forward to give out masks to the community for free

Rhea Mogul |

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Shalini Mahtani (right) distributes masks at the Sikh Temple.

As the number of infections of the Covid-19 virus continues to rise, the most vulnerable members of the ethnic minority community in Hong Kong struggle to obtain masks, hygiene products, and access reliable information related to the outbreak.  

“One in four ethnic minorities in Hong Kong live in poverty,” says Shalini Mahtani, founder and CEO of The Zubin Foundation, a charity that works to improve the lives of marginalised ethnic minorities in the city. “And while everyone is impacted during this current outbreak, at least those who have the means are able to protect themselves by buying masks and other products. But the price of masks is ridiculous, and not everyone can afford to pay for it.”

Next week, The Zubin Foundation will be giving out 20,000 masks to marginalised members of the community for free. They have requested people to register for the masks online, and successful applicants can pick them up from various pickup locations across Hong Kong.

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“Poverty, lack of information in their mother tongue and a lack of access to resources are the reasons that The Zubin Foundation has set up this initiative,” says Mahtani.

According to a 2016 report from Commission on Poverty, the poverty rate among ethnic minorities rose 3.6 per cent from 2011 to 2016. Even after taking into consideration welfare subsidies from the government, some 36,800 ethnic minorities were living under the poverty line, with a poverty rate of 14.5 per cent.

Mahtani adds that ethnic minority groups are already “invisible in the community” and that women and children in particular are marginalised further.

Various members of the children’s commission outside a madrasah (an educational institute).
Photo: Gary Wong Chi-him

“With women, there is the language barrier as many might not speak English or Cantonese,” says. Mahtani. “They aren’t able to keep up to date with the information about the outbreak, and how to protect themselves. It’s important to let them know that masks are indeed available, and they are able to use them.”  

Mahtani, who also sits on the board for the Commission on Children (the Commission), headed by Chief Secretary, Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, says that children also have a “compromised immune system”, and those that live in large families and small living areas, face a greater threat of catching the virus.

Two weeks ago, Mahtani, along with 19 other individuals on the board of the Commission, donated their own money to buy 100,000 masks to distribute to children in Hong Kong. They distributed these at the Sikh Temple, other places of worship, and sub-divided flats in various districts.

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Jimmy Singh Baljinder, a fifth-generation Indian Honkonger who also runs an NGO to promote racial diversity, has held several events to donate masks and other supplies to marginalised groups. His next drive will be held on March 13 at Delia Memorial School (Hip Wo) and the group will give out various items including masks, bleach and hand sanitiser for free to ethnic minorities.

But despite these initiatives, Mahtani says there are other procedures and policies that are lacking.

“From my experience, one of the things that must be implemented is temperature checks at places of worship, as well as community halls and spaces,” says Mahtani. “When we go to an office building in Central, or a private club in Hong Kong, they check your temperature. But it isn’t being done at temples. Thermometers must be provided to these groups.”

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Another procedure, says Mahtani, that should be compulsory, is ensuring a community space has access to a sink, clean running water and towels. “These are simple solutions that can go a long way,” she says.

“Many assume the ethnic minority community are takers, and not givers, but so many organisations – and individuals – have come together to ensure the safety of Hong Kong,” she says. “We stand with our brothers and sisters, and are all a part of Hong Kong.”