What air-con? Life in the haze when home offers no respite

SINGAPORE - Some gripe about the haze from the comfort of their air-conditioned bedrooms.

But for people like Madam Rafiah Hussain and her son Iman, home is not exactly a refuge.

Madam Rafiah shares a one-room rental flat in a block on Indus Road with her 12-year-old boy. Over the past week, breathing and keeping her eyes open have been challenging, says the divorcee.

"It was terrible on Thursday and Friday morning. I have headaches and sometimes when I take a breath, my heart hurts. My throat also feels itchy. Other times my eyes feel sensitive and I have trouble opening them," she says.

Still, the hardworking woman grits her teeth and ploughs on. When we visit, she is sitting cross-legged on the floor in her home, holding a peeler in one hand and a potato in another.

A pink plastic tub holds the peeled potatoes, while a plastic bag sits nearby, collecting the discarded brown skins.

For a living, she makes curry puffs at home and earns about $400 to $500 selling them to a River Valley coffee shop.

The doors and windows of the flat are open. The acrid smoke in the air is palpable, but the 49-year-old says sealing up their place is simply not an option since she is cooking the puffs.

Usually, she tries not to switch on the fan to save on utility bills, but the haze has made her cave in. "Especially at night, it's almost impossible to sleep without the fan on," she says.

Like most parents, she is concerned about her son's health. But while other mums ferry their children from point to point - making sure they don't spend one unnecessary moment outdoors - young Iman has to take his bicycle out each morning to deliver the puffs his mum has made.

"I split the 140 puffs into four packets, so he takes two packets at the front of his bike and puts the other two at the back. I already worry a lot about him being on the roads, even if it's just a 10 minute ride to the coffee shop and back. With the haze, I worry even more. But what can I do? I just pray to the one above to protect him," she says matter-of-factly.

She would love to lighten his load but physical exertion has become difficult for her: "I get tired pretty easily, after having an operation some years ago relating to a woman's problem," she says. Iman also uses the bicycle to buy potatoes and ferry them back from the market every three to four days, so that the chopping and frying process can start all over again.

When this reporter asks about whether an air-conditioner would make things more comfortable at home, the friendly woman chuckles.

"Even if someone wants to give me an air-con and install it for me, how can I afford the bills? I almost had the power in this place cut off on several occasions because I couldn't pay," she says.

To cope with the haze, she uses a scarf to cover her mouth.

Mother and son own a small television set at home, and keep track of the PSI by watching the news. "But even if it goes very high, there's nothing much we can do, lah," she says with a dry laugh. Wearing a mask at home is simply too cumbersome and makes her feel warmer than she already does, she states.

Over at another one-room flat in Marsiling, Madam Chong Beng Yong, 48, who lives with her husband and 11-year-old son in a one-room flat in Marsiling, is also feeling the effects.

The cashier, who works in a coffee shop nearby, says: "The Government is telling us to stay indoors. But the air at home is just as bad as outside. Other families have air-conditioning, but for us, we can only rough it out. What else can we do?"

Her husband is currently unemployed, and Madam Chong says she earns "only a few hundred" a month, working the evening shifts.

She speaks to us from her sparsely furnished flat. In a corner, a wall fan is turned on at full blast, rotating from side to side.

Says Madam Chong: "That's all we have. But it doesn't help because it is still blowing polluted air at us. I envy families with air-conditioning and air purifiers, because at least they have some 'shelter' from the haze. For me, it's like my family is outdoors all the time. The air just feels heavy and dirty."

Her 11-year-old is home with her. He's chaffing at staying home, but she says she doesn't have the means or time to bring him to an air-conditioned mall.

On June 19, 2013, she bought three masks - one for each family member - at a grocery store for $1.50. But she knows they are not N95 masks, the only commercially available masks that will keep out the microscopic particles.

She says: "I heard it's hard to find those masks. And I don't know how much they cost."

Madam Chong also voiced concern for her elderly neighbours who "don't know how to protect themselves".

Indeed as The New Paper on Sunday team visited the neighbourhood, the haze hung thick in the corridors and doorways of the homes. Many were resigned to having little respite from the acrid smell.

We met Madam Ong Chiah, 81, a retiree living in a one-room flat in Marsiling. She spends most of her time taking care of her son, who suffered a stroke 13 years ago. She hardily says she did not need a mask, despite the pall in the block. "I don't go out. We'll be okay," she says in Hokkien.

Help is on its way.

On Friday evening, the Government announced that one million N95 masks will be given free to 200,000 low income households.

On Saturday, the Singapore Armed Forces had already swung into action helping get the masks from warehouses to distribution centres and grassroots organisations.

More masks are also being pushed to retail outlets to battle the artificial shortage created by panic buying. NTUC FairPrice should get masks in the coming days and will cap the price and limit the number each can buy.

Meanwhile, at nursing and old folks homes which are often not air-conditioned, caregivers are saying they are taking steps to ensure the comfort of their charges.

Some like Madam Irene Ong is keeping a closer eye on the seniors living at her nursing home at Balestier."There's a patient I have who has pneumonia and is bedridden, I've noticed a bit of wheezing. I'm really monitoring her," she says at her nursing home at Balestier.

At Irene Nursing Home, the windows, usually left open to allow optimal ventilation, were kept closed.

"We turn on the ceiling fans to full blast, and the airwell at the central courtyard makes sure the place isn't too stuffy," she adds.

Madam Ong says she has urged patients to keep hydrated by drinking more water.

Ms Pamela Leong at the Adventist Home for the Elders has also done that.

"Boiling some barley water and making sure they have liquids, along with shutting the windows and turning on the fans, is really the best we can do for them," says Ms Leong.


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