In this volunteer interview, volunteer CJ Luo discusses his social impact projects and volunteering for a COVID vaccine trial in Singapore, testing the COVAXIN vaccine.
Gavriel: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, like where you’re from and how you spend your time?
CJ: Yeah, so my name is CJ, or Chen Jun. I’m from Singapore. I work in tech, in the trust and safety space. Outside of work, I swim and watch Netflix, but I also watch Master Class. We gotta consume with purpose in life. I’m also very big on mentorship and food distribution. COVID has really affected a lot of communities so one of the social impact projects I’ve kick-started with two other co-founders is figuring out how to create a sustainable direct-to-needy food distribution model. We are trying to do a hybrid between food distribution and mentorship for underprivileged women, specifically ethnic minorities. We get all these amazing female leaders to be the mentors, then we get beneficiaries: working moms and single moms who really want to improve themselves. For three months, they don’t have to worry about fundamentals like milk powder, diapers, and all that because it’s all covered by suppliers. They just need to focus on working on themselves so that, ultimately, social mobility happens.
Gavriel Kleinwaks: Congratulations on that project and nice work. So, can you tell me how you got interested in vaccine volunteering and how you found out about 1Day Sooner?
CJ: I watched the Vox coverage on 1Day Sooner and immediately it really struck me. Even before COVID I was super pro-vaccination, because I was a flight attendant. I’ve always believed in vaccinations, but Vox really shocked me because I realized that if there really is an opportunity for us to accelerate the discovery of COVID cures and COVID vaccinations, why wouldn’t people do it? I was kind of torn: on one hand, I super supported it, but on the other hand, because there wasn’t any data or any vaccines to be found at first, I was like, “Oh my God. People will be risking their lives.” Then I just thought, if I had a choice, would I want to do it? My gut tells me yes. I got so touched and reached out to 1Day Sooner. I did an antibody trial last August; they were doing trials on a COVID antibody to administer to people with COVID-19 and they wanted to see whether there are any adverse side effects on healthy participants. During COVID, I did a lot of other social impact stuff and submitted a nomination form for myself for the President’s Challenge Award. They asked me more about what I did for the community and I thought they would roll their eyes when I told them I think social impact also includes clinical trials, but they actually agreed with me! The thing is, a lot of the criticisms that people get doing clinical trials is, “Oh, you’re doing it for the money.” Very few people thought of it as doing something for your nation, or risking your life for the world. For the first time in my life, I had a panel of judges that agreed with my direction. It’s not for money. If I do get money, I’m just going to use it in my social impact projects. Then I was in a booster trial, COVAXIN, sort of the Indian Sinovac. It’s the inactivated one.
Gavriel Kleinwaks: Can you tell me about your experience with the trial?
CJ: They get your data and ask a few things: “When did you have your second dose? Which vaccine did you take? Do you have any existing health issues? Have you tested positive before?” It is super straightforward. The vaccines that are on trial are all WHO EUL approved. Participating in a clinical trial for this booster is actually much more pleasant than getting a booster shot because there are less people at the clinic and you get a free health check. The funniest moment was when the nurse was about to inject the vaccine into me, she said, “I will need you to look away because you cannot know which vaccine you’re getting because it’s blinded.” I said, “No, no, no, listen. I do not like to see needles coming into my arms. I will look away whether it’s blind or not.” I did ask them why it is that our government wouldn’t allow a human challenge trial to happen. I think our government tends to be a little bit more conservative and don’t want to risk anything. I get the point, but at the same time, I feel that if there are young healthy participants like myself, who are willing to take the risk for the country, we should have the freedom to do so.
Gavriel: What’s the COVID situation like in Singapore right now? I remember being stunned, at the beginning of the pandemic, at how well-coordinated and strict the Singaporean response was.
CJ: I think first of all, our government did a predominantly good job in handling it. We have certainly come a long way but I’m proud to say that our nation is opening up in a strategic manner and travel restrictions are not only fewer, but there is no need to do pre-flights tests anymore, making traveling so much more affordable. This is a really good sign for our tourism industry and nation’s economy. What I like about our nation is that Singaporeans are still very cautious about COVID despite the lower restrictions, case in point being mask wearing is now optional for outdoor settings. However, you will still see the majority of Singaporeans including myself wearing a mask when we are outdoors.
Gavriel Kleinwaks: Does Singapore have a noticeable anti-vax movement?
CJ: There is definitely a segment of people who are super anti-vax in Singapore. I think a good thing to come out of the whole mandate in Singapore is that if you don’t get vaccinated, the government can’t force you to go get a vaccination, but there will be a lot of inconvenience for those anti-vax people. I think that works for us to a high extent. If you don’t get vaccinated, you don’t get to go to a mall, or that sort of stuff. I think we’re proud to say that, even as anti-vax as some people are, we still achieved nearly 90% vaccination. What I also like about our system here is that the government makes it super easy, even for people who are wheelchair bound or elderly or don’t have access to the vaccination center. The government actually created this hotline where if you feel that you cannot leave the house and get vaccinated you can call and there’ll be a doctor and nurse sent to you.
Gavriel Kleinwaks: Accessibility was a problem here, so it’s very cool to hear about this program. In general, are there any health policies or changes to the health landscape that you would like to advocate for?
CJ: There should be a way that we can accommodate foreigners like me, when challenge trials are not available in Singapore, or in our own countries. There should be a way that we can fly in to volunteer ourselves.
Gavriel Kleinwaks: What is something that you love about where you live?
CJ: The efficiency. Especially during these periods, it’s so important to have a government that will come together and give us a clear direction on what needs to be done and what resources are available. It’s really a time where regardless of which political side you belong to, all parties need to come together and fix the issue. Also, in general, we are a very small city-state. Getting around is not too hard. We’re quite safe as a nation and we have very strong laws against a lot of things. As a whole, our country’s still quite cohesive. We have a lot of inclusivity in terms of ethnicity. If you go to our train station, you will hear four different languages. You have English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. However, there are so many microaggressions between races and we need to tackle those crucial conversations. Racial harmony is such a big topic in Singapore recently because last year there was a lot of outright hate on TikTok. Before that, things did happen, but they were not recorded. So now that we do, it clearly shows that just because you have four different languages in your train station, doesn’t mean that it is all sunshine and rainbows. Some of my mentorship affiliations are with organizations like Yayasan Mendaki and SINDA which focuses on the empowerment of Malay and Indian youths, hence mentoring ethnic minority youths is my way of extending inclusivity and racial allyship to my nation.
Gavriel Kleinwaks: What are you curious about or interested in learning?
CJ: Recently, I’m very big on diversity and inclusion. I totally believe that diversity and inclusion should not be a social endeavor, it should actually be a business endeavor. Countless studies have already shown that the more diversity and inclusion there is in a company, the more profits they’re going to make. Genius knows no color. If you’ve got it, you’ve got it, you know? It’s just your actions and what comes out of your mouth. So I see diversity and inclusion in a pragmatic way, not in a charitable way. But the difficult part is that diversity and inclusion is still seen as a corporate social responsibility project, and it’s not. It should be as important as your key performance indicator and sales targets.