BY andie benitez
The past few days have presented the world with our new reality, at least for the next few weeks. Life has become a frenzied flurry of two hour long grocery lines, eerily desolate Manila streets, and a complete shift to online classes and work from home set-ups. COVID-19 has left the world in shambles. Fights over rolls of toilet paper, Enhanced Community Quarantine and social distancing have brought the Philippines, along with the rest of the world, to a grinding halt.
Previously microscopic cracks in society’s foundations are being magnified, becoming fault lines that threaten to split apart. Entire economies teeter on the edge of uncertainty, leaving millions of families helpless and scared for their futures. It becomes startlingly evident who benefits and who is hurt by the current economic, political, and social systems we all share. COVID-19 has been divisive: hostility towards specific ethnicities and a lack of empathy for those on the margins of society, seem to highlight our intrinsic, self-interested human nature. Moreover, it has highlighted humanity’s collective lack of preparedness in dealing with pandemics, despite numerous efforts from experts and philanthropists like Bill Gates, who has been highlighting the importance of investing in prevention and early intervention for years.
When the news of the virus’s spread began, the halfhearted shrug of the government and reassurance to the general population that only the immunocompromised were at higher risks for mortality, was inherently problematic. Although justified in doing so to avoid sparking unnecessary panic, it also seemed to deem an entire class of people- the elderly- expendable to society. This message underpins a greater issue - that the survival and safety of this susceptible population is dependent on the healthy population doing their part: practicing social distancing, isolation upon presentation of symptoms, and strict observance of personal hygiene.
This notion of human lives being expendable was emphasized by the way in which the two leaders of the leading economies in the world, the Chinese government and Donald Trump, chose to withhold information - the former surrounding the disclosure of the virus in December, and the latter forbidding the CDC from releasing information - in exchange for maintaining the stability of their respective economies. Both saw the economy and human lives as opposing interests, and both chose economic growth. The ambiguity surrounding the next steps after the four weeks of required quarantine depicts a standoff between governments and healthcare experts and providers. In requiring people to return to work or school in order to salvage the economy from completely dilapidating - and thereby inevitably restarting the spread of the virus - it is crucial to understand that missteps such as these may be even more detrimental in the long run.
Numerous governments all over the world were left scrounging for solutions in dealing with the virus. In our home turf, the Philippines’ lack of resources and unpreparedness in dealing with a pandemic, has become pitifully clear. Hospitals are left with depleted skeletal supplies, rendering frontline health workers unarmed in battle. Asymptomatic government officials began testing for the virus, while their constituents presenting with symptoms were denied tests, a testament to the abuse of power that runs rampant in society. Moreover, when political figures disregard protocols during a public health crisis, entering hospital premises without disclosing symptoms, and thereby subjecting unprepared hospital personnel and other patients to possibly acquiring the disease - one must question the double standards that exist within this skewed system. The lack of consequences for this particular figure, despite reports from Manila Bulletin (March 23rd 2020) of homeless people wrongfully being arrested for being outside during curfew, due to their displacement - emphasizes the lack of justice in a system that seemingly operates solely to accommodate and benefit those in power.
The socio-economic divide throughout the rest of the world has also become increasingly palpable, doubly so here in the Philippines. The implementation of Enhanced Quarantine, and thereby the cessation of public transportation, including jeepneys and PUVs (Public Utility Vehicles), and the shutdown of all non-essential stores and services, have left thousands of people jobless in the snap of a finger. Although some are on paid leave, while others count this quarantine towards their allocated number of sick days, people like daily-wage workers, have been seemingly left to fend for themselves. Construction workers, caregivers, and people working on a day-to-day basis, are forced to jump through hoops to keep their families afloat, as some may travel from remote provinces to work in the city, and are left to hurdle the problem of a lack of public transport, the potential of being denied entry at city checkpoints. As we hunker down to wait out the virus in our air-conditioned houses and gated villages, we should remember that for many Filipinos, this lockdown is a threat to their livelihoods, not a mere annoyance.
These people are left scrambling, unable to choose between keeping themselves protected from exposure to the virus, or putting food on the table. People like household helpers, whom we often depend on to play crucial roles in our households, have made the sacrifice to separate from their families indefinitely- the other option is destitution. The instability and uncertainty of the situation have left some of these helpers with no choice - their families’ ability to provide nourishment for every member is by no means guaranteed. This situation has underscored the reality of the privilege we may overlook on a day-to-day basis: the ability to work from home, to have access to the internet to laptops that make online classes and schooling a reality. Moreover, it has highlighted the irony of jobs that were previously looked down upon and deemed as ‘low skill,’ such as delivery services, grocery workers, garbage collectors, are now on the frontlines, ensuring society continues to function the same. Along with healthcare workers, the bravery and importance of these workers must be acknowledged, and their roles in society, the way that they unknowingly form such crucial aspects of our society, must be celebrated.
As we watch with bated breath from the sidelines, we can consider donating to online charities that provide essential support to these daily-wage workers, or to frontliners, and the medical staff who put themselves at risk for infection, working tirelessly to care for those affected.
If there is anything to be thankful that COVID-19 has brought, it is the rude awakening that we, as a collective human population, needed, in order to understand our preparedness, or lack thereof, in handling a pandemic. This is history unfolding before our very eyes, and although the solution and future remains uncertain, one thing is for sure: this pandemic relies on the compliance with policies, and consideration for others - although you may be asymptomatic, the incubation period may last from 1-14 days (WHO), meaning it is within everyone’s best interest to act as though you are already infected, and to take the necessary precautions in the prevention of the spread of the disease.
Let us remember that ‘flattening the curve’ is a shared responsibility, and a reality that will only ever materialize should everyone fully cooperate.