My friend, a physician in one of the smaller hospitals in Metro Manila, had a “bad” duty this weekend. He found himself resuscitating a young mother with COVID-19. Not his first COVID-19 patient, but to be so sharply reminded of his own mother’s vulnerability and mortality was not easy. The work is clearly taking a toll on everyone’s mental health, and he is not immune. When urged to ask for time off, even just two weeks, he is hesitant. He is one of only three doctors left on staff to man the emergency room. He could look for a reliever, but it goes unspoken that it might be more difficult than ever to find physicians to take over duties with direct COVID-19 exposure. This is what I was thinking about when I heard Health Secretary Francisco Duque III’s words about COVID-19 as a “blessing in disguise.” I thought about young, otherwise healthy parents succumbing to the disease. I thought about entire families we’ve seen decimated by COVID-19, with several relatives admitted or dying at once, and catastrophic hospital bills to boot.
I thought about how we didn’t need a pandemic to identify, or solve, fractures in our health system. I thought about a husband and wife, both critically ill, at a hospital that could only admit one into the ICU, leaving their health care workers with a Sophie’s choice of grave proportions. I thought about the people into whose GCash accounts we have had to send money for food, electric bills, hospital bills, or expenses to buy smartphones or laptops. I wondered if Duque has ever seen the film “Parasite.” In it, torrential rains destroy a poor family’s home, while a rich woman in a car says of the same downpour, “the rain was such a blessing.”
When I heard Duque’s words, “Siguro let’s be selfless,” I thought about my friend, who secretly wishes he could quit his job sometimes. I thought of colleagues who have been facing the threat for months but who can’t even get a COVID-19 swab test, let alone time off work.
It must be tiring to hear health professionals complaining in their public spaces, with pleas for mass testing or calls for contact tracing interspersed with “sob stories” about COVID-19 patients. It must be tiring to have our social media feeds interrupted by pleas for help or Facebook pandemic essays. But to repeat and share these stories is, perhaps, the one way we are able to humanize the numbers of those affected.
As of Saturday, there were 64,906 active cases based on Department of Health (DOH) data. Of these 778 were classified as critical, and 520 were severe.
The unemployment rate of 45.5 percent was a new record high, with half of the SWS survey respondents having lost their jobs in the pandemic.
I cannot lecture the health secretary or any member of the DOH on how to do their work. The situation is unprecedented, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the secretary and his people must tread carefully. But it seems to me that the health secretary’s words, like Harry Roque’s “galak” over the unemployment rate, or Sen. Bato dela Rosa’s unforgettable “ang sarap ng buhay,” are not mere accidents of clumsy speech. They reflect how much our leaders are truly blind to the daily indignities to which the poor and vulnerable are subjected. We need leaders and spokespersons for whom COVID-19 cases and unemployment rates are not merely a set of numbers, and whose actions and speech will reflect this through sensitivity, compassion, and a sense of urgency. Are the stories of COVID-19 tragedies not enough to humanize them or to galvanize authorities into doing better, speaking better? Given that Roque’s and Duque’s statements were made only recently and within days of each other, apparently not.
Of the fantasies I have entertained over quarantine, my biggest fantasy is that of subjecting oblivious men and women in power to role reversals. Suppose that they one day found themselves turned away from the fully occupied hospitals in Metro Manila? Suppose that they found themselves as the health workers who had to do the turning-away? Suppose that they stood in long lines at Gilmore Avenue’s IT hub, desperately hoping for affordable computers for online schooling, or that they joined street peddlers weaving their way between cars along Edsa? Suppose that they had to rely on public transport or on social amelioration? But then these are impossibilities. One hopes that one day, they might see beyond their own car windows into the rain that’s drowning Filipinos left and right.
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