For over a year now, my uncle, Tito Jae, has been obsessed with cleaning. He was always somewhat of a germaphobe, but since the pandemic hit, a switch in him flipped that made his compulsive tendencies go haywire.
Nothing gets inside our house anymore without being bathed in alcohol. After buying groceries (which he dreads), he would take them out of the bag and wipe them methodically, one by one, like an archaeologist unearthing relics. I would help him carry every bottle, box, and plastic pack, enduring the nauseating scent of isopropyl as I place them on the dining table. Before entering himself, he hides in a corner to remove his clothes and puts on a new set he had prepared before leaving. He chucks the old ones in the washing machine, disposes of his mask, and heads to the shower.
This baptism in antiseptic became standard protocol everyone had to follow. Washing our hands became like a religious practice and the scent of disinfectant, our incense. We only went out whenever we needed food. No one was allowed to visit, and no one, save for the adults, was to go out.
Some of us thought it was absurd, but I understood Tito Jae—he was right to worry about a household of 12 people with vulnerable individuals as cases soared. We were confident for a time, waiting out the pandemic in our Safeguard-scented sanctuary, hoping that a miracle would save us from this invisible enemy. We did everything right.
Toward the end of March, my aunt’s husband, Andro, started coughing uncontrollably. The morning he told us he couldn’t breathe, my aunt bawled. He displayed all the symptoms, and we knew our sanctuary had finally collapsed. Call after call, we were rejected: “Bed capacity is at 100 percent,” the hospitals said. We tried rushing him to the nearest facilities, but we were turned away. We opted to have him stay in a tent at the car park of a lone hospital that still accepted patients. For three days, he and my aunt waited, among others, for a spot in the emergency room. He waited in his wheelchair with nothing but thin canvas to shield him from the sweltering heat.
Soon, my aunt fell ill, too, after caring for her husband, and had to self-isolate at home. Both of them left their two daughters in our care. The youngest would have to celebrate her ninth birthday quarantined with her sister in their room while their mother tried to recuperate downstairs, and their father was strapped to an oxygen machine on the other side of Manila.
What went wrong? The question now burns in our minds. The dread in our house is thick, almost suffocating. The fear of infection tails us every passing day. It sowed distrust in our family and divided us more than the plastic barriers we hung outside our doors did.
Something must have slipped through the cracks. Whose fault was it? Who infected whom? Was it from my grandmothers, my cousins, or my aunts? When did we let our guard down? Did I carry it home after buying pan de sal in the morning? Or was it Tito Jae who had been desperately protecting us all this time, driving himself mad with every little step of precaution he took? No, he did his best; we did our best. We thought we did everything right.
If we did everything we could, staying at home and sanitizing everything, and we still struggled to look for aid when we got sick, what about those who are not as fortunate? What about the Filipinos who do not have the means to purchase sanitizers and are unable to quarantine? There are entire families out there who share a room. There are families who are starving, families without a roof. People have died in tents.
We are not supposed to lie in wait. If I recall, nationwide lockdowns are a containment measure, not a long-term solution. Waiting is not a plan. The current system puts all the burden on the public to handle the virus—physical distancing in cramped houses, paying for masks and disinfectants, sacrificing their jobs to stay at home—without alleviating the issues that arise from such directives. Worse, progress is in limbo as daily cases are the highest they have ever been; the measures set in place a year ago have been ineffective.
The government is too eager to assume that all Filipinos can follow these protocols to a tee without preparing the necessary contingencies for when the worst happens. And when it does, the people are the easiest to blame, and accountability is lost—“hugas kamay,” as they say.
In the end, even when the people are doing their utmost best, they still lose. And even when they are giving it their all, the government fails to reciprocate when it should be returning the effort tenfold.
My family did its part and continues to do so. The pandemic has cost us so much, and we continue to endure, but for how much longer? If the government thinks that they’re doing everything right despite the upsurge in cases and the crippled medical system, then something is obviously very wrong.