It was afternoon. I was going through a heap of school assignments, unaware that I would receive a call bearing the most tragic news. Minutes before submitting a paper on one of my subjects, the phone rang. I answered—it was my aunt. My face fell upon hearing her sobs at the other end of the line. I knew what it meant. I took a deep breath and let my own tears echo hers.

Last year — a lifetime ago now, it seems — my optimism went as far as thinking that the pandemic was just a phase that would come and go. At the beginning of 2021, the COVID-19 death toll was just a number. Now it had a face: my beloved grandmother.

Helpless: There is no better word to describe the sickening feeling of seeing a loved one succumb to illness. My family and I felt every sense of the word when there were no hospitals with rooms available to accommodate my grandmother and give her the immediate care she needed, or during the agonizing hours of waiting for an ambulance to come when she was fighting for her last breath. I’d like to think of my Lola as a fighter, but this was a battle she fought so hard but still lost. My family, on the other hand, only managed to comfort each other through mere video calls. No comforting hugs, just tearful conversations in front of the screen. It was lonely. Although the screen served as a bridge to communicate, it also reminded me of the painful distance my family and I had to endure, mourning in our own isolation, far from the comfort of familial presences.

Losing a loved one is hard enough, but losing them in the time of COVID-19 when one can’t even afford to see the remains personally for the last time magnifies the ache ten times more.

I found myself constantly asking “Why.” Why did this tragedy befall my family? Why did my grandmother have to suffer the brunt of this disease when she was perfectly healthy before the virus found her?

With all the events that led to her demise, a hard realization also hit me: This pandemic is a monster that wreaks havoc and steals. Before the incident, I was aware of the implication of the virus, I knew the facts, the numbers, and the statistics. COVID-19 meant danger, I knew that. But to experience its cruelty first-hand was when the numbers suddenly became and meant so much more. COVID-19 had taken on a new form, a monster, and I could no longer perceive it with even the slightest detachment or indifference, as I did before.

The fear of the virus seeped deeply into my consciousness. The loss of my grandmother was a tangible reminder of the extent of tragedy this pandemic could cause if it wasn’t contained. The monster will continue to steal.

This has been the fate of not only my grandmother but also of hundreds, if not thousands of Filipinos who have lost their battle with COVID-19. It is easy to see these cases as part of the statistics, but beyond the numbers are people who have names, and families who mourn for their loved ones’ deaths. It is easy to quantify the casualties, but the most difficult and painful part is recognizing the faces behind those numbers.

As the pandemic pursues its grim course across humanity, it will only take and take. The mourning will continue, the weeping will seem endless. Despite this, however, I’d like to believe in hope. No matter how strong the foe may seem, a monster will always be vanquished in the end.

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