QUARANTINE DIARIES: How do we tell the COVID-19 story?

BUTUAN CITY (MindaNews / 20 April) — Were we in a cinema watching a thriller with government as the protagonist and COVID-19 as the antagonist,  I would be one of those who quickly stand up and tell everyone to shut up and just watch the movie.  There I would be eager to point fingers at the “mga gahi og ulo”,  “pasaway”, “reklamador”, “walay disiplina” and what not in the line up of violators of population control. But no, COVID-19 is not a movie and the war against it is not a single story.

Speaking on TED Talk in 2009,  Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie warned of the danger of a single story and the problem of incompleteness in telling only one story.  COVID-19 is an unfolding story with all of us,  the whole humanity in fact, as part of storybuilding.  It is not just the story of governments singlehandedly waging war on the unseen enemy. Public health is not just the problem of public sector instrumentalities.  The story of government and its doctors, nurses, policemen, soldiers,  traffic enforces is intertwined with the story of ordinary men, women, children, infants, the elderly, persons with disabilities,  indigenous peoples, farmers, traders, small entrepreneurs, workers,  the jobless and homeless and others waging their own struggles to survive.

The frontline is elastic. We take the flag when we know where the enemy is.  So far we are watching the statistics and location of suspects, probables and confirmed cases and how far government is catching up on test kits, laboratories, health facilities and personnel. People ask when there are things they do not fully comprehend. They complain when they feel aggrieved and most of the grievances are either due to imperfect information and shortfalls in communication.

We are not the survivors of the Great Flood that came to the plains of Shinar speaking one language and keeping our peace of mind by thinking only one thought.   We descend from forebears who fought colonizers and co-constructed the formation of the Philippine state and corresponding governments.  We are not passive victims of COVID-19 who leave our fate to how government engages the unseen enemy. We are part of the war against this infectious disease.

As active agents,  it is but natural that we speak, seek information, ask questions and better inform ourselves on how to be part of the solution. A person trying to earn his/her keep is one less integer on the statistics of people subsidized by the government.  A person who asks or complains is a source of information,  an indicator that some things need to be corrected and improved.  A deaf-mute citizenry should make us scared.  Voices, no matter how diverse, should inspire us.  These voices tell us that we are alive and kicking.

The ECQ (Enhanced Community Quarantine) is not the mother of all fights, not the definitive moment for victory or defeat.  Yes,  COVID-19 has become a pandemic but it is not something, not a chapter somewhere in the book of life where we can set a final ending. No one yet knows how it can be fully and finally exterminated.  COVID-19 will not disappear by April 30, or May or June. As with other COVIDs and other viruses,  COVID-19  may fade away and come again. We just have to learn how to manage it and mitigate the losses.

Unfortunately we ran out of a better term to manage the pandemic,  as we did with other global menaces. We easily mimicked our enemy’s fight by using the same word to fight it: war against hunger, war against poverty, war against violence.  So we succumb to the tendency of setting the date of war’s end, associating it with population control while letting the frontliners do the fight. But even in war,  history tells us that most wars ended not because the protagonists set the dates of conclusion. Wars ended because of the confluence of strategies, capacities, opportunities and other factors.  Wars ended because strategies and capacities of one have reached their peaks and the capacities and vulnerabilities of the other have dipped to their lowest. Wars ended also because people were part of the execution and desire for its conclusion.

We do not want to leave the fight to the frontliners.  They have done a lot of sacrifices. Some have died and some others are out of the game upon succumbing to infection.  We want to be part of it. Everyone is eagerly watching the curve and how it is flattened. But we should realize that flattening the curve is not the end of COVID-19.  There is a thing called relapse. It might return or something similar with emerge.  The new normal is to be able to prepare for by improving our capacity and reducing our vulnerabilities.  The light of day is when we see improvements in efficiency and capacities for testing, monitoring, quarantining and treatment and protecting the economy from collapse.

The worse that can happen to us is when we lose tolerance of diverse voices and begin to use hate speech against those whom we perceive as “pasaway”,  “matigas ang ulo” or “reklamador”.   The worse that can happen to government is when it succumbs to intolerance of internal debates. Weariness and stress can induce leaders to go off board or mute themselves at a time when all policy brains are needed.

No one wants to die from COVID-19.  Everyone is eager to survive and avoid death – not only from COVID-19 but also from other causes.  Writing for the Atlantic (“Why boredom affects us so much,” April 17, 2020),  Saida Grundy describes how some people liken home quarantine to prison and how boredom sets in as a form of punishment, as it is in the penal system.  Boredom indeed is physically and mentally challenging.  For some, it is like torture.  But watch when boredom throws people to despair for not knowing when the boredom ends. This is when you see people breaking the ECQ to sell food, buy food, see their relatives from a distance or breathe fresh air.

Let’s be tolerant and not lump them into the ranks those who break the rules for cockfights. Let’s use financial resources to expand public health facilities and hire more doctors and nurses rather than establish new jails for ECQ violators.  As human beings, let’s strengthen solidarity and reduce violence in our communication.

Ramadan is coming. Our Muslim brothers and sisters will, en masse, be breaking the fast each day.  There will be a surge of halal food procurement in the afternoons each day. Let us hope that rules are softened so as not to transform the narrative of religious practice into violation of ECQ.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Ed Quitoriano is an independent consultant who specializes in conflict and risks).