ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews / 2 June) – Residents of the city knew that if the trend continues we will be going for a higher level quarantine. Finally, it was announced that starting on May 8, we will be on “modified enhanced community quarantine” (MECQ), a notch lower than the “enhanced community quarantine” (ECG) in Metro Manila. We thought it will be a single-digit increase, at worse, a double-digit. Little did we realize that we will end up with four-digit active cases on a daily basis. The month of May is gone, but it left us with morbidity and mortality rates which we hope will not be repeated in the current month.
The year 2020 was stressful enough. But May 2021 was unbelievably worse. By the end of the month, there were 144 cases of COVID-related deaths, more than all the previous months combined. Sheikh Mahir Gustaham, a Muslim religious professional and consultant with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), was brave enough to organize a volunteer team who will perform religious rituals for the deceased, including burying the cadaver in conformity with religious injunctions and health and safety protocols established by the Department of Health (DoH).
Before the pandemic, April and May were our summer periods, a time for vacation and relaxation. A time to unwind from regular chores. A time to take things slow. A time for family gatherings. A time for children to enjoy the beach. The city – especially its shopping malls, tourist attractions, restaurants, and resorts – would be full of visitors. Despite recent political configurations, Zamboanga City remains a regional hub for both the Peninsula (Region 9) and the BARMM island provinces. Nothing had changed, except having more people, more establishment, and more services to cater to the growing and diverse consumer demands. SM City Mindpro’s opening, a much-awaited event, was postponed several times and when it opened, the influx of customers even hit national media because it was perceived customers were disregarding health and safety protocols.
But what happened last month will forever scare us all. It is an unforgettable month not only because of the exceptionally high number of morbidity and mortality cases but also because many among those we know perished during the month and some due to COVID complication.
It was in May that I lost a cousin, Madzhen Mañalas, who was like an elder brother to me. He would die in the same hospital where a paternal uncle died last year. What a tragic coincidence. The only difference between the two of them is that our uncle was suspected of a COVID infection and has to be buried following DoH protocols. Family members and relatives have to be kept at bay because of this suspicion. Only to be told days after that the result came out negatively. Several other relatives from both my paternal and maternal sides of the family also passed away this month in Zamboanga, Sulu, and Tawi-tawi.
My father is presently in his 80s and I now have to step in as head of our family. As I take care of my nuclear family, I now have to care for my extended family as well. It is already hard for me not to see my nuclear family for more than a year already because of this lingering fear that I may inadvertently be the source of COVID infection. A test does not mean immunity from infection. We can be carriers too. We can be asymptomatic for all we know. Now that the full weight of family affairs is on me, I now realized the burden that my father had to carry silently and dignifiedly. I remember the many challenges we have to face – the 1974 siege of Jolo, occasional fires, skirmishes between government and rebel forces in Bongao, clan conflicts in Jolo and Boan, the 2013 Zamboanga Siege, etc. Now I understand why he is silent most of the time at home. Now I understand why he kept reading the Holy Qur’an with any good or bad news that reached us. Now I understand why he prays in between regular prayers. Now I understand.
It was also in May that I lost a mentor, Dr. Amy Malbun, a sweet and motherly figure who I had the chance to work for when she became schools division superintendent in Tawi-Tawi. Imagine the honor of working under someone who had the credentials to lead, such as being superintendent-eligible and a career executive service officer (CESO). But more than this, she was generous with her time and expertise. Initially, I did not quite get the idea of being treated like a student in an office environment. Why would she treat me like this with a red ballpen to correct my punctuation, grammar and text organization, and so forth? Until one afternoon, we had a tête-à-tête, and she explained to me why she is treating me this way. She sees a bright future ahead of me, that I would go places and she is willing to coach me with certain skills. I was tongue-tied for a minute or two, for no one other than my parents, have said beautiful, motivational words like what she just said.
With motivation clear, I became her mentee and she became my mentor. She opened doors of opportunity for me, she believed in me when others underestimated my stammering, provincial English, and importantly, she fought for me. I remember a regional official opposing my inclusion in an overseas training because he feared, “Ano gagawin ng nurse doon, baka magkalat yan!” (What will a nurse do there, he might cause shame [for us] there). But she insisted that I was prepared. After all, she was my mentor and by then had assessed my competence and growth. As we were preparing for our Australian training, we were organized into groups, and I being a novice to this sort of thing was happy to see her and me in the same group. Now there was the task of assigning a group leader. I nominated her. She nominated me and in a whisper, “Time for you to shine, you are ready!”
Since then we had moved to different offices and capacities, but always happy crossing paths every now and then. When she left DepEd-ARMM, she would be the last superintendent eligible and career executive officer. She would also cap her career as Executive Secretary of the National Board of the Philippine Association of Schools Superintendents (PASS), the only Muslim to host this post.
My heart bleeds after the news of her demise came in May. But as we are oft-reminded in our theology, INNA LILLAHI WA INNA ILAYHI RAJIUN (From God we came, and to Him, we shall all return). As I reflect on my own mortality, the bleed is gradually replaced with gratefulness. Prophet Muhammad SAW once said, one who is not thankful to people is not thankful to Allah. Now as I recall her and her giving self, my heart is filled with gratefulness for all that she had done for me. I pray that Allah SWT will also be pleased with her deeds and accept her into His abode. Ameen.
(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Noor Saada is a Tausug of mixed ancestry – born in Jolo, Sulu, grew up in Tawi-tawi, studied in Zamboanga and worked in Davao, Makati and Cotabato. He is a development worker and peace advocate, former Assistant Regional Secretary of the Department of Education in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, currently working as an independent consultant and is a member of an insider-mediation group that aims to promote intra-Moro dialogue.)