They wear masks to obey the law, not to fight COVID-19

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews / 11 May) – Hours before sunrise, fish peddler Gilbert Pangamal, 32, sips his coffee before donning an improvised facemask made from a shirt sleeve to cover his mouth and nose.

UNWARY. By midmorning at the Badjao village, the small market area in the community is already alive with children who are either busy playing or flocking on street food stalls near a community health center. Badjao residents appears to fear more the law than getting infected with COVID-19. MindaNews Photo by ROMMEL G. REBOLLIDO

He does this everyday as he leaves to sell fish at the city proper. “Basin dakpon ta kay walay facemask (We might get arrested for not wearing facemask),” he quipped.

Pangamal lives in makeshift house with his wife, five children and in-laws along the shoreline of a two-hectare property called Badjao Village in barangay Bawing, at the outskirts of this city. There are around 250 houses in the village.

The village is divided by an imaginary line, which the fish vendor jokingly referred to as “Sila didto Badjao, kami diri Goodjaw (Them on the other side are Badjao, while we here are the Goodjao).” This, he said, is because the Goodjaos work for a living while “those on the other side are the ones you see begging on the streets and some even resort to illegal means.”

From his house, Pangamal has to walk several hundred meters to the highway and catch a ride to the fishing port complex, where he buys a load of fish to sell around on a pedicab that he leaves at a friend’s house downtown.

Asked if he fears catching COVID-19, Pangamal said what he has in mind is make a living rather than worry about the dreadful disease.

Since May 7 until May 9, the daily tally of new positive cases increased with the inclusion of at least 32 who were listed as “fishermen.”

A local radio report said the “fishermen” were crewmembers of a fishing vessel that came from Papua New Guinea and owned by a GenSan-based company which was not named.

BREATHLESS. An infant gasps for air as his mother bathes him outside of their home at the Badjao village in Bawing, General Santos City. MindaNews Photo by ROMMEL G. REBOLLIDO

With the alarming rise in new cases, authorities here began imposing on May 10 stricter measures that include “No-movement Sunday, longer curfew hours and a ban on liquor and intoxicating drinks, hoping to thwart a sudden surge in new COVID-19 cases the past days.

Mayor Ronnel Rivera, in a press conference, traced the increase to household transmissions. “Most of the new cases in this city the past days were noted to be from families or those sharing a single household,” he said.

Badjao village leader Ronald Ebbah said each house on their community is usually occupied by three to five families. It is customary among Badjaos to live with relatives, he added. Relatives from other places would usually come visit on board their boats via the open sea, he said.

Pre-pandemic sight

By midmorning at the Badjao village, the small market area in the community is already alive with children and even toddlers who are either busy playing or flocking on street food stalls, while others simply preoccupied with other things, like their cellphones.

A recent visit to the place bares a sight reminiscent of pre-pandemic times, adults roam around while the children running around outside of their homes that are densely built close to each other.

What is noticeable, none of them wore facemasks.

With that sight, the Badjao residents appear unwary of the need for social distancing as a simple way to avoid the coronavirus.

Speaking in the vernacular, Pangamal said: “Wala man Covid diri namo. Kung ibalik ang lockdown, lisud na pud kami makabaligya ug isda (There’s no Covid in our place. If the lockdown is again imposed, it would be difficult for us again to sell fish).”

The fish peddler’s remarks reflect the lack of proper understanding of the coronavirus among residents.

NO MASK NO ENTRY. Badjao village leader Ronald Ebbah helps man a checkpoint set up to prevent entry of potentially infected persons by checking on their temperature. None of the residents, however, have been tested for COVID-19. MindaNews Photo by ROMMEL G. REBOLLIDO

This city has logged 97 deaths so far. Health officials also said that General Santos already exceeded the national COVID-19 positivity rate when the city logged 16.78 percent positivity rate on Sunday, more than the 13.9 percent of the country.

Dr. Karl Floreda, infectious disease specialist and spokesperson of the Local Inter Agency Task Force on COVID-19, said on Monday that there is already an alarming 89-percent hospital occupancy rate for positive COVID-19 patients.

He said intensive care unit occupancy is also at critical levels and have ran out of mechanical ventilators.

Lack understanding

So why was he wearing an improvised mask? Pangamal replied: “Dakpon man gud daw ang moadto sa siyudad nga walay facemask (They will apprehend anyone who’d go to the city without facemask).”

Pangamal roams residential areas in the city on a pedicab to sell fish every day.

Community leader Ebbah was even proud to declare that none among the residents in their place have been infected with COVID-19 because they had warned residents about it and had imposed safety measures.

Bawing, the barangay where Badjao village is located, is not in the health office’s list of high-risk areas, which include barangays Lagao, Bula, Conel, San Isidro, Apopong, Labangal, Calumpang and Barangay Fatima. Gensan has 26 barangays in all.

Ebbah said they have set up checkpoints manned by volunteers called Barangay COVID-19 Control Force to check those entering and leaving their village.

The checkpoints are manned by female volunteers during daytime and males at night, screening every individual who are entering the village. Those who enter the village are subjected to temperature check and handwashing, Ebbah said.

Fish peddler Pangamal said once they are inside the community, they can already take off their masks. Only outsiders who enter their place are required to wear masks, he added.

What is worrisome, though, is Ebbah’s observation that none among the residents in the village have ever been tested for COVID-19. (Rommel G. Rebollido / MindaNews)