Thrilled at the idea of boarding a bus or jeep again after four months, I waited patiently at the bus stop during a “faraway” errand run. Though scant, public buses and jeepneys are now allowed on major thoroughfares, passing by every 30 minutes to one hour. I heaved excited breaths in and out of my face mask. As a working class citizen, public commutes are close to my heart, and I longed to feel some sense of normalcy.
I missed reaching places and being taken somewhere other than here. How, between leaving and reaching destinations, you can peer through large glass windows, observe trees and buildings getting smaller. The humming noise of buses and jeepneys as they speed off roads and highways. Telenovelas playing on the bus’ TV; the static when the vehicle hits a bump. Hawkers coming in to sell fish crackers, corn, turon, and beans. Having to say “bayad po” to drivers and “makikiabot po ng bayad” to other passengers. That is an experience that is unique to the Philippines.
Bayad po used to be mere everyday language we utter. But before the virus; before the Philippines became this polarized, that language represented a beautiful tradition that used to exist in our culture: bayanihan. We served as a bridge so that others can reach their destination. We were an extension of their lives.
Today, true bayanihan is a dying tradition. All you have to do is go online to see how vile, egotistic, and rage-filled most Filipinos have turned out toward their own kind. We are no longer the same today. Everything is no longer the way it was.
It has been over 30 minutes. The skies have been glum and heavy all afternoon. It was starting to rain again. Waiting passengers, many of whom uniformed and just came off their work shift, went from two to 15. Between me and those passengers, I know well who needs the cheaper bus seats.
I placed my bags inside a tricycle and looked out into the empty road. Still no buses or jeepneys in sight. I gazed at my kababayan – still waiting, as we all have since the pandemic started in February – and felt a sense of hopelessness.
To date, we have nearly 53,000 COVID-positive cases in the Philippines. Fifty three fucking thousand. The Department of Health said it can no longer trace the links of current infections to positive cases. That means infections can come from virtually anywhere. Plenty of cases are community transmissions. Amid all this, our government says everything is now up to us, citizens. It seems, they too, have thrown in the towel. There is nothing more to be done and that can be done by them.
Despite our government procuring trillions in COVID-19 debt, we don’t have money as a country, the President says. So it is up to us to create Facebook groups and non-profit initiatives to raise funds in order for our public transport drivers, tour guides, and other suddenly-made-jobless citizens and their families to survive.
As we speak, our beloved jeepney – a cornerstone of Filipino culture, identity, and way of life that has been in existence since World War II – are being phased out by the government. And we don’t have enough public transport to ferry employees, so it is up to us to give way to those who need cheaper seats more than we do. It is up to private businesses to provide transportation to their own employees.
It is up to us to still show up to work every day despite the lack of access to basic necessities like public transportation; the lack of direction, and the uncertainties we face in the next years as we struggle to recover any semblance of the life we had and pay off over 8 trillion in national debt.
We don’t have sufficient testing kits and contact tracing measures, and it is up to our discretion to avoid all places and activities that can render us as carriers, even if the government has allowed them to open and encourage everyone to “travel locally”. It is up to business owners to conduct contact tracing and testing no matter how small their business are.
I consider myself well-keeled most times. But yesterday on the road – a road that once symbolized dreams and new possibilities – I knew how it felt like to be a headless chicken among a sea of other headless chickens. I can keep donating to groups, giving up my seat for others, and socially distancing myself and family from others, but for how long will these temporary reliefs substitute for a sound and concrete answer to our country’s ailment?
When my daughter expresses cabin fever-induced sadness, I tell her, “I understand. Patience, anak. We will get there – someday.” Am I being wise when I tell her to be patient amid this clusterfuck? Am I being truthful when I tell her we will get there? When is someday, even?
Answers seem so far and vague when even the highest officials that are responsible for upholding laws and implementing solutions that vastly affect your life and future are not even sure of what to do next – much less seem to care about what will happen next.
We can’t merely soothe symptoms. Our collective pains are the result of deeper wounds. Wounds require sound, well-founded treatment, not band-aid solutions. I wish I could keep telling my daughter that if we are patient, if we continue believing, everything will be alright. Sadly, in these times, simply waiting and being patient are no longer sufficient.
In the last couple of days, I’ve made the conscious decision to be more open on my social media pages about the Philippines’ current state of fairs. To utilize my “brand” platforms to talk about the inefficiencies of our country’s political and healthcare system, and hopefully, encourage in-depth discussions. I am breaking rule #1 of social media marketing: Don’t talk about religion and politics on your Facebook and business pages.
But COVID-19 isn’t about politics.
It’s not about religion.
It’s not about self-service.
It is, first and foremost, a humanitarian crisis. Addressing the roadblocks to COVID-19 solutions is about protecting this world’s future. It is simply abhorrent that there are some people who are using the crisis to further political and self-serving agenda.
If in my decision to be more vocal and forward about things that matter to me as a Filipino, I get to people’s ire and lose their engagement, I will accept it. I know how it’s like to go online and be overwhelmed with opinions and unwillingly informed of other people’s rage. I understand that people need to protect their juju. That they need and want to invest their time on family and self-care. I understand all those, and it’s okay.
But I will not be a bystander. I refuse to believe this is how it all ends up. That this is how we are defeated.
In her poem, What to Tell the Children, Rachel Kann wrote:
Tell them they are not free