Frontline workers in personal protective equipment man the E.R. at the Gat Andres Bonifacio Memorial Medical Center in Tondo, Manila, March 24, 2020. Photo by George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News/File

OPINION: The year our frontliners kept us alive

After the repeated tragedies of a cursed year, the miracle of this anniversary isn’t that we persist—it’s that our frontliners have kept us alive for a year.   
GIAN LAO | Mar 14 2021

Halfway through whatever this essay was going to be, I wondered: What is even the point of writing on the anniversary of our quarantine? On Bataan Day, when we remember the grueling Death March, we recognize bravery and heroism. On the anniversaries of tragedies like Yolanda or the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011—which turned ten years old a few weeks ago—we usually look at how far we have come and at the work to be done. And sure, on our New Year’s Day essays, we abuse a trite vocabulary: blessed, grateful, live laugh love and all that—but even then we are growing. It’s still the life equivalent of standing against a wall and marking your height with a pencil.

Writing about the anniversary of ECQ, on the other hand, is weird. We are neither celebrants nor survivors. I feel less like a writer and more like a prisoner etching lines into a wall, counting the days. “Oh, it’s been a year,” I might tell myself, before returning to bed, the tiny sunbeams landing on the toilet I share with my cellmate. The tragedy is still transpiring, and regardless of what I write, the words will carry the absurdity of reminiscing about a storm even as it mows down a tree outside your window. What else is there to say, apart from “Last year, I was stuck, and this year, I am still stuck?” Or, as the Japanese man on Terrace House says: “I wish I had evolved. But I am indeed the same loser.”

In the last year, I wrote with energy about how inequality might kill us all, especially during a pandemic, or about how politician speeches are obsolete—how only action can inspire us. Both remain true, and there are several pockets of the Filipino internet that bear even better advice, but it feels like—more than ever—government has simply tuned out.

To a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, says Abraham Maslow. And to this government, every problem looks like a police problem. When things get bad, we get curfews, police presence, and unstrategic transport restrictions that inadvertently cause mass gatherings on the streets. Of course, we do get restrictions on intentional mass gatherings that are routinely violated anyway by our political and economic elite. Nothing has changed. And it seems futile to say anything when the best case scenario for a good faith suggestion is to cause a nationally-televised Presidential tantrum at 11 p.m.

To be honest, it feels as though there are only two reasons to write anniversary content: one reason grim, and the other one potentially naive, but optimistic.

The first reason is, in a word, historical. We need as many snapshots as we can of this moment in human civilization. A lot may go unrecorded, and therefore unlearned. As great as the Roman Empire was, there were—at one point—more than two hundred theories about why it fell. The Mayan Empire’s decline is still largely a mystery, perhaps thanks to the Catholic Bishop who ordered the burning of the Maya civilization’s written records. One could argue that the least we can do, if we’re headed for oblivion, is to try and be clear about what led us there— and perhaps to produce enough content to make our story difficult to erase or rewrite.

We could look at what the government has done and how the people behaved—especially in the first of what could be multiple pandemics. We can highlight the disrespect for science and for healthcare workers, or the inequality, and perhaps the out-of-touch-ness of the privileged. We can write about how politicians received priority Covid tests and—allegedly—illegal vaccines. We can mention how some people began polishing their guns at the beginning of the pandemic, afraid that there would be widespread looting. Then perhaps clarify that there was no looting epidemic—that it was simply one of many Viber horror stories; the privileged projecting their own toxic individualism onto common Filipinos. All of these help form the mosaic of who the Philippines was during the time of Covid.

Health workers form hearts with their hands as they show appreciation after the residents of La Verti Residences gave a tribute to frontliners on Easter Sunday last year. Photo by Czar Dancel, ABS-CBN News

Evoking doomsday seems overly pessimistic, but really, we’re not as immune to it as we think. Ian Morris, Professor of History at Stanford University, gave a short lecture at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2016. He talked about the “Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” or the five factors that have led to the collapse of civilizations, namely: unsustainable population growth, epidemics, increased warfare, famine, and climate change. We could argue how many boxes we’ve ticked, but perhaps we might agree on one answer: Too many. We aren’t impossible to eradicate. One day there might be teams of archeologists digging up our skeletons and our data centers, trying to unearth some history that they will hopefully try their darndest not to repeat.

But in the same way that history might educate future humans about our failings, it is also a means of telling them: We weren’t our leaders. Some of us still tried to be good. Even now, it is a hopeful thought to entertain—that in the tragic moments of the past, there were people working to make things better, even if they were unable to prevent the larger tragedy. They were there too—the quieter characters of history, who we should strive to repeat. If there is a way to inject even the faintest hope into an anniversary essay, it might be this.

We remember Oskar Schindler saving 1,200 Jewish lives. We remember Adel Termos, the man who tackled a suicide bomber running toward a mosque in Beirut. Even the Mayans, whose disappearance was undocumented, must have had their faceless heroes who remained true to their moral compass even in the turbulence of history.

More recently, I was struck by a feature on Sakae Kato, a man who has taken care of the cats in the Fukushima disaster area for the last ten years. After 160,000 residents fled the nuclear zone—after what seemed like an apocalypse—he went back and fed the cats. He feels like the human version of the dog Hachiko, who kept returning to the train station to fetch its master, even long after the master had passed. A goodness without need for fanfare. An oasis in the desert. A devotion unwavering even when the rest of the world had moved on.

In the Philippines, there are the people we praised for a few months and promptly forgot about. The challenge for our healthcare workers never got easier. Covid didn’t become less deadly, even though we’ve learned a little bit how to treat it. We just tired of calling health workers heroes, perhaps because they made such a habit of heroism. Now that the cameras are gone, they still come in every day and look the virus in the eye. When the vaccines that should have been Pfizer came in, many of them were at the front of the line. As the President and the Health Secretary cited FDA guidelines to delay their vaccination, our healthcare workers rolled up their sleeves and got vaccinated—to show all of us that we ought to take the vaccines too. “Follow us,” they could have said. “We got this.”

“Look for the helpers,” says Mister Rogers. “There are always people who are helping.”

That is, of course, the more hopeful—or naive—side of this. Anniversaries carry momentum, like a new year’s resolution does. While the circumstances have remained largely the same, an anniversary could be a trampoline at the bottom of a dark pit—or a surprisingly enjoyable date in the middle of a crumbling marriage. Inspiration has felt elusive these days, almost like light from a distant planet; but anniversaries could be when those planets swing closest—when their lights shine brightest. It’s a little something to remind us that we can start small and build.

These days, I waffle between the grim and the hopeful. Some days, it is tempting to quit this pandemic, to stop paying attention, to focus only on your survival and—if you’re lucky—your pleasure. We could just decide to buy a copper mask, get an antigen test, and attend an island wedding. “We all got tested,” we could post on Instagram as we welcome the highest Covid case count since the 2020 peak.

But what must inhabit our imaginations are the people in our hospitals teeming with Covid patients; the couriers and grocery workers and bus drivers who don’t have the time to think of something so frivolous as an anniversary. It might be the least we can do to make an anniversary of it—not the idea that we’ve been quarantined for a year, but the fact that they have sustained us for that long. After everything. 

After the government told its population: “Here’s 16,000 pesos. Survive for a year.” After so many people discovered their own bravery, but used it only to go on vacation. After the repeated tragedies of a cursed year, the miracle of this anniversary isn’t that we persist, or that the ECQ persists—it’s that our frontliners have kept us alive for a year. That, perhaps, is worth telling the future. That could be something worth having an anniversary for.