A Home Team Science & Technology Agency (HTX) scientist demonstrates, without a live sample, the extraction process of their coronavirus test kit in Singapore March 5, 2020. Photo by Edgar Su, Reuters
Culture Spotlight

OPINION: Politicians’ COVID-19 tests were paid for with human suffering

A few words about privilege—which apparently takes more than soap and 70 percent isopropyl alcohol to wash off. By GIAN LAO
| Mar 23 2020

Sometimes it feels like we need a parable to get our point across.

There is an old story from India. A monk was bathing in a river when he saw a scorpion drowning. He picks up the scorpion to save it, and the scorpion bites him and falls back into the river. He repeats. He picks it up, gets stung, and picks it up again—until he could bring the scorpion to the riverbank.

A hunter was watching this unfold. He asks the monk: “I know you were trying to save the scorpion, but wasn’t it clear that its nature was to sting you? Why didn’t you let it drown?”

The monk responds: “The scorpion’s nature is to sting, but it is my nature to save it.”

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There is usually a silence that comes after a profound symbolic story, but I will ruin that silence because the political climate calls for blunt force. The monk is our healthcare workers, and the scorpion is our politicians.

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The list of scorpions is long. It seems like every major politician has gotten tested for COVID-19 despite showing no symptoms. It’s easier to name those who refused a test, citing the shortage of test kits: Risa Hontiveros, Leila de Lima. End of list.

“Of course, the ideal setup is for all suspected cases to be tested,” says an unnamed doctor who was isolated for being both exposed to the virus and symptomatic. “Pero dahil nga kulang, it’s best to allocate it according to the algorithm.”

“I was a Person Under Investigation, and it took four days for my results to come out. Nauna pa sila. There are health workers who have been intubated, and whose clinical statuses have been growing more severe. We still haven’t confirmed if they have COVID-19.”

This was the cost of having our asymptomatic politicians tested: depriving healthcare professionals of tests, even if they were exposed to the virus and displaying severe symptoms. In other words: Those tests were paid for not just with taxpayer money, but also with human suffering.

An illustration of talk TV host Ryan Tubridy getting tested for coronavirus in his The Late Late Show. Illustration by Chris Clemente

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It’s not like I don’t understand our political class.

They, too, are afraid. They, too, are frail human beings who fall prey to the occasional misleading Viber message. They, too, want the security of knowing their families are free from the plague. I get this from a human standpoint. The times are scary.

But to our politicians: Is this really who you imagined yourself to be?

This is an unprecedented historical event. Some historians are asking people to document their daily lives, so that we can tell our children and grandchildren what it was like. As things are, you will all be remembered for being self-serving. The anonymous villains in an immortal story. The tax collectors in the Bible. The Nazis in World War II.

As things are, decades from now, the word “frontliner” will be immortalized in Philippine English the way “topnotcher” is. And for good reason.

Some doctors work 36-hour shifts. They keep going even with immune systems compromised by fatigue. Grocery workers man the aisles and cashiers. Bank tellers are helping keep commerce alive. All while exposed to the virus you got tested for. And thanks to the government’s irresponsible ban on public transport, some of them walk several hours just to get to work.

Too many of our health professionals are falling sick and dying. Dermatologists and dentists are on the frontlines trying to treat pneumonia. The medical field is hurting and afraid. And despite all this, they keep trying to save us.

The doctor who will go unnamed from the hospital that will go unnamed says they are frustrated. Not because they fell sick, or because they were put under isolation. They are frustrated because they can’t wait to get back to the front lines.

All the health workers I’ve heard from during this crisis—doctors, nurses, medtechs, admin staff, and others—share this life saving impulse. You will not hear them complain much. It is not their nature to divulge names or conditions or other specifics. It is their nature to save. And mine, as a writer, is to tell the truth:

In his message to the nation last week, President Duterte mentioned: “We are at war against a vicious and invisible enemy.”

This is true. But unless our political class starts behaving like leaders, we may well have a visible enemy too.