Putting on a happy face—behind the mask. Deo talks and listens to the stories of his passenger, careful to only project a cheerful disposition.
Culture Spotlight

Voices from the frontline: The volunteer driver giving free rides to stranded medical workers

This is a collection of stories Deo Florence Onda has picked up from driving medical workers to and from their place of work—but this is also the story of Deo himself and how one marine scientist found himself behind the wheel. By CHIARA ZAMBRANO
| Apr 06 2020

He doesn’t have to wake up this early.

Hardly anyone does anymore, really. In this world usurped by COVID-19, what used to be a worker’s fantasy – to stay home and never have to come to work for an indefinite period of time – is now a government-mandated policy, with life-threatening consequences if you choose to defy it.

This parallel universe that looks a lot like ours, but is nothing like it anymore, has taken an employee’s innocent daydream and transformed it into its vilest form. All we used to wish for was a break, instead what we got was a full stop, engines off. Now trapped in a twisted version of our dream, we long to work again, not for the toil but for the food it brings to the table.

He doesn’t have to, but Deo chooses to wake up early and face this world everyday. Like all of us, his world has stopped turning. But every night, he sets the alarm earlier than most of us ever had. And every morning before dawn, he gets up, puts on his mask, and drives.

"Tapos feeling ko sa pagke-kwento nila nilalabas talaga nila yung mga hinaing, yung frustration siguro, yung pagod. Tapos alam mong after yung maikling biyahe na yon, medyo gumaan na yung loob nila,” says the volunteer driver.

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Deo gets up because hidden in the dark streets, there are other people who are awake, too, and needing help as they proceed – on foot – to the center of the fight against COVID-19.

He is one of many citizens who have volunteered to drive stranded health workers to work and back home.

“Although may mga ruta naman yung mga bus, at saka yung mga truck, malayo pa rin yun sa kung saan sila nanggagaling,” Deo says, explaining the need for drivers that emerged quite organically. “Kung EDSA man ang ruta, it will still take them an hour to actually get to EDSA. Yung maliliit na ruta, hindi nadadaanan. Problema pa rin nila paano pupunta mula sa bahay nila hanggang doon sa pickup point.

“Nandoon din yung marami sila sa isang istasyon. Dahil sa social distancing, limited lang ang capacity ng isang truck o bus, hindi naman sila maisakay lahat.”

Because of this gap, citizens got together on Facebook and formed groups of volunteer drivers offering free rides to health workers who choose to go to work in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Naghahanap ako kung saan kaya ako pwedeng mag-contribute sa mga panahon na ‘to,” says Deo. “Mayro’n lang isang group na gumawa ng Facebook page, nagtanong lang na, Uy, baka may gustong mag-volunteer dyan, mayroong mga nurses na stranded sa ganitong lugar, may mga nurses na hindi makauwi kasi walang masakyan.”

Realizing he had a car, money for fuel, and a lot of time on his hands, Deo signed up as a volunteer driver.

“Magre-reply ka doon sa Facebook message, sasabihing Ako, pwede ako, saan sila pupunta? And then magtetext na kayo, at commitment niyo na yun sa isa’t isa.”

This short story takes us inside Deo’s car as he shuttles hero-strangers across the city. The camera — mounted on his dashboard — does not interrupt their conversation, and instead listens in on what goes through different healthworkers’ minds as they go risk their life for yet another day. Their simple conversations reveal the much larger issues of safety, family, fear and dedication. The air of uncertainty is palpable as well.

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A free ride, a listening ear 

Deo says the free rides with well-meaning strangers has been cathartic for some health workers, too. He likens his “job” to that of a bartender, a listening ear to absorb their woes.

“Habang yung maikling biyahe minsan, talagang inaaliw na lang namin sila. Nagtatanong kami. Kasi doon sa pagtatanong, nagke-kwento talaga sila eh. Tapos feeling ko sa pagke-kwento nila nilalabas talaga nila yung mga hinaing, yung frustration siguro, yung pagod. Tapos alam mong after yung maikling biyahe na yon, medyo gumaan na yung loob nila,” says the volunteer driver.

Other times, Deo’s passengers can’t even stay awake long enough to chitchat. Deo cannot forget the night he picked up a nurse who just came off a straight three-day duty.

“Nung nagkaroon ng shutdown, yung mga karelyebo niya hindi nakapasok. So siya, hindi rin nakauwi kasi siya yung sumalo. Tatlong araw siyang dire-diretso,” Deo recalls.

“Memorable sya sa akin kasi nagku-kuwentuhan kami, after 2, 3, 5 minutes, hindi na siya sumasagot. Paglingon ko, naka-nganga na siya, ang sarap na ng tulog niya. Pero it hit me hard, kasi ganito sila kapagod.”


The sick and forgotten

Deo has taken to shuttling patients, too. The volunteer drivers have discovered that many sick people who need periodic treatment for various illnesses have lost their access to their hospitals. In the short story, we meet a man needing regular dialysis. Deo tells us he has shuttled so many more.

Deo is actually a marine scientist. He has a PhD in Oceanography.

“May deadline kasi sila. Ganitong araw dapat makapagpa-dialysis ka na. Nandun talaga yung pangamba na, sir, thank you sa paghatid, bahala na po kung paano ako uuwi. Bahala na din kung paano ako pupunta next time. Pero salamat, sa araw na itong kailangan kong mag-ospital, nandito kayo, naihatid niyo ako.”

He wishes that those offering free rides would develop routes for the sick people, too.

“Baka sila yung medyo na-overlook natin nug shinat-down nila yung transportation. Wala tayong solid na plano kung paano ike-cater yung sector na yon.”


Behind the mask, before the pandemic 

As the volunteer drivers absorb these stories and sights, Deo admits it also bears heavy on them.

“May isang araw na sunud-sunod na pasyente, saka mga medyo stressed na nurses yung naisakay ko. I needed to stop. Kinailangan kong huminga. Kinailangan kong medyo umiyak in between ng pagsundo at paghatid. Kasi masyado siyang mabigat. Hindi pwede na kapag sinundo mo yung sunod na nurse, malungkot ka rin. Kasi kailangan pagsundo mo sa kanila, dapat mapasaya mo sila nang kaunti. “

Yet he continues, and every morning, he still shows up. What drives this young person behind the mask? Who was he before this pandemic changed us all?

Onda has travelled the country sharing information on the West Philippine Sea, educating students and professionals alike about the territory's environmental state.

Deo Florence Onda holds a PhD in Oceanography. He is an Assistant Professor and Deputy Director for Research of the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philipines (UP-MSI). He is the Chief Scientist of PROTECT-WPS, an all-Filipino group of scientists who embarks on voyages to the West Philippine Sea to conduct oceanographic and marine research on it. He has travelled the country sharing their data to the Filipino people, educating students and professionals alike about the environmental state of the West Philippine Sea, its effects on our supply of food, and the need to defend our sovereign rights to it.

“Isa akong marine scientist. Kung walang pandemic, yun ang trabaho ko — pumasok ng eskwelahan, magturo, mag-research,” he says with a laugh.

“Pero ngayong pandemic, ako muna ay isang driver. Isang proud driver. Serving those who serve in the frontlines.”