Pedaling through the pandemic: A Filipino doctor's story

Alejandro Umali, MD, MBA

Posted at May 29 2020 03:02 AM

Dr. Alejandro Umali is an emergency medicine resident at The Medical City-Ortigas and co-administrator of MNL Moves, a growing community that promotes cycling as transportation in Metro Manila.

I wake up with my alarm blaring in the background. My body feels heavy. Another night of restless sleep. I get up to get ready for work. It is April, roughly half a month or so since the Enhanced Community Quarantine was imposed in Metro Manila and Luzon. I take a shower and prepare my trusty commuter bike. I pack my essentials and extra clothes for the daily tour of duty, and pedal off to the hospital. 

I have been biking to work for four years now. I started May 2016, back when I lived three kilometers from the hospital I work in. Before, I was driving to and from work. Through the years, road traffic worsened, and the three-kilometer drive would take me up to an hour. That’s equal to moving 50 meters per minute. Pitiful.

I got fed up and borrowed my brother’s folding bike. After a week of studying routes, watching videos on bike commuting, making sure I have all the equipment I need, and having the biked checked and dialed-in, I started to commute to work. My 60-minute car drive turned to a 45-minute bike ride. After a few weeks, I was able to reduce my travel time to 20 minutes. I live farther now from where I work, more than double the distance. But I continue to ride my bike. 

Now waiting at an intersection. Recently, I noticed there are less cars plying the road. Public transportation is still suspended because of the pandemic. I see a couple of motorcycle riders to my left. And to my right, I see fellow bike commuters waiting for the light to clear. 

Years riding my bike made me realize there are many who have been bike commuting for years. We fondly call them Shimanongs and Shimanangs - an amalgamation of the word Shimano, a popular brand of bicycle components, and the word manong/manang. These people bike to work day in and day out dealing with reckless drivers and difficult, poorly lit, and pot-holed roads.

Due to the pandemic, emergency departments are struggling to keep up with the number of patients. Hospitals are overbooked. Government is doing its best to provide test kits and fight the pandemic but the increasing number of people who can't make it to work continue be a problem. 

More and more of my fellow frontliners have been turning to the humble bicycle as a means of transportation. Heroic as the effort has been with groups running bicycle lending and donation programs, these have not been enough. In my hospital alone, we needed 60 or so bicycles to provide a way for our nurses, technicians, orderlies, and other allied healthcare personnel to get to work. I’ve tried to raise awareness about bike commuting while helping match bike lenders with fellow staff, and the number of requests for bicycles continue to rise. Some of my colleagues simply cannot afford to stay in the lodging provided by the hospital; they have children to feed and their families to attend to. They hope a bicycle can ease their mobility concerns. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to change how we usually do things: social distancing, wearing masks, and hand hygiene have all been prescribed by the experts to curb the spread of the virus. This has created problems in terms of mobility options for the general public, but most especially the people at the frontlines. But there is also a realization: this pandemic has put more people on bikes. I’ve always said to others that this is not the way I would have wanted to increase bike ridership as a form of commuting. But it is what it is.

When I finally arrive at the hospital, the security guard asks if I am staff or a patient as I enter the parking area. He is taken aback when I present him my doctor’s ID. 

I park my bike on the designated bike rack and notice additional bicycle parking spaces. Nice.
A co-worker at the end of his shift is about to go home as I walk to the Emergency Department and prepare for endorsements. I don my full PPE and get to work. 

By the time my shift is done, it's 9 PM. I prepare for the ride home. Along my route are those who pedal though the night. Some for the first time. But we are all exposed to errant drivers, vulnerable to poor road infrastructure, at risk because of dimly lit streets. 

At the end of the day, all we want is to get home to our families and loved ones. All we want is to be able to use our bicycles confidently and safely. 

I prepare for bed after a late meal and a warm shower. I look at my bicycle and thank my companion for getting me through today. 

Tomorrow is another day. 

Dr. Alejandro Umali is an emergency medicine resident at The Medical City-Ortigas and co-administrator of MNL Moves, a growing community that promotes cycling as transportation in Metro Manila.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.