Hunkered down in my office, I heard a commotion downstairs and decided to investigate. There, without apology or explanation, stood a gaggle of relatives and friends, each smiling broadly. “Welcome home, David,” someone said, pointing to a cake bearing my name. Everyone applauded. And just like that, I knew I was exactly where I should be. After a 15-hour flight, two swab tests, 10 days of confinement in a small hotel room and a 9-hour ferry ride, I was finally back in the beautiful house my wife and I built overlooking the placid waters of Surigao Strait.
“I can’t tell you how glad I am to be here,” I stammered. And then we had a feast.
It is moments like these that remind me anew of why I love the Philippines. Hands down, it’s the warmth of the culture and its practitioners, their desire to acknowledge individually everyone’s importance as part of the whole. In short, it is a country celebratory to its core.
It’s also a place, especially lately, in the clutches of considerable pain.
That fact was brought home to me almost the minute I stepped off the plane into what amounted to a hurricane of fear. To be sure, people everywhere are concerned about COVID-19, particularly its recently emerged variant dubbed Delta. In the US, in fact, health officials had all but declared victory when this new wrinkle reared it’s far-from-handsome head. Los Angeles County, which had already lifted a much-maligned mask mandate, decided to reimpose it. And, as usual, the public’s response ranged from reverence to rancor.
The lockdowns and mandates in the Philippines have been a good deal harsher. Last week, Interior Secretary Edwardo Año warned residents of Metro Manila to stay home or risk arrest. “We will be strict in this,” he said, “we need to. If you won’t comply and insist on going outside, of course we will arrest you.”
The initial response was the ironic “super spreader” spectacle of thousands of residents literally climbing over each other to get vaccinated before the lockdown began. And, true to Año’s promise, by week’s end police had apprehended at least 20,600 suspects in Manila and neighboring provinces for offenses including curfew violation, failing to wear, or improperly wearing masks and face shields, disregarding social distancing protocols, and engaging in “mass” gatherings. Penalties included fines, community service and charges that could result in imprisonment.
Several provinces in Luzon, meanwhile, have literally posted guards at their gates to maintain stringent border control. Only those from relatively unaffected areas, they say, will be allowed entry and, even then, only with negative COVID tests.
And police in Bugo, a barangay of Cagayan de Oro, arrested an evangelical Christian pastor for conducting prayer meetings in his home. “Only virtual religious gatherings are allowed…” Police Major Evan Viñas said.
All this, and yet the reaction of average Filipinos has been far more muted than that of their American counterparts who are significantly more likely to die. While both countries show a COVID fatality rate of about 1.7%, according to statistics compiled by Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, the deaths per 100,000 population are many times greater in the U.S.; 188.32 compared to only 27.03 in the Philippines.
So why are so many Filipinos, especially in the provinces, taking these draconian restrictions with such aplomb? Part of the answer, I believe, lies in an Asian-influenced culture emphasizing, as I say, obedience and personal sacrifice for the greater good. And, too, the relative devastation of the Philippine economy has given many of its citizens more immediate concerns.
“Job Gain Is Best in Nearly a Year,” boasted a recent banner headline in America’s Wall Street Journal. At the same time, a corresponding headline in the Philippine GMA News Online lamented that “Economic Loss Due to Strict Lockdowns Stands at P150 Billion Per Week,” i.e. even worse than expected.
So instead of lobbying for lighter lockdowns, Filipinos are seeking help. “We didn’t eat today,” texted one journalist friend, whose place of work had been indefinitely closed. Though acquainted on Facebook, we have never actually met. Yet she felt desperate enough to put aside pride and ask for financial aid. And she’s not alone; hardly a week goes by that I don’t get at least one such request.
Fortunately, my own province has been less affected. Which means that soon I expect to emerge from my mandatory week-long quarantine. I have already applied for and received the city’s coveted Health Pass required for entry into public places. And so, it seems, I shall finally be back in the world. Wearing a tight-fitting mask. Oh yes, and a properly worn face shield.
What can I tell you, it ain’t California.
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David Haldane’s latest book is a short-story collection called “Jenny on the Street.” A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning American journalist, author and broadcaster currently dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Surigao City, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily,.