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Train to Butuan

By David Haldane

Aug. 20, 2020


I know, I know; it wasn’t a train but a car, and we weren’t in South Korea but the Philippines.

That said, however, there are striking similarities between my 9-year-old son’s favorite movie, Train to Busan, and our recent drive to Butuan; both involve monsters. In the movie, they are packs of zombies who murder most of the passengers before ever getting to South Korea’s second-largest city. On our own two-and-a-half-hour drive, the monsters were more like vampires; strange beings wearing long coats and facemasks who poked us with needles to suck out our blood.

Before you send hate mail, let me just clarify that I am not calling the nation’s Covid front liners monsters. I understand that they are mere human beings–perhaps braver than most–charged with keeping all of us healthy. And that, in our home province of Surigao del Norte, part of the job requires drawing blood from all incoming traffic for mandatory antibody rapid tests. Even from innocent families like ours that, after spending a full day-and-a-half getting the required clearances and signatures, spent less than six hours outside the province obtaining a passport for their new infant daughter.

No, calling them monsters was just a literary device to make the opening of this column funny. Ha, ha, ha. Well, here’s where the humor ends: the baby tested positive. Which was surprising given that she’s just four months old, has never left the house, and spends most of her time with her parents, both of whom tested negative.

“What?” I stammered upon hearing the news. “Wait… what?”

No worries, though. The heroic front liners under the roadside tent at Caraga Regional Hospital’s Bad-as Health Center had a ready plan: fourteen days of institutional quarantine for both the baby and her mom.

“What?” I repeated in case they’d missed it the first time.

Perhaps I should pause here to comment on how easily fractured are our illusions regarding the actually quite-fragile emotional state in which we all live. I mean, one minute you’re a happy family excited about getting home to binge watch Grey’s Anatomy, and the next… well, the next minute you’re trapped in a dystopian science fiction novel as the godawful scary aliens that authorities have, thankfully, just captured.

“Hey waitaminute,” I said as if there was any other choice.

So I focused on quelling the rising panic in my gut while Ivy spoke Visaya to a doctor on the phone because, hey, it wouldn’t be safe for them to talk in person. And that’s when I remembered reading somewhere that these so-called “rapid tests” have an 80% false positive outcome.

And so we argued and pleaded and cajoled. And miraculously persuaded them to give our baby another test. Which, unsurprisingly, came back negative.

Well, ok, they told us, that’s a slightly different story. But not before someone else, apparently unaware of the new result, handed my wife a thin blanket and took us on an unwanted tour of the so-called “Covid ward” where she and the baby would be staying. To my untrained eyes, it looked like a temporary structure equipped with makeshift beds separated by paper-thin curtains affording excellent exposure to the virus. And not before they dutifully reported the positive result—but not the negative—to the health officials in our home barangay.

So they quarantined us for fourteen days, but mercifully in our house rather than at some foul-smelling virus-oozing ward. And now every morning a squad of strangers in spacesuits comes by to take our temperatures, ask how we’re feeling, and post our pictures on Facebook.

At first it upset me, but then I read the pre-test document they made us sign before re-entering the province. “If the test results turn out NEGATIVE,” the paper says, “I agree to be placed under quarantine for at least 14 days at any of the Provincial/City/Municipal/Barangay Quarantine Facilities/Isolation Units in the Province of Surigao del Norte. If the test result is POSITIVE,” it went on, “I strongly (italics added) agree,” to same.

So, all things considered, I think we got off easy. And guess what; we’ve become veritable Grey’s Anatomy fanatics.



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David Haldane authored the award-winning memoir, “Nazis & Nudists.” A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an American journalist, essayist, and broadcaster whose radio work received a 2018 Golden Mike award. He currently lives in Northern Mindanao, Philippines, with his Filipino wife and their two children. http:///felixr28.sg-host.com




Originally published in Mindanao Gold Star Daily

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