Surviving influenza A(H1N1)
It was the year 2009. I was 15 and a high school junior attending class in a private high school in Muntinlupa. I vaguely remember the loud sound of our ancient, wall-type AC unit as our teacher rambled on about chemistry—God, I really hated that subject.
“I’ll give you time to copy from the OHP,” the teacher said as she closed her lecture.
My classmates and I moved closer to the blackboard where the OHP was flashed to be able to read and take notes out of the small text printed on the acetate. Some sat on the platform just below the blackboard, while others, including me, transferred to nearer seats left vacant by the unusual number of absentees that day.
Ten minutes later, the school bell rang, signaling that it was already lunchtime.
Before going back to my seat, I brought out the hand sanitizer I had been carrying with me for days and applied it on my hands. There was a virus said to be spreading, and my parents had reminded me to regularly sanitize. The government earlier said the infection had not yet reached the south of Manila. But there was nothing wrong in being careful, I figured. As I was about to stand up, the person seating beside me, who appeared to have been sick and asleep the entire morning, was awakened by the loud noise of wooden chairs being dragged across the room as our classmates prepared to leave.
Visibly groggy and disoriented, he asked me, “What time is it?”
“Lunch bre—”. I was unable to finish my words as my seatmate coughed all over my face. I felt some of his saliva sail into my open mouth.
A few hours later, I started having high fever and coughing uncontrollably, both symptoms of the spreading illness — influenza A(H1N1). My entire body then started aching, which was another symptom.
My family brought me the following day to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, where I had to wait before getting tested. I remember being in a holding room together with people who looked as sick as I was, all of us waiting to be called for testing.
While we waited for the test result, I was quarantined in the family guest room, with nothing but my LG500 to accompany me. I must have watched “Shrek 3” and “The Notebook” — the only movies downloaded on my phone — for at least 10 times each. I had nothing else to do. When I was not sleeping or eating, I watched. I had zero human interaction except when my mother would enter the room to bring me medicine and food.
Several days later, the test result came back positive. My mother immediately called the school to notify them about the result, and that I most likely caught the virus while inside the school premises. The school sent a representative to our house to get a copy of the test result; without it, they claimed, they would not be able to declare suspension. After my school announced the suspension of classes for a week, the other schools in Muntinlupa followed suit. No suspension was declared by the local government.
Fast forward to 11 years later. I am inside a Starbucks branch at 8 p.m., preparing for an exam the following day. Aside from employees wearing green face masks and a few people buying coffee for takeout, I am the only one inside the spacious branch. There is a pandemic after all — I guess no one is taking any risk.
Neither am I. I’m not going to get infected. Not this time. Unlike 11 years ago when I thought that simply sanitizing and distancing myself from peers would prevent infection, I have now taken a more defensive approach. I regularly wear a face mask whenever I go to public places. I have no plans of getting coughed at on the face ever again.
I bought a box of face masks more than a month ago when the first case in the country was confirmed. I knew back then that the real situation had to be much worse than what the government was reporting. I later learned that the health secretary had admitted to “inadvertent underreporting” of COVID-19 cases — whatever that meant.
For the past 10 years, I have always looked at my A(H1N1) experience with such disdain. I remain bitter at the fact that the only reason I got infected was because those who were already infected decided to still go to class without any regard to possibly infecting others. I remain bitter that these people did not bother to have themselves tested, which could have resulted in the earlier declaration of class suspensions.
But now that I’m older and more exposed to society and what marginalized Filipinos encounter on a daily basis, I realize that there are times when people do not really have a choice.
Social distancing, though a legitimate action taken in order to prevent the spread of highly contagious diseases, can only be enjoyed by the privileged. What about those who commute by jeep, bus, or train every day? What about those working in factories who don’t benefit from work suspensions or do not have the alternative option to “work from home”? What about those whose nature of work requires facing hundreds of people every day, such as a cashier, bus conductor, street vendor, salesman, etc? What about those living in cramped spaces such as tenements or those who are homeless? These are people who compose the majority of Filipinos, and they are the most susceptible to infection. Sadly, these are also the same people who have the least capacity to afford medication in the event of infection. What are practical tips that we can give to them to avoid coming down with illness? How can we help them?
I now realize that it was not the fact that only a mild strain of A(H1N1) hit the country and so spared me from dying. Rather, it was also my privilege. I have parents who were physically and financially able to take care of me and had the awareness and means to get me tested. I live in a comfortable home with a spare room for me to be quarantined in. I was a full-time student in a private school with nothing else to think but my education. I had at least a phone to accompany me while I was sick, and nothing else to worry about aside from deciding which movie to watch.
If anyone asks me if I consider myself a “survivor” even though the strain of A(H1N1) that hit the country was only mild, I would say — given the current political climate that we have — yes.
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Jupa Artiaga, 26, is a full-time government employee and a graduating student at the UP College of Law.
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