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Commentary

In praise of janitors

/ 04:03 AM April 29, 2020

Presidents and prime ministers in different parts of the world have regularly addressed their peoples to apprise them of the current state of their nations, to convey to them their countries’ preferred directions, provide them with guidelines, assure them as they face uncertain days, and in general motivate and inspire their constituents to get behind a common purpose, to brace for the worst but to work together for the best of all.In the late night hours in the Philippines, we have been addressed by the President in somewhat enigmatic terms, his attempt to calm the nation characterized by stream-of-consciousness ruminations, personal anecdotes, and at times insensitive remarks aimed at people he perceives to be thinking differently.

“He talks like a janitor.” Take the case of the unforgettable tirade against an esteemed law dean and chair of the Free Legal Assistance Group, which had been founded by the statesman Jose W. Diokno. The President went off on ad hominem attack on the law dean’s physical attributes, cruelly referring to him publicly in terms that we will long remember: “He talks like a janitor.”

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What is ironic perhaps is that janitors and cleaners are not only in the line of fire along with other frontliners, they are also considered to be among the essential workers who are keeping our country alive and well during these times. Where would our hospitals be, and how could medical workers save lives in emergency rooms and wards, without them? Where would our food supplies and food outlets, supermarkets and groceries, pharmacies and places of worship, homes and condominium apartments, streets and sidewalks be—in what state would they be in—without these essential workers?

Filipinos as essential workers. Filipinos the world over, employed as doctors or nurses, midwives or medical staff, domestic helpers and hotel workers, are making the world safe and clean, and in the process creating community defenses enabling the public health system of many countries to save lives.

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One of the unintended consequences of this pandemic, which has caused untold suffering and grief not only in health and economic terms but also in the scale of social and mental anguish it has unleashed, has been the rethinking and recalibration it has prompted on the dignity of work and the dignity of workers, whatever their station in life may be and whatever it is they do to serve others in their effort to earn a decent living.

In the Republic of Ireland and in Great Britain where I happened to work for some two decades, countless Filipinos serve in hospitals and homes, in humble and mostly unacknowledged ways. Today, they are much appreciated and publicly thanked for their contribution to those countries.

“God sent a cleaner to save me!” One of the most difficult things to bear when one is struck by the coronavirus is the isolation and loneliness that ensue after one is quarantined, and especially when one is confined to a hospital bed or a place for medical treatment. Survivors tell us that what is truly unbearable is this: Because of the treacherous nature of the contagion, the phrase that says one “avoids you like the plague” comes to fruition. In times of illness, comfort is normally found in the care and concern from one’s loved ones; but, in the case of infection by COVID-19, one is largely left to deal with the situation, bereft of company.

A COVID-19 survivor tells of how “God sent a cleaner to save me!” From a distance by the door, the cleaner talked to him and later brought him a few things he could eat, cravings that he had in his delirium. That moment brought back his faith and began his path to recovery, allowing him to live to tell his story.

In days like ours, redemption comes in different forms, at times in ways we least expect. But one thing is clear: There is dignity in work, and every worker who works hard to earn a living deserves our respect and appreciation. Long live the janitors!

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Ed Garcia is one of the framers of the 1987 Constitution.

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