The war against COVID-19 is becoming a war on people, with an “utak pulis (police mentality)” that uses coercive force, harsh punishments, and even killing.
That police mentality spills over into language and speech, with citizens getting shouted at, verbally abused, threatened by all kinds of people, from the President down to the barangay tanod, the police, and military.
But the problem isn’t just about curse words.
Look at “people under investigation (PUI),” used to refer to people who need to be tested for infection. It has since been modified to “suspect,” which we associate with crimes. You may as well change the “confirmed” category — those who test positive — into “convicted.”
These words complicate our “war” on COVID-19. Someone might have symptoms strongly suggesting a COVID-19 infection but might postpone going to a hospital out of fear of becoming a PUI. Others finally go, but then withhold important information about the possible infection. This has happened, and has proven fatal not just for the patient but also for the attending physician who ended up infected.
A chance to tackle the power of words came about when UP Diliman’s College of Social Sciences and Philosophy (CSSP) agreed to host a quarantine center in Palma Hall (“AS” to many) for those who have symptoms but still need to be tested and quarantined.
I texted the dean of CSSP, Dr. Bernadette Abrera, to suggest that we move away from the term “quarantine center” and instead call it a shelter. In California, a modified lockdown was called “shelter in place,” a term that has been used during other disasters, where people are asked to remain at home as much as possible.
I was also thinking of the Chinese field hospitals called “fangcang yiyuan,” which were built quickly as COVID-19 spread. The term is translated as “shelter hospitals” in English and was first used by the Chinese military to refer to instant medical facilities built in times of disasters, offering safety and care.
UP Diliman has, through the years, become a sanctuary for farmers, peasants, and lumad (indigenous people) from Mindanao needing a temporary place while in Manila. In fact, we still have lumad children who fled militarization and were caught in Manila. They are terribly homesick but with full days for self-study, planting vegetables, and sewing masks to give away, all with physical distancing.
I checked with Jerwin Agpaoa, vice chancellor for student affairs, and he told me we are taking care of 272 dorm students who were caught by the lockdown and, like the lumad kids, are kept busy with various projects, like helping with food aid packages and using 3D printers to make face shields. We have staff of our University Food Service who agreed to stay on in the campus to feed not just students in the dorm but also those from boarding houses, for a total of 547 students.
We also have our own security guards and workers who asked to stay on campus rather than have to walk to work because of the ban on public transport, or who live too far, even out of Metro Manila.
We are hosting health personnel from the Lung Center of the Philippines, saving them travel time, and also recognizing that some of them face discrimination when looking for rental places.
UP Diliman has also become a shelter for 545 construction workers (and 25 of their relatives), people whose homes are outside of Metro Manila and who were stranded by the lockdown while working on UP Diliman projects. Some of them received money from their employers, but students and alumni still found it necessary to help them with food.
Thanks go out to our student councils and various alumni groups — organized as ACT ONE for COVID-19, as well as others like nowheretogobutUP, originally for varsity players — who have helped to make UP Diliman truly sheltering, including this Kanlungang Palma.
It’s heartening to hear of other schools, and hotels, opening their doors to host health workers and people needing quarantine. Soon, we will face the tougher challenge of preparing shelters for patients with mild infections, who do not need to be in hospitals but might not be able to be treated in their homes.
More than a word, sheltering must be a guiding principle in the way we operate sanctuaries and temporary homes for all who are in need. Kanlungan, huwag kulungan (a shelter, not a prison).
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An invitation: I will be speaking tomorrow, Thursday, 12 noon, in a webinar organized by Ateneo de Manila University with support from the Department of Science and Technology. The topic is behavior change, tackling questions like “Is the Filipino pasaway?” Register for free at: bit.ly/HBMpart1.
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