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Paranoia in the neighborhood

/ 05:00 AM October 18, 2020

“Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” God commands. Apparently, it is harder to do so during a pandemic.

My late 90-year-old grandmother arrived home in Surigao del Sur after a dizzying eight-hour road trip from Cagayan de Oro City. She was told of what was coming, but just like many of us, the concept of being quarantined was unfamiliar.

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Nanay Publing was an extrovert. She was an extremely talkative person who could keep you in your dining seat for hours, absolutely “that nosy old woman by the roadside” who sparked up a conversation with anyone who passed by.

Being locked alone inside a house was tormenting for her, especially since the reason she went home was to be surrounded once more by her many children and grandchildren. She was often seen putting her hand outside the window, motioning people to come close to her, crying.

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It was heartbreaking, but I guess only for us, her family. The other people in the barrio were too preoccupied with the rumor that Nanay was COVID-19 positive, encouraging paranoia all over the town. Three rapid tests and a swab test revealed she was not—something we were confident of because of her “house-car-house” travel history.

She died due to long existing health complications, a news agonizing for our faraway relatives who could not attend her wake. I witnessed this type of agony firsthand from Nanay Nenita, my roommate at the quarantine facility. In fact, it was even more painful for her. She was not able to attend her own daughter’s funeral. The reason, however, was not because the facility or the city government did not allow her, but rather because of her neighbors.

With the city mayor’s permission and following necessary health protocols, she went to see, supposedly for the last time, her child who was taken away by cancer at a young age. A negative rapid test result unfortunately was not enough assurance for her neighbors. Particularly, the sight of Nanay Nenita in a PPE suit caused hysteria among them.

For any well-informed individual, it is easy to call such people stupid. Perhaps this is why I understand my mother’s heated reaction when she was told that someone reported us to the authorities for allegedly breaking home quarantine protocols.

As of writing, we are under home quarantine because of my father’s positive rapid test result. He took the test after a coworker was sent to the hospital and tested positive. He is now in a quarantine facility and we are waiting for the more accurate swab test result.

Immediately after we received the news about my father, we locked our gate and informed others. Fortunately, none of us at home is experiencing any symptoms. My father is also relatively fine. The major problem we have is making our dog, Ocean, poop in our narrow side yard. (She is used to long walks around the village.)

Going outside our fence to dispose of our garbage — but several meters away from the nearest house with no other human being within the vicinity — might be what provoked our concerned neighbor to report us to authorities. Or maybe it was when we let Ocean poop in the nearby bushes late at night while everyone else was asleep (she was holding that poop in for two days already!).

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Maybe they were overreacting. Maybe we weren’t careful enough. But merely pointing fingers will not help the situation.

If there is one thing I’ve realized during this pandemic, it’s that humanity needs to practice compassion more.

Those who tested positive for COVID-19 are feared first before they are pitied. Fear is an inevitable response, of course, but it leads to insensitivity. People tend to forget that carriers of the virus are victims, too. Contact tracing sounds more like contact blaming, and suddenly the only thing we can think about is ourselves.

It’s not wrong to prioritize our own safety, because I think it’s our natural survival instinct. I just believe it can be done without targeting others’ vulnerabilities.

It’s already been two months, but I still grieve for my grandmother. I think what makes it hard for me to move on is remembering the discrimination she received from people before she died. What makes it harder is that I somehow understand how she felt, having been a returning locally stranded individual myself.

Nanay Nenita’s tears are also hard to erase from my memory. I personally struggle to accept the fact that a mother’s loss could be easily disregarded.

In fact, I seem to be more concerned about our neighborhood’s reactions than my own health as I wait for my father’s swab test result. And I know too well that there are many of us around the world who are emotionally affected like this. It is a sad reality.

This pandemic is indeed exposing a lot of things about us — like who we become when consumed by fear, or how we forget to love our neighbors while loving ourselves.

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J-Ann Avila, 20, is a journalism student at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

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