2020 was not a holiday
I don’t know about the presidential spokesperson, but I for one did not see 2020 as a vacation.
As a health care worker, despite not having handled COVID-19 positive cases on a daily basis, I and my colleagues needed to continue showing up for work, along with all the other “essential” workers. With every step out the door we knew we also faced daily exposure to the coronavirus, the hidden enemy, since anyone could easily carry the virus in the hallways, in the operating rooms, in the pantries, in the buses to work. We were doing long shifts at work, but worrying about taking masks off to eat or drink; we were isolating or living away from family members, scared to infect them, whether we had just passing exposure to COVID-19 patients or prolonged interaction. We had to watch colleagues do without hazard pay. We had to watch both patients and colleagues succumb to the virus. We had to watch as VIPs were prioritized, first for swabs and later for the first vaccines that made it into the country. We were fighting health misinformation at home and in person. At no point did that feel like a vacation.
Many friends and family in the corporate world were fortunate to keep their jobs via a work- from-home arrangement. Initially, remote work may have been a respite from long commutes, but it soon became clear that the companies allowing it were experiencing a major overhaul in the workplace, which brought with it a host of new problems. The blurring of lines between work and home has resulted in burnout levels hitting an all-time high, with employees expected to be on call outside of “normal” office hours, and a Bloomberg report stating that employees were working as much as three hours more than they did prior to starting remote work. Isolation while working at home has led to an epidemic of loneliness, exacerbating an already difficult year for mental health. Parents have had to balance their own work with coaching children through online classes, not to mention stressing about their mobile or laptop devices, tuition, data consumption, and poor connections. None of these sounds like a vacation.
It certainly was not a vacation for people who found themselves struggling to find work. The pandemic saw our unemployment soar to an all-time high of 10.4 percent, the highest in 15 years, impacting poverty, food security and access to health care in extreme ways. After the government’s initial burst of enthusiasm to provide aid to the poorest sectors affected — after it secured national funds accordingly — the aid has petered out and people have been left to fend for themselves. Private groups and individuals took it upon themselves to organize donation drives and fundraisers, but these could not substitute for steady work. By the end of 2020, beloved restaurants and businesses were closing despite an easing of restrictions and attempts to revive small businesses. It takes a particular kind of mind to equate such dire circumstances with a long vacation.
Harry Roque, thankfully, has acknowledged this last fact, too—that contrary to his recent statement, the year 2020 was not a vacation for those unable to find employment. But as always with the President and his most vocal supporters and aides, the apologies are made for statements which should never have been spoken, and which betray how out of touch the Palace has been. The spokesperson has an undeniable talent for making bad situations worse with specious, flippant, derisive, or uninformed statements. Filipinos asking for transparency about Sinovac and for availability of other developers’ vaccines were “choosy”; we who survived 2020 were “on holiday.” That sounds awfully like Bato dela Rosa’s “Ang sarap ng buhay!”
Words matter in keeping up an already flagging public morale. Can’t we demand better statesmanship from the office that acts as a bridge between us and our highest executive? Can we not ask, if not for more empathy, then for at least a thoughtful, well briefed spokesperson—one sensitive to nuance and to the power of his words—who won’t continually betray his lack of sympathy for the public he is serving?
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