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One year in lockdown

/ 05:07 AM March 12, 2021

This week marks a whole year since the start of the lockdown and the traumatic months that followed, during which we were trapped both physically and emotionally, gripped with uncertainty and fear, subjected to the wisdom, mercy, and oftentimes neither, of our officials from the President to mayors, barangay captains, and even heads of homeowners’ associations. Someday, we will need to fully process and come to terms with the events of those times, not just for the sake of posterity but also for the sake of justice—and the hope that never again will such a period befall us.

Of course, much has changed between now and then. Gone are the checkpoints in every barangay, the closed-off roads, and the surreal sight of ghost malls. Traffic is back in C-5 and Edsa. Many people still work (and study) from home, but this time, many more goods and services can be accessed without leaving home, not just in Metro Manila but all over the country. Zoom calls still remain as cumbersome as ever, but many have already improved their virtual and real backgrounds.

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Thankfully, too, some of the most mindless policies have given way to sensible ones: Motorcycle riders no longer have to use those useless pillion barriers. After literally telling people to just stay at home, there is growing recognition that outdoor activities are actually safe. Active transport is finally a government priority, and more people are biking than ever.

Health care still remains difficult to access, but telemedicine has grown by leaps and bounds. Once focused solely on COVID-19, our health care system is finally responding to other health concerns, even as our specialists have gotten better in dealing with COVID-19. Crucially, and despite our snail’s pace in procuring them, vaccines are finally getting rolled out and are giving people hope.

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However, the emergence of viral variants threatens to undermine the effectiveness of vaccines, and the rising cases in the country imperil the fragile equilibrium we have reached in the past months. We may have averted a “Christmas surge,” but the disconcerting statistics today are raising the specter of enhanced community quarantine.

Moreover, the government response continues to be characterized by knee-jerk, punitive, and militaristic responses, as well as “one size fits all” solutions. Science is always invoked but seldom followed. Individuals continue to face a gauntlet of rules, requirements, and restrictions (in a public display of absurdity, the police want to ban public displays of affection), while the disempowering discourse of “sumunod na lang kayo” continues to dominate government communications.

Requiring individuals to do their share is necessary and understandable, but it is further undermined not just by the failure of the government to do its own part, but also the double standard with which rules are applied: Who can forget that “pasaway” who, far from being punished, got promoted to police chief? Such is the impunity around these double standards that people in power can openly boast about getting a shot of smuggled vaccines. This, in turn, is leading to fears that just as there was VIP testing a year ago, there will be VIP vaccinations today.

This double standard further inflames the divide with which the pandemic is experienced. That the Gríma Wormtongues of our country can even think of using the word “vacation” to describe the past year speaks of the out-of-touch mindset of our officials. What is worse is that far from simply being passive and incompetent, they have also actively made life miserable for many Filipinos, by shutting down ABS-CBN, persecuting activists, enabling extrajudicial killings, and hating on political opponents instead of rising to the leadership challenge of the moment.

Thankfully, we have good people in our government agencies and LGUs who are doing their best despite the inconsistency and hypocrisy in their midst. With their efforts and those of the private sector and individual citizens, many of us have managed to get by, even as quarantine remains a privilege for those of us who can afford to (mostly) stay at home.

But should we content ourselves with relative comfort while others toil in insufferable circumstances? Should we settle for good-for-nothing officials who think that “better than nothing” is equal to “excellent handling of the pandemic”? If there’s one thing one year in lockdown should teach us, it is that if we are to overcome this pandemic, better leadership is required. Indeed, to paraphrase Vice President Leni Robredo, we deserve better than an incompetent, corrupt, and murderous regime.

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