The pandemic in a ‘less affected’ province
I showed a friend and his family from Manila around the northern and eastern provinces of Mindanao island in February 2020 — before the pandemic was in full force — and we were surprised with the readiness of local governments to put their walls up against COVID-19.
Their initial reaction to the first reports of COVID-19 entering the Philippines was astounding. Towns in Surigao del Sur, for example, had tall tarpaulins printed and erected on the highway, stating the local resolutions to ban visitors from China. At several checkpoints in Bukidnon, we were asked to log our names, body temperatures, places of origin, where we were staying and how long we were planning to stay, and our contact numbers. Malacañang had yet to issue anything back then. Admittedly, at that time we thought it was an overreaction to a passing moment, some scheme to get funding for local dynasties or an excuse to harden police presence and surveillance. Boy, were we wrong!
But what’s sad is that now, 14 months and over 900,000 cases since the COVID-19 outbreak, all those safeguards have been put down and the pandemic has since bred local fictions that say, in not so many words, that COVID-19 is simply a Manileño pastime. And this fiction seems to hold water with local hospitals, which are not as crowded as in the National Capital Region (“plus”), along with notions of supposedly lower daily numbers of transmission and lesser restrictions in mobility.
This fiction gains even more ground when, alongside more and more reports of the situation in Manila turning worse, people here, on the other hand, have built habits and found homegrown ways that are said to protect from and miraculously cure anyone with COVID-19. From tuob, to mixing hard liquor and other nontraditional remedies with no clinically proven effects, to the belief that Mindanawons are basically built tougher, it’s clear that many locals have come to understand COVID-19 way differently from those living in the epicenters. The fatigue here seems exponentially disproportionate; many have even refused wearing masks altogether, reasoning that it’s the prolonged mask-wearing that’s suffocating and not the virus.
To be sure, not everyone acts like this, but this is also not merely a rehash of the “pasaway” narrative. There are historical and societal forces interacting that are now producing by the bulk anti-maskers, pandemic deniers, and Duterte diehards bereft of logic.
For more than a century, Mindanao has had a complex relationship with both the national government and Manila as the center of power. While Mindanao being in the far peripheries grants some autonomy and leeway for communities to do as they wish, heavily capitalized and militarized government rule emanating from Manila also comes as both aid and imposition. Likewise, the government is the largest employer here outside of Davao City, Cagayan de Oro, and Zamboanga City.
Historically, efforts coming from the national government are seen and framed in a particular way; perhaps more than any other place in the country, Mindanawons must always ask “for whom?” and “for what?” every purported development sent their way. Because so many of us live unaffected and heedless of a national government, what is given to Mindanao always comes with the question of what Mindanao has to offer in return, or what is to be taken from it. This is muddied, too, by the fact that the region has its own vacuums of power dominated by a hardly challenged elite made up of warlords, moguls, and dynasties. Often, these groups only intersect and merge; the Dutertes, the Roas, and the Carpios are full-fledged members of this ruling order.
The lie of COVID-19 being only a Manileño preoccupation is nothing new and might even be repeated in other provinces with histories similar to Mindanao’s. Such reactions are rooted in longstanding mindsets that may be difficult to reverse and, in the case of COVID-19, would have clear fatal consequences. The first line of defense against the virus, it seems, are cultures and persons who are empathetic to the science and social implications of this unprecedented public health threat. It is crucial to change certain paradigms to empower Mindanao’s broader base—its poor and its working class—and to respond to their needs first. We could start with the basics: How much ayuda should the poor receive, and what jobs and social protections await them after all this?
With the lockdowns loosened, the virus may explode in the provinces any time. But except for less money going around, it’s like there’s no virus here. Instead, what we get are gratuitous servings of Sara Duterte’s face everywhere we look. Indeed, the pandemic seems to have only hardened old ways.
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DLS Pineda is an educator in Agusan del Norte. He finished his BA and MA in Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
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