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Dispatches from isolation

/ 04:05 AM January 24, 2022

I am afraid. After nearly two years since the beginning of the pandemic, COVID-19 walked into my door and infected me and my family. While we were vaccinated and have fortunately been surviving, the time in isolation has been oppressive, and the threat of catching or spreading the virus outside is equally dreadful. In isolation, long days seem longer, and negative things seem especially dire and hopeless. For the first time since writing for the Inquirer, I could not look at the blank slate of my column and feel anything but dread.

Last year, a buzzword was identified to describe the feelings people associate with the pandemic. That feeling of “blah,” of stagnation, of merely surviving; of feeling restless or unsettled, unable to muster motivations for previous ambitions or interest in things that usually bring us joy. The term is “languishing,” and The New York Times called it the dominant feeling of 2021. It has overlaps with, but is distinct from, depression. Last year, as the pandemic dragged on and we saw that it wasn’t going to end any time soon, there was an increased feeling of a loss of control, of waiting for a day that kept getting pushed further and further out of reach. This feeling peaked for me as, isolated from the routines of work while infected, these thoughts were magnified.

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I understand that I may be languishing—surviving but not thriving, living but not flourishing. But there is another dimension to how I, and many other Filipinos, are faring during the pandemic. For me, the dimension is fear.

I am afraid of the outcome of the elections. Most days will find me, outside of my professional capacity, engaging in discussions or online support for my candidates. But as the election draws near, my hope wanes. I see more evidence of the strength of political machinery that is behind some campaigns. Friends who make critical posts about a certain candidate are immediately flooded by hate comments and threats in the thousands, and the vitriol makes me afraid. I continue to be afraid that we will be making decisions that will continue to support the culture of impunity, non-transparency, corruption, and neglect that has thrived in the current administration.

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The news bits about street vendor Gemma Parina, who had much to say about anti-poor pandemic policies, exposed a lot about what so many experience daily—the impact of seeing many profit from the pandemic while others are barely scraping by, the promise of financial aid that is limited or never fulfilled, the anger that those put into power by one’s vote do not seem to be serving the public’s interests. The follow-up to her story is that she seems to have been frightened into hiding; she says that she heard that authorities have been looking for her, to arrest her or file a case. I am afraid for her and afraid for others who are vocal about legitimate criticisms of the government. I fear the same things for myself as someone occasionally engaged in political writing. I am afraid that the next administration will just pick up where this one leaves off, that is, a culture where anyone in opposition risks being tagged as a communist or a criminal.

I am afraid that, as a health worker, I will never see an improvement in the health system in my lifetime. I am afraid that we are continuing to induct more young people into our profession, and that more of them will become jaded, victims to the hopelessness of being unable to help on a large scale. I am afraid that we will allow to slip through our fingers a candidate who may be able to mobilize change, in favor of voting for one who will maintain these old, broken ways.

I am afraid that the pandemic will not end, an increasingly valid fear, and that our response to new waves of infection will never improve. I am afraid of the next variant, the next letter of the Greek alphabet. I am afraid of the consequences of so-called long COVID in myself and in my family; I am afraid of reinfection; I am afraid of never being able to live out the tiny dreams that have been two years in abeyance. I am afraid of catastrophic expenses of a COVID-19 admission for vulnerable loved ones. I am afraid for other struggling Filipinos who can’t even think of COVID-19 expenses because they’re too busy trying to put food on the table. I am afraid of their situation never improving.

Whatever collective trauma we’re all suffering from COVID-19, there are things to fear as much as, or more than, the virus itself. For myself, many of those fears are aggravated and fostered by government policy and personalities. I struggle to express how extraordinarily important the upcoming elections are in vanishing or fulfilling those fears. I cannot tell the reader where to cast their vote, but can only express my hope they consider the candidate to best allay such fears, as I share many of them with other frontliners, health workers, and COVID-19 patients. There is everything to hope for, and everything to fear.

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