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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Tuesday, January 05, 2021

entry arrow8:04 PM | A Covid Scare, Part 3

[Read Part 1 and Part 2]

There is cold brutality in numbers. As of this writing, Negros Oriental has recorded 47 new cases, and also 19 new recoveries, bringing the total number of local active cases to 174. Dumaguete currently has 104 active cases and remains as the province’s COVID-19 epicenter. “This is also the first time that any city or town in the province recorded more than 100 active cases in its area alone since the pandemic began,” the news report I’m reading goes.

Tanjay comes with the second highest count with 16 active cases, followed by Sibulan with 13, and Siaton with 10. Valencia has six active cases, Zamboanguita has five, Amlan has four, while Bayawan and Guihulngan have three each. Bacong and San Jose have two cases, while Bais, Mabinay, Manjuyod, Bindoy, Ayungon, and Dauin each have one active case. The total case count for Negros Oriental as of this writing is at 984—with 782 recoveries, but also 28 deaths.

Twenty-eight deaths—anonymous, for the most part—in one province is one too many, as far as we should be concerned. Taking into account the worldwide scope, the number is even grimmer: 1.85 million dead. There is no processing that number, especially for an illness that began early last year being downplayed by many as “just another flu.”

That indifference is hard to break.

We are told, for example, that numbers do not lie—but alas, they also have a flattening effect on most people. People are made curiously apathetic by numbers, a psychological phenomenon known as “psychic numbing,” which causes us to feel indifferent to the suffering of large numbers of people. It is the same curious indifference we feel when we regard the body count of a distant plane crash, the casualties of a faraway war, the victims in the thousands of a so-called “drug war.” It is the same curious indifference that makes some people deny the Holocaust. It is the same curious indifference that made Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin say, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

It is the same curious indifference that makes so many of us in Dumaguete complacent in the midst of a pandemic. There are too many people no longer wearing masks, too many people no longer physically distancing, too many people partying in numbers beyond the new accepted limits. The community transmission has been underway since October when bureaucratic indifference became our weak link, and the infamous “APOR” became the target of our outrage—and yet many of us still go about as if normalcy is still the norm.

It’s easy to see where this indifference spring from. Fear subsides, and we learn to believe ourselves to be Teflon to danger. The threat is also invisible—hence our guard is mostly down, our enemy a phantom we cannot even begin to comprehend. The lockdown has also been taxing in its boredom—hence our search for connection, for defiance against what we are told not to do. The hard information about the disease comes to us in trickles, and must swim and compete in an ocean filled with fake news—hence our propensity to believe in ardent conspiracy theorists.

In my case, the diligence of the early months soon gave way, slowly, to a wanting for old normalcy. By November, I was again meeting friends, having dinners, reconnecting with the old life—all with a nod towards protocol [masks and social distancing] and the assorted theatre of safety we’ve come to ritualize [temperature guns and registration books and disinfectant mats], but minus the urgency that once characterized our lives in the pandemic.

And then the fever came, and with it the realization that the time to let our guard down is never now.

On Day 6, I was finally able to call the Dumaguete COVID hotline. I knew the seventh day was crucial: this was how long it took, on average, for some patients in Wuhan, China to be admitted to the hospital after their symptoms started, many developing shortness of breath on this day. But by then my fever was gone, although my loss of taste persisted in an ugly way and my body felt ravaged still, like a rag doll violated by the most fearsome of child’s play. Still, no cough!—its absence felt like a kind of hope.

The hotline consists of three numbers, each one attended to by a name. I chose Hannah at 0935-272-2440, who listened to me—and then referred me to Gem from Lo-oc Health Center, to be nearest my local health monitor. Gem was a patient and calm voice at the other end of the line, careful and sufficient in her questioning. She recommended that I self-isolate for the next seven days; my symptoms were not harrowing enough, perhaps, to require going to the hospital. But I was required to monitor my temperature on a daily basis.

“Would you like for us to come to your house to monitor your symptoms? Or would you prefer you monitoring for us and reporting by phone?” Gem asked.

“What’s with these options?”

Apparently, they have developed this protocol to shield people from stray eyes and busy tongues in the neighborhood—the presence of health workers in the vicinity causes unease. I chose the option to phone in.

But I also wanted a test. I wanted the sureness of definitely knowing. I was told that, following local protocol, I was not in immediate need for a swab test—but a “rapid test” [the antigen test which detects protein fragments specific to the coronavirus, which has a rapid turnaround time for results] could be arranged at the end of my fourteenth day in quarantine.

In the meantime, I was to rest, nurse myself, and mark time.

Quarantine was slow and horrible, an elastic time that barely wobbled, finding the hours turning on themselves in a Dali landscape. Solitary confinement, coupled with slow convalescence, does things to your mind that blur the boundaries between night and day, sleeping and waking, consciousness and the realm of nightmares.

“Is this how I’m spending Christmas?” I thought and wept. I prayed once—fervently, for the world to heal, and for some deal made with God that if ever I became better, I would fearlessly seize all the rest of the days in my life. And then, having written so many obituaries of other people this year, I also wrote my own—and sent text and pubmat to the boyfriend, with instructions to post when the time comes.

I stuck to the routine: sleep, wake, urinate, drink the coldest of water, shower, monitor temperature, report. [Some days I was not able to report, stuck in overwhelming sleep that knew no hours.] These days in the doldrums required angels: my caregiver was my boyfriend, who brought me food, medicine, drinks [the Gatorade was most helpful], and whatever I needed to survive—all the while keeping his distance, his face masked up and shielded.

Slowly, I got better. The crippling fever was gone, the diarrhea subsided, and my sense of taste slowly returned by the end of the second week, the end of quarantine.

Going to the City Health Office was my first brush with the outside world: blue skies, fresh breeze, the bustle of downtown—each sensation was alien and frightening, yet also exhilarating. I went to get my promised antigen test, which Gem helpfully facilitated over the phone, endorsing me to the clinic.

The laboratory I was told to go to was curiously deserted, no amount of “ayo” could conjure attendance by someone. I waited, and then walked around to inquire about getting a “rapid test,” only to be told to wait at the same spot in the laboratory. Someone appeared—and when I inquired about my appointment, she turned out to be a condescending woman [who will remain unnamed] who gave me some run-around about stuff, putting me in my place about how busy she was, and told me to wait.

I waited, while also texting Gem my confusion.

Salvation came in the form of City Health’s Loryly Palubio-Ignacio—a gracious woman whose quiet demeanor belied a weariness you could almost touch. Why this was so, I would later on learn—after she sat me on my examining stool, after she asked me further questions in protocol, and after she took a syringe of my blood for antigen testing. I asked her questions—mostly about how the city was faring in the pandemic.

I learned then what exactly was COVID capacity for each hospital. [Turns out, not a lot.] I learned about why I was not given the proper PCR test, and almost was not even given an antigen test. [Turns out, both tests are in increasing short supply locally, and they had to revise protocols accordingly.] I learned about how City Health personnel have been driven to the brink almost every day, most of them out on the field monitoring cases and administering tests for hours on end. [Hence, Ma’am Loryly’s weary look.] I asked her whether there’s cause to worry about community transmission, and Ma’am Loryly shrugged and said, “We’re overwhelmed.”

The next day, I received my test result from Gem. “Good afternoon, sir,” she texted. “Negative ra imo RDT.”

It felt like exultation, a relief—but at the back of my head, caution whispered:

An antigen test is not a PCR test.

A test is not immunity.

My city is still this province’s pandemic epicenter.

Was what I had COVID-19? I hope not, but we will never know for sure. Still, what I had—ugly manifestations of symptoms and the confining reality of quarantine—was certainly a taste of it, and I knew—and still do—that I never wanted to go through that again.

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