The original deadline for the first instituted lockdown has passed, and when I’m writing this we are already on the second day of extended quarantine. And yet mass testing has only started – or is about to start – for several cities around the country. The quarantine may have bought us some time, but we’ve squandered so much of it on political one-upmanship and god knows whatever’s been cooking in Malacanan all this time. With a central health department that seems increasingly detached from the reality of the situation, Marikina City has gone as far as invoking “local autonomy” in opening its own testing facility without the approval of the Department of Health after the latter failed to follow through on its scheduled inspections of the facilities on not one but two occasions.
Meanwhile, through March and April, the virus has razed through the metro and beyond, infecting a total of 4,932 people and claiming 315 lives. Experts have sounded the alarm for our abnormally high death-to-recovery ratio amongst known COVID-19 cases, which is already set to becoming the highest in Southeast Asia.
Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic seems poised to trigger major social upheaval, not the least of it the potential backsliding of a once global superpower as it struggles to overcome the virus. With now almost 120 thousand dead worldwide (ten times more than since I last wrote about COVID-19 fatalities), it appears this plague will certainly not be passing without circumstance. Whoever we are once the virus dies down (if it does die down on its own, going the way of SARS), or after we finally defeat it, will certainly no longer be the same.
Yet how silent the world is, at the same time. Last week, to supplement our dwindling food supplies, we ordered a package of ready-to-cook meals that Jollibee is currently selling to customers through the few branches that continue to operate amid the lockdown. We live on the third floor of an apartment building situated halfway into a narrow residential street with a gate at the threshold where it spills into wider road. For some reason known only to them, the week the enhanced community quarantine formally began, our barangay officials decided to lock down that gate, forcing us and the rest of our street to literal seclusion from the rest of the neighborhood. When the rider arrived, my father and I had to venture outside to meet him there so he could carry the parcel over the gate to us.
It was a short distance from our building to the gate, but it being the first time I’d stepped out of the house for nearly a month, the feeling of that very short walk was closer to my first jeepney ride on my first day going to high school. It felt already like seeing the world – and the world that greeted me on that minute trip was one drowned in silence. Instead of our neighborhood, I imagined my father and I were walking through a street emptied by war, as in the first scene of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Nothing stirred in that expectant hush. Even the pop and crackle of the delivery guy’s motorcycle engine seemed too anxious to venture further in the air and was altogether gone within a moment of his taking off.
I’ve gotten quite used to the world being indifferent, unaffected by our puny human affairs. Hundreds of people die every day – we are no strangers to our mortality – and yet on most days the world just goes on with its script: trains continue to plow through rust-mottled tracks, people throng into malls and movie theaters, as if nobody at all has just suffered a loss. But this expectant hush is different. As Nick Carraway puts it, at last the world is “in uniform and at a sort of moral attention,” perhaps not forever, but indefinitely at the very least. The thought unsettled me, and as I walked behind my father with part of the food supplies back to our building, I slowed my pace and attuned my ears to the hint of hysteria playing in counterpoint with the stillness.
Of course life still goes on – from behind shut doors we try to recollect some semblance of normality. We eat, we while away the hours with books we’d long ago promised to read but never got around to, or do Netflix binges through the last hours of night. New hobbies, or old ones dusted off and reclaimed. But these are short-lived victories, and even within our imperial bedrooms the hysteria takes its quiet reign. It revisits us in the dead of night, after the day’s muddle of activities have cleared, when the mind becomes at once receptive and resigned. All the noise we raise in our homes do nothing but pay tribute to the silence that has out of nowhere encroached upon our lives.