Storming the heavens
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - March 30, 2020 - 12:00am

Those were haunting scenes from the Vatican last Saturday, of Pope Francis all by his lonesome in the eerily deserted St. Peter’s Square, ministering to fearful, traumatized people worldwide.

The pope has been leading his flock in storming the heavens, especially with Rome and the rest of Italy in deep mourning over that country’s loss of over 10,000 lives – the world’s highest death toll from the coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19.

It now seems like a lifetime ago that we were planning our Holy Week vacations. The Lenten exodus would have started this coming weekend. In the time of COVID-19, however, even Palm Sunday can no longer be celebrated in the traditional way. Replacing last year’s blessed palm fronds will have to wait.

One upside for those whose life’s calling is ministering to matters of the spirit is that in these uncertain times, when death seems to stalk us right up to our doorstep and people are feeling their mortality, Lent is truly dedicated to spiritual introspection.

Faced with the unknown, people are turning to the solace of faith. These days even a lapsed Catholic can’t help hearing masses broadcast live at different hours of the day.

In the time of COVID, the message of the Catholic Church over the weekend was: this, too, shall pass, and we shall rise again, like Jesus Christ risen from the dead. God is not absent in our lives today. And while cooped up at home under enhanced community quarantine, let us not get sick of each other in the household.

These were among the messages in the homily of Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo, apostolic administrator of Manila, in the livestreamed mass aired on OnePh /Radio Veritas at 6 p.m. on Saturday.

The pandemic dominated the homily, just as it did in the mass celebrated by Pope Francis.

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In addition to physical wellbeing, attention is needed to promote mental health. Describing the quarantine as a stressful period is an understatement. Impoverished households are worried about their survival, and many breadwinners have lost their capability to provide for their loved ones.

The fear and anxiety rub off on the dependents. A clinical physician said children in particular are highly sensitive to anxiety in their parents.

We have a National Mental Health Act. The number of mental health workers, however, is even lower than those in the other sectors of public health care. Still, mental health care can complement ongoing measures to promote physical wellbeing.

Around the world we are stunned by images of coffins lined up with the fatalities waiting for quick burial, and of the dead being taken to crematoriums with no loved ones allowed nearby to mourn.

It will take time before the full horror of this contagion sinks in. For now, we rely mostly on the first-hand accounts of the frontliners, who narrate the terrible loneliness of people who suffer from COVID infection and death.

The fear and loneliness afflict the frontliners themselves. Reports are emerging of our health workers – hailed as the warriors and heroes in this difficult battle – being thrown out of their rented lodgings by landlords and even neighbors who fear infection.

In the markets and other establishments that are allowed to continue operating during the quarantine, I have seen people avoiding anyone wearing the uniform of medical personnel.

Most stressful of all, the frontliners work under constant threat of exposure to the virus, an unseen enemy against which there is still no weapon. On CNN yesterday, I watched a health worker in New York’s Elmhurst Hospital, which I visited with my mother when one of her sisters worked there as head nurse, describing the situation in the facility as “apocalyptic.” Thousands of Filipino-Americans work as health professionals across the US.

Then there is the desperation of the very poor, who have lost their meager livelihoods and are left at the mercy of barangay officials, a number of whom are behaving like gods in this crisis and aggravating people’s misery through extortion and unreasonable restrictions.

Complaints desks and hotlines have received reports of relief assistance being diverted by lowlifes in barangay offices, for personal use or, worse, for resale. In some communities on total lockdown, there are reports of barangay officials letting in non-residents for cockfights. Give these barangay officials a little authority and they will find a way to abuse or misuse it to their personal advantage.

Let’s just hope that this time, Filipinos’ memories of such abuse of power will linger for a long time.

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The quarantine woes cannot compare to the trauma of losing loved ones to the disease, whether directly through infection, or indirectly from hunger or, as in a case reported last week, from suicide related to the pandemic.

For thousands of people, the loss of a loved one to COVID-19 is made more tragic by their inability to say goodbye or mourn properly.

Last week a man who is prominent in his profession succumbed to coronavirus disease 2019, just two days after being hospitalized for the disease. His partner was still battling COVID-19 as of the weekend.

Tragically, such stories are increasing in our country. We should count our blessings that the COVID contagion in the Philippines has not been as virulent as in the world’s pandemic hot spots – the United States, Italy, China and Iran.

Mental health care could help ease the pain of those who have lost their loved ones in this pandemic. People may also find strength in the reassurance that there is a higher being keeping us company when we feel most alone, in our moment of grief.

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