Our world war
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - April 4, 2020 - 12:00am

This evening at 8 p.m. across the United Kingdom, we all went to our doors and windows and made some noise, clapping and cheering for the key workers leading the fight against COVID-19.

It was a strange, uplifting moment. My west London neighbourhood is pretty mixed, all ethnicities and classes living next to each other. All of us are under lockdown, prevented from moving freely, from going to our jobs and schools, even from visiting friends and family. Like everyone else around the world we are looking into the abyss of economic depression. Yet we applauded, united in staying home to play our part in stopping infections that could overwhelm and even collapse the National Health Service.

Doctors, nurses and support workers who haven’t even received the proper protective equipment they need to be able to treat patients with the new coronavirus, are confronting danger head-on. The UK’s ambassador to the Philippines, Daniel Pruce, sent a special message on Twitter: “thanks to the many thousands of Filipino healthcare professionals working tirelessly and courageously in the #NHS #ThankYouNHS #ClapForOurCarers.”

It’s an economic disaster, and yet police have new powers to punish anyone who goes about doing what was ordinary human behaviour until just a couple of weeks ago. Police here are pleading for the public to stick to the rules and are already being criticised for being too tough.

At least they’re not killing people. Even in the Philippines, PNP chief General Archie Gamboa has assured the public that the national police force will not shoot violators of “enhanced community quarantine,” though President Duterte made international headlines again by ordering the police and military to shoot anyone who makes trouble, after attacks against health workers and protests by people made hungry by the lack of food aid. I’m sure this will mean even more people will ask me why Duterte continues to enjoy so much popularity in the Philippines. Political scientist and anthropologist, James C. Scott has said in an interview for the Los Angeles Review of Books: “the fact that there’s not an uprising against Duterte in the Philippines is part of the …desire for law and order at the expense of democratic freedoms.” In the dramatically shifting landscape of virus politics, the odds are even on whether COVID-19 will turn out to be a revolutionary or reactionary pathogen.

Many restrictive measures put in place to contain COVID-19 will be common sense and not breach human rights, so most people are trying to abide by them. But if in place for too long or if too strong, then they must be challenged. There is a lot of room for abuse, as the three men and two teenagers forced into dog cages in Santa Cruz can attest.

On the other hand failure to put measures in place to protect life and to properly inform the public about the threat of COVID-19 could also be seen as a breach of human rights, as a top European human rights lawyer, Jeremy McBride has pointed out recently.

This post-virus reality is necessarily one of loss to my generation. I grieve for the concerts not being held, the shut museums, the empty theatres. Churches, mosques and temples are silent, unpeopled. What will this do to our individual and collective imaginations, spirits and relationships? How are we to rebel against oppressive measures that prevent us from living as we know it, but protect health and life itself, particularly in places like the Philippines where healthcare systems are deeply underfunded and unequal? 

I fear the loss of our parents’ generation: the most vulnerable to being killed by COVID-19, statistically speaking. I was shocked and saddened to hear that former Agrarian Reform Secretary Sonny Alvarez and his wife Cecile Guidote are in intensive care. They introduced me to the exiled activists in the USA during the Marcos dictatorship when I was a teenager staying with them in Brooklyn. I would attend Cecile’s workshops at the La Mama Theatre in the Bowery to learn about Philippine culture and society, and listen avidly to their meetings and campaigns. I loved it.

Theirs is the last generation that lived through World War Two, Japanese occupation, American colonisation and built from scratch the modern Philippines. They are the last “kundiman” generation, who felt the undying love and longing in those ballads, as expressions of the Philippines’ struggle for self-determination as well as romantic courtship.

This fight against COVID-19 is our generation’s version of World War Two. The coronavirus pandemic is “the most challenging crisis” since then according to UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres.

It is a call to action. We are all being asked to figure out what needs to be done to beat this brutal foe that can’t tell the difference between the hungry and the greedy, the rich from the poor, the governed from the governing, the police from the policed, natives from migrants. If we are to beat this new enemy and retain our humanity this is a fundamental fact that should serve to unite us and shape a post-virus future.

I think Guterres is speaking beyond the heads of the world’s governments, who have completely failed to express any sense of human solidarity on the global stage. It’s a call to arms to every one of us as individuals to reset our lives with new priorities and respond with as much courage and resilience as we can muster, in spite of our leaders.

In Philippine culture, anachronistic as it may seem, we have the bayanihan spirit. We do it reflexively and essentially. Look at all the initiatives providing help and protection for the vulnerable and poor that have mushroomed despite the sacrifice and danger we all face. They have it here in London too, you can hear it when the entire country claps as we did this evening; they just don’t know it the way we do and talk instead about caring and kindness. It is a weapon of the weak. It helped us make it through the darkest of times, including world wars. It will again now, it must.

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