The fog of pandemic

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - August 1, 2020 - 12:00am

Keep your heads down, people. Things are going to get worse before they get better, not just in the Philippines but everywhere. The future is totally unpredictable in a way that seems to stretch ahead like the black mushroom cloud of an atom bomb. The closer you try to approach and examine the uncertainty ahead to search for clues the easier it is to get swallowed up in the radioactive gloom.

I write this as I begin a new round of 14 days of quarantine or self-isolation as it’s called here in the United Kingdom. My COVID-19 defying flight west from Manila was much sooner than I’d originally planned, as family demands shifted. This was a very different experience from travelling to Manila. It went absolutely according to expectations. On the way to the Philippines, Philippine Airlines diverted my flight to Cebu where I had to stay for two nights before my flight to Manila was scheduled. I have travelled a lot and this was definitely the weirdest and most upsetting air travel experience I’d ever had. The flight itself was full with Filipinos hustling to get home and trying to figure things out. No one actually wanted to go to Cebu, but we had no choice. Even though we’d paid for direct flights to Manila from London, what we got was a flight that had another leg added to it but also added another 36 hours to a flight that was supposed to be just 12 hours long! Plus we had to pay for the hotels we were staying at. Suffice to say, if this is the future of travel and tourism to the Philippines, that sector is under threat of extinction.

Remittances from migrant workers are another crucial element to the Philippine economy that is being paralysed by terrible management and communications. A British friend from Kuala Lumpur  is messaging me as I write about how an immigration officer is preventing her longtime helper Jennevee from leaving the Philippines on the first flight out to Malaysia since lockdown. Even though she’s checked in and paid her departure tax as a tourist because, supposedly she can’t leave as a tourist “because she’s an overseas contract worker.” My friend has been trying to help her helper navigate through the labyrinth of requirements being imposed on her helper because of COVID-19 for months. This seemed to be the way to get her back soonest and follow the rules. But again poor management and communications have completely changed the rules at the last minute and one of the workers that the Philippine government and mainstream narrative hails as heroes is made powerless, stuck at the airport just two hours away from the departure of her flight and her employer’s money completely wasted. Again, if this is a sign of how things are going to work in the migrant workers sector, it is under existential threat.

To be clear, Jennevee is one of millions of overseas workers that send remittances worth nearly 10 percent of the Philippines’ gross domestic product back home. It’s a measure that also reflects the extraordinarily uplifting effect sending money home has on individual lives, families and communities in the Philippines. We all know what a dramatic effect a worker who sends let’s say $2,000 home a month can have. It allows children to go to school and university, provides healthcare, pays for regular meals, supports businesses and opens other opportunities that people simply would not have otherwise. Remittances are literally a lifeline for millions of poor Filipinos across the country. Now imagine that they are robbed of this lifeline because authorities and corporations (the powerful) stop allowing workers to go abroad without providing for alternatives. This, to my mind, is the stuff that creates the toxic fog of gloom swallowing up our lives and futures.

This is the enormous challenge that faces policy makers across the Philippines and beyond (ours is not the only economy dependent on migrant workers, tourism and travel). It is far from easy for them, but it is also unthinkable that it be allowed to continue and threaten the quality of life and dignity of many millions of people.

Before entering the UK, I was simply required to fill in an online contact locator form so that I could be reached in case anyone else on the flight reported positive for COVID-19. In any case, I am to self-isolate to protect anyone I myself might come in contact with whether or not I test positive. At immigration, the officer checked that I had filled it in and that was it. The flight itself was as empty as the one that took me to the Philippines had been full. Social distancing was mercifully easy to accomplish, though annoyingly I had paid extra for a “socially distanced seat” that guaranteed I wouldn’t have anyone seated right next to me. The plane was new and spotless to the naked eye, with attendants cleaning the toilets much more regularly than normal. Everyone, without exception, wore masks and face shields.

Here in the UK, management and communication of pandemic policy isn’t without its faults either. The government re-tightened restrictions on some areas in the North of England but only announced them on social media a few hours before they were imposed. The Health Secretary was summarily grilled on national radio on Thursday morning.

As I listened, the difference in tone from such interviews in the Philippines in here was more marked than ever. The BBC presenter was respectful but not at all deferential, giving the overall impression that high-level government official or not, Matthew Hancock was not going to get a free ride. Even before the live interview began, listeners heard from people directly affected, including the Mayor of Manchester (the UK’s third most populous city). Generally they accepted the policies are needed, though some were irritated at the confusion.

The value of journalism to bring power to account and give voice to the voiceless was revealed in a few minutes of clarity in the fog of the pandemic.

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