The Grinch steals Christmas

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - December 28, 2020 - 12:00am

Except for those who lived through World War II, Christmas 2020 has to be the worst ever in our lifetime.

And if our officials keep dropping the ball in this dreadful public health and economic crisis, Christmas 2021 could turn out to be barely better.

Into the 10th month of the pandemic, we’ve all gotten used to the COVID normal of quarantines, of restricted mobility and fewer people in the streets.

Still, it was distressing to drive through quiet streets in the afternoon of Christmas Day, and past Rizal Park without the usual crush of people. Many families went to Tagaytay – video footage showed heavy traffic on Aguinaldo Highway – but were disappointed to be told that children were supposed to stay home.

In previous years the streets of Manila were always full of people – children wearing fancy clothes, walking with their parents on Christmas Day. You could tell which households were hosting parties from the many cars parked outside, the sound of laughter and karaoke.

This time the streets were mostly empty in the early afternoon as I drove to work. Rizal Park was opened to only a limited number of people from 4 to 9 p.m.

*      *      *

Several areas in the city of Manila look magical at night, thanks to Mayor Isko Moreno’s street lighting program, and the Rizal Park administration did its part for the holidays. Too bad the magic is lost on the young children, the teens and many of the elderly who are staying home through the holidays, especially with the possibility of a more infectious COVID variant reaching our shores.

The Christmas morning earthquake further subdued celebrations. Driving home late in the evening reminded me of the first day of the strictest enhanced community quarantine, with the early curfew and total ban on mass transportation. Even with a few more vehicles on the road this time since the curfew has been shortened to midnight to 3 a.m., it still felt as if the Grinch had stolen Christmas.

With even common fireworks displays banned, we’re bracing for the most joyless New Year’s Eve.

It was drearier on Saturday as dark clouds and light rain fell. I went to a mall for belated shopping for gifts. Even with hefty post-Christmas sales, foot traffic was slow.

I dropped by a toy store and asked the saleslady how business was in the time of COVID. She said that in previous years, throughout most of December and even after Christmas Day, there would be long, snaking lines daily to the cashier and gift-wrapping counter. This time there was still a line, but much shorter.

The salesclerks were grateful enough that there was a line at all; it reassured them that they would still have a job in the coming year – unlike those in many of the other tenant stores that are now permanently closed.

*      *      *

Looking on the bright side, there are new tenants in several malls, and they have opened in time for the holidays. And slower foot traffic is still better than nothing.

Around Metro Manila, epicenter of the pandemic, people are returning to salons for haircuts and manicure-pedicure, and even massage spas are reopening.

Also, I don’t think anybody misses the kids deployed by their parents for out-of-tune caroling, pressing house doorbells and begging for gifts. It’s fine if you have someone posted the whole day at the gate to hand out whatever you can give. But when you have to answer the doorbell every 10 minutes while you’re busy preparing Christmas lunch, the spirit of charity evaporates.

The general compliance with admonitions against big get-togethers for the holidays, as far as I can tell, has been largely voluntary. People believe it’s better to be safe than sorry.

The sacrifice is made easier by the thought that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience and therefore a particularly memorable Christmas. The family photos show everyone wearing a mask and distancing even while striking wacky poses.

Now what will happen if it looks like this isn’t going to be a one-off thing? That Christmas 2021 will be as grim – or even worse – than this one?

*      *      *

It’s a possibility, with our vaccination program bungled at the outset when the 20 million Pfizer vaccine doses that could have been here by January slipped away. We’re given the lame excuse that we don’t have the deep-freeze cold chain logistics requirements for the Pfizer vaccine. But Pfizer packages its own product for long-haul transport in thermal shipping boxes filled with dry ice.

This vaccine has managed to reach the desert regions of Dubai, Qatar, Oman and Israel, plus Singapore which sits near the equator – a long way from the laboratories in the US and Belgium – without any problem, as long as vaccination gets underway ASAP. Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia will also be getting their Pfizer vaccines soon.

What we’ll get instead in January is the signing of the supply agreement between Pfizer and the government, represented presumably by vaccine czar Carlito Galvez, now specifically tasked to be the only person authorized to negotiate for COVID vaccines. I don’t know if Foreign Affairs chief Teodoro Locsin Jr. is listening.

Public frustration over the wait for vaccines is fueling belief in allegations that are starting to emerge, about “katas ng COVID” and “kick-vacs.”

As the operator of a nursing home said Saturday in Germany, where vaccination with the Pfizer shot got underway ahead of the rest of the European Union, “every day that we wait is one day too many.”

We can endure this sad Christmas because we know we’re not alone; the entire planet is on lockdown, with some even grappling with a newly emerged COVID variant. But if we’re left behind by others in recovery by the time Christmas 2021 rolls around, there will be hell to pay (as President Duterte recently put it, in a warning to erring cops).

The President said any bungling of the vaccine procurement would be blamed on Galvez and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who chairs the National Task Force Against COVID-19. I don’t think it was a complete joke.

Someone has to take the fall if Christmas 2021 turns out to be like the one just past.

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