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Feature: A blessing called COVID-19
The signs first showed on Feb. 4 in the form of an overnight fever and chills that disappeared the following day, only to be replaced by a lost sense of smell. I couldn’t sense the pungent smell of alcohol rubbed in my hands nor the poop of my cat, Cersei, in the litter box. Soon, I also lost my sense of taste.

Feature: A blessing called COVID-19

Aldo Nelbert Banaynal (The Freeman) - February 28, 2021 - 12:00am

CEBU, Philippines —  As a photojournalist, I was thrust to the forefront of this pandemic right from the very beginning. I’m on field every day -- well, almost. I’m out on the streets, in crowded places, at the scenes of fires and disasters. I’ve been covering lockdowns, visiting red zones. For a good 10 months, I’d managed to evade the coronavirus that had then infected more than 13,000 people in Cebu City.

On Feb. 10, I was officially added to the statistics.

The signs first showed on Feb. 4 in the form of an overnight fever and chills that disappeared the following day, only to be replaced by a lost sense of smell. I couldn’t sense the pungent smell of alcohol rubbed in my hands nor the poop of my cat, Cersei, in the litter box. Soon, I also lost my sense of taste.

Driven by the will to fight, I sought help from some friends and secured a swab test right at home, thanks to the city’s Emergency Operations Center. When a thin plastic object is inserted into the depths of your nose, it sure isn’t the most comforting thing in the world, but I thought it was a necessary procedure to erase all doubts that reigned in my head.  

The swab was made on Feb. 7. The results came three days later. To be honest, it’s easy to recall the dates. What’s hard to handle is the mental anguish that comes as a price of every swab test. Where did I go wrong when I was careful the whole time, or so I thought? Where did I get it? Have I infected my 65-year-old mother and my brother? Inside me, anxiety and guilt clashed.

In times like this, I usually turn to prayers. And so I did, and I did pray hard. I also asked friends to pray for me. But the prayers never worked. When I received the call informing me of the test result, I can’t find the words to describe it except to say that my world crumbled. Going through the telling signs of COVID-19 should have prepared me, right? No. Because toward the final minute before that call, I was hoping it was not COVID-19.

The first thing I did after learning I was positive was to inform my bosses at work, who in turned helped look for quarantine facilities for me. I would be brought to a free government-run quarantine center just near our home in Barangay Mabolo. Careful not to sow panic among our neighbors, I requested to be extracted late at night. I walked to the side of the deserted street where I waited for the ambulance. I was picked up. No fuzz.

An hour before midnight I found myself at the holding bay of Cebu City Quarantine Center. Nurses began taking my vital signs. A doctor interviewed me via telephone, inquiring on my condition. After filling out necessary forms, I was led to the door toward the quarantine area.

It was a huge facility. The whole place was painted in white and filled with cubicle beds arranged in blocks. I was ushered to Bed No. 40, which served as my home for the next 14 days.

The first two nights were the hardest. I got a difficult time adjusting to the center’s air-conditioning system. It somehow worsened my colds. I was having nasal congestion so bad that I found sleeping to be a challenge. It was only after I was given antibiotics that things slowly began to ease up. I was given antibiotics and vitamins inside the facility.

But if I were to conquer the virus, I thought, I had to adapt to the life inside as fast as I can. Though the center is equipped with a wi-fi 24/7, online connection is and will never be the same with personal connection. Thus, I had to fend off the introvert me and try to engage other patients in conversation (yes, it’s allowed as long as protocols are observed). We exchanged stories about our bouts with the virus, worries and all. Soon, the stories of anxiety turned to jokes and laughter.

In the days that followed, I got nothing but love and support from friends and family. The love and support manifested in various forms – from messages of encouragement to deliveries of food and essentials. Such gestures were more than enough to bring me back to my feet.

On Valentine’s Day, I saw the patients contacting their loved ones through their gadgets, exchanging greetings and songs. The sight warmed my heart.  The journalist in me was so pumped up that I thought these stories of love had to be told. With the approval of the EOC, I submitted to our newsroom a photo of a frontliner at the center who was sorting out Valentine’s Day deliveries for patients. The photo landed on our newspaper’s front page the following day.

Wanting to tell more stories about the life inside the center without violating the protocols, I soon came up with the idea of sketching in ink and pencil the day-to-day scenes inside the facility. The sketching also became a therapy of sorts for me. I didn’t only increase my productivity, I also honed my God-given talent. I was thankful to have used it again, especially after learning of the impact it had made outside.

To some patients, an ordeal with COVID-19 is a curse. We should respect that. But as for me, I would choose to look at my ordeal as a blessing. With it, I witnessed the true strength of man to fight and survive. With it, I saw the bravery and devotion of frontliners day in and day out. With it, I had the opportunity of strengthening and reconnecting loose ties with family and relatives. With it, I gained new friendships. And as if an icing to my cake, I also learned that my mother and brother had tested negative for the virus. All these are more than enough reasons for me to live on.

I stepped out of the quarantine center on Feb. 24. I took a deep breath, gazed at the blue sky, and savored the pinch of the sun on my skin. I was wrong. The prayers worked. — JMD (FREEMAN)

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