Illustration by Chris Clemente
Culture Spotlight

My problem with your privilege

All of us are being called to stay home. But not everyone can. By JAM PASCUAL
| Mar 18 2020

"To those who are complaining about the quarantine period and curfews, just remember that your grandparents were called to war; you are being called to sit on the couch and watch Netflix. You can do this." —a Facebook post from James Deakin

It's been a few days since the president announced the lockdown. When the address aired on the night of March 12, earlier that day I was in a building where one of the visitors later tested positive for the coronavirus, so I'm currently on self-quarantine. Waiting for symptoms to show feels like fiddling with the antenna of an old radio to catch a report on something terrible. Well. That's how 2020's been going so far.

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Beneath the veneer of the city's uncharacteristic quiet, a low rumble emanates—an intricate network of Viber and Telegram groups thrum with the buzz of rumor and prayer. How will the checkpoints work? Are we getting a Wuhan-style lockdown? Do not forget God! Government announcements come to us in whispers before we get to confirm them on the official livestream, where a leader elected by both the well and the sick can't tell which ones are which.

The World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a public health emergency and a pandemic, but I thought it would take a little more time stewing in cabin fever visions until somebody started madly calling the outbreak a good thing. I was wrong. Iza Calzado has said that she's been thinking about "how the Covid situation is actually the Universe's way of making the world a better place moving forward." I don't know. Really sharp eyes, these folks spotting silver linings in microbes. I doubt she means the same thing as Dutch trends forecaster Li Edelkoort who, recognizing how the virus has slowed our major production processes, called COVID-19 "an amazing grace for the planet." Again, I don't know.

Commuters fill parts of the southbound lane of Commonwealth Avenue on the second day of the Metro Manila community quarantine on March 16, 2020. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

But sure, let's talk about grace. There's footage going around of citizens running to the borders in Quezon City and Rizal after being given a mere 30 minutes to cross the checkpoint before police close it off. I do not find grace there. Contractual workers who normally scrape by on daily wages are demonized for failing to comply with quarantine procedure, as landlords continue to demand rent, and bosses insist on exhausting sick leaves. I do not find grace there. The healthy getting sick, pushing triage to its absolute limits, and improvising protective measures with rain coats and garden gloves—a little grace, but barely enough to go around. So what does grace look like? Does it look like Cat Arambulo, her family, and her househelp ringing bells? This ersatz ayahuasca ritual, sending good energy into the ether as if vibes worked the same way as contagions—will that make the universe a better place, moving forward? If so, could you spare a little for the jeepney drivers, the retail workers stocking grocery shelves, and the folks the hoarders have forgotten?

So life and death hang in a vertigo balance, and we scramble for small pieces of solace some might mistake for leisure hand-outs. Some people are learning how to cook, and some are finishing discarded books, all while staving the psychic stress of a hellish year that is far from done. I do not resent their comforts, their painstakingly manufactured grace, because what they're doing isn't easy. Me and my friends in the precarious gig economy, we're used to WFH situations. We can do this, but that doesn't make this easy.

To him who wrote the above Facebook post: it's funny you should mention grandparents. A couple of hours before the resident's address, I was at a supermarket where folks were stuffing their shopping carts like they had bomb shelters to stock from floor to ceiling, and it was an old lady behind me in line. No face mask on. I'm schlepping a bag of rice and a whole frozen chicken onto the silver counter when this sweet little gran asks me "Do you know how to cook?" I say yes. "That's good to hear," she says.

For all I know, this lola might have been a grizzled guerrilla fighter who knew the look of the sky from the depth of trenches, or a sniper with a kill count in the hundreds. Maybe. We don't know. She didn't bring it up. I don't think she felt the need to. Maybe she was just relieved to know the whippersnapper mishandling his packaged poultry could fix something up worth a damn as the rest of the world around her, who has longer than she does on this affliction-addled planet, plunged into shelf-clearing hysteria. Or maybe it was just another case of a senior citizen making sure her apo was eating enough.

But if I may, I've got a couple of contentions. First: for some reason it's always the oldies who were soldiers we're expected to be toadying at, and not the Woodstock hippies who cried flower power. Second: again, for some reason, every single crisis Gen Y and Z have had to contend with (let's name a few: the drug war, the threat of ecological collapse, the usual evils of capitalism, this damned plague) is always held to the second world war, like we should be embarrassed that tanks and the stench of napalm didn't shape our collective character. Like, damn. My bad, dude. I didn't get the memo.

Is there only one monolithic image of heroism: the beach-storming infantryman who volunteered to die? As if all frontliners of crisis wear bandoliers and brandish banana clips? Some people seem to think so. That's certainly the strain of thought that infects (pun absolutely intended) those who assume increased military presence is a solution, and that corralling curfew breakers and possibly cramming them into unclean jail cells will kill this pandemic.

The security measure is being enforced in various entry points to Metro Manila as the 30-day community quarantine takes effect to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Jire Carreon, ABS-CBN News

So yes, I guess I do have a problem with a curfew that, as a good friend put it, looks suspiciously like martial law's soft opening. And while I am thankful that the government isn't knocking my door down for a war draft (even though just two months ago, World War 3 was a possibility none of us could ignore), that's not my issue. The reality of the COVID-19 outbreak, the gestalt incompetence of our government and public sector, the as-of-yet unflattened curve, and the blaring truth of our mortality, come together as one great mass of psychic stress and sit like a heavy stone in my gut. That is what is keeping me in place. Not a couch, not a Netflix account. We are being called, more than anything, to reckon with the flaws of our current system that this outbreak has shoved into the harsh light of judgment.

Once this whole mess packs up, we are going to do a lot of rebuilding. Count on me, and everybody else, to heed the call and get off their couches. Lord knows we're all itching to move about again.