A City in the First Day of MECQ

It is June 16, the first day of MECQ in Dumaguete City. It begins with some semblance of quiet. Journalist Raffy Cabristante, on the lookout for what he can share on the popular Facebook page of his radio station Yes The Best FM, sets out for the heart of downtown.

He takes photos of the usually busy intersection of San Jose Street and Perdices Street, where Lee Super Plaza, Jollibee, and other big stores are located, and takes a snapshot of the 9 AM scene. The scene is low-key in its bustle — there are only a few tricycles and motorcycles plying the street, and only a handful of people about. It is the same with the Rizal Boulevard stretch facing the sea. The same with Hibbard Avenue, which cuts through Silliman University and goes all the way north to the barangay of Bantayan. There’s more volume of traffic along Veterans Avenue, the stretch most locals call the National Highway, but that is to be expected. This is the artery that connects Dumaguete, a component city in the province of Negros Oriental, to the other towns — it is bound to be busy, if a little less than what it usually sees on any given day, even during the past few months of the pandemic.

Cabristante posts his finds on the radio station’s Facebook page — and immediately there are reactions. Someone comments below the photo of the national highway scene, with the Philippine National Bank building prominent in the center: “Naa ra lagi pedicab diha. All public utility vehicles including pedicabs for hire are not allowed.”

That kind of indignation is rampant everywhere in Dumaguete. It has only increased in the MECQ.

* * *

But it has been a rough few weeks for the city, which on June 7 was raised to the level of national notoriety when it was listed as the number one locality in the entire country with the most worrying trend of COVID-19 surge: new cases doubled by 206%, followed by Koronadal with 96%, Cotabato City with 62%, Bacolod with 56%, and Davao City with 54%, according to data provided by the OCTA Research Group.

By then, most Dumagueteños were already getting too used to — and increasingly getting apprehensive by — the rising daily totals put out by Provincial IATF ground commander Dr. Liland Estacion. May 14 was the day that apprehensions began. Estacion announced 168 new cases, at that time the highest number of new cases recorded in Negros Oriental since the pandemic began. She attributed the surge to “local transmissions within households, workplaces, and public places where people converged.”

By May 18, there were 98 new cases, raising the active cases to 615 — the same day the Silliman University Medical Center stopped accepting COVID patients, declaring their capacity full.

By May 20, the vaccination rollout for senior citizens finally began — the same day the local IATF countered fake news rapidly circulating that Robinsons Place Dumaguete was a hotbed for the virus.

By May 21, 204 new cases, 709 total.

By May 23, the doctors started calling out for help. In a statement produced by the Negros Oriental Medical Society, they declared: “We call for an ECQ. We call for a lockdown. Call it whatever you like. We are doctors, we are not politicians or businessmen or even lawmakers. But these we know: there is this rapid rise in cases more than the hospitals can handle. We know that we are losing precious lives. We know that we have so many critically ill and not enough sources. We only know the value of saving a life. Please, people of Negros Oriental, do something. Stop parties. Stop gatherings. Don’t socialize. Wear masks. Give us curfews. Give us time to reset. Please do something before health care collapses. The end of health care will be the end of society. Help us health workers.”

It was a plea gunning for what had been the precarious status quo in Dumaguete. There was already a sense of a city relaxing a bit too much in its regard for pandemic dangers: people were going about unmasked, people were going about having parties and weddings and dinners, people were going about thinking they had become untouchable after more than a year of suffering in lockdown. Many would call it “pandemic fatigue” — and the penchant to wring back a sense of pre-pandemic “normal” was high.

By May 24, Dumaguete received a wake-up call: City Mayor Felipe Antonio Remollo was stricken with COVID, and was now in isolation. Later reports would indicate that he was going through a “cytokine storm,” an immune response exhibited by many COVID patients where the body starts to attack its own cells. It is often a fatal precursor.

That same day, Dumaguete learned that many members of the City Council were also stricken by the virus. And while President Rodrigo Duterte was in town to lead the Regional Peace and Order Council meeting at the Silliman University Gymnasium, the city began to fear for the health of its city leaders.

A few days later, in the morning of May 30, three days after a lunar eclipse that was also a blood moon, Vice Mayor Alan Gel Cordova collapsed on the way home to Dumaguete after joining a bike marathon in Tanjay — and died of cardiac arrest. He had just recovered from a bout of COVID a week earlier, and should have been convalescing. The city mourned. The city became rattled with what seemed like a crisis of leadership, delivered unexpectedly by a viral scourge.

By May 31, 313 new cases, 1,228 total. The public calls for tighter protocols grew more intense — but Duterte determined that Negros Oriental would remain under the most relaxed modified general community quarantine [MGCQ] from June 1 to 30.

By June 2, 138 new cases, 1,315 total.

By June 4, 429 new cases, 1,572 total. Meanwhile, a total of a 17,891 people in the province had gotten their first dose of the vaccine. Also on the same day, the Department of Health announced it was importing nurses from Cebu to help out the local hospitals with the surge. From his sick bed, Mayor Remollo made an “urgent and direct appeal” to the national government to give more vaccines to the city. Within 24 hours, Dumaguete would receive 10,000 vials of Sinovac straight from the national government. The LGU estimated that 108,624 city residents out of a total population of 137,214 needed to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity.

By June 8, 452 new cases, 1,714 total — a day after OCTA released their list of cities with the highest surges in the country. The PIATF recommended placing certain barangays in Dumaguete with high numbers of COVID-19 infections under granular lockdown — Piapi with 22, Bagacay and Daro with 16, Bajumpandan with 14, and Lo-oc with 12. No one knew exactly what that meant.

By June 9, 232 new cases, 1,808 total.

By June 11, 435 new cases, 1,837 total. By the next day, on Independence Day, the Dumaguete City Council requested Governor Roel Degamo to put in place a tightening of the quarantine status of the city, with the approval of the Regional IATF — perhaps a GCQ, or MECQ, or ECQ. The request was tricky to negotiate: Dumaguete being a component city, a change in its quarantine status would also include the entire Negros Oriental. Unlike independent cities like Cebu City or Bacolod City, Dumaguete could not have a quarantine status different from all the other places in the province. LGUs like Dumaguete could not change the quarantine status of their areas on their own.

By then, Cebu Province was again requiring travelers from Negros Oriental to secure a negative RT-PCR or antigen test result before entry. Negros Occidental was also prohibiting non-essential travel to its sister Negrense province.

“We cannot afford a total lockdown,” Gov. Degamo declared on June 14. He said that a total lockdown in the whole province was unsustainable and unaffordable — unless the national government stepped in to help. He saw granular lockdowns as the “best solution to balance both the containment of the coronavirus and preserving the local economy.”

But later that night, Duterte placed Negros Oriental under MECQ until June 30.

This was how we got here.

* * *

But how exactly?

A cursory look at many comments on the Yes The Best Facebook page gives us a picture of a community grappling with the varied realities of the pandemic, and could be instrumental in explaining the surge. One type of comment is that of the dismissive variety — that COVID-19 is not real, that people are being overly dramatic. “Just a little bit of coughing, COVID-19 na dayon,” is a typical post. A surprising number of these posts are from expats living in the province. “Exasperating expats,” some people began calling them — and you do see many of these expats in their usual haunts around the city flaunting pandemic protocols. Still, many of the establishments that cater to them have expressed a hesitance to remind them of health protocols. “They are our regular customers man gud,” one cashier in a popular restaurant told me.

Another type of comment is that of the conspiratorial variety — that doctors and hospitals and the LGU were in this scheme to make money. One vicious rumor spread that city leaders were withholding the vaccine to make profit. One Dan Adlawz posted on Facebook: “Malaki [naman] ang kikitain ang mga LGU dito. Curfew violators, pera na. Face shield violators, pera na. Facemask violators, pera na. Swab test, bayad sa laboratory, pera na. Mogawas ka sa balay, dakpan ka, pera. It’s about COVID-19 business.” [Quote edited for clarity.]

These two have been among the dominant mindsets in Dumaguete.

Around the city, you do see many people — a lot of them young — going about without masks, without social distancing. On social media, you do see pictures of people having weddings, having parties, having dinners in intimate places. A friend told me that they had a party in a private residence for friends she did Zumba with. Soon after, more than half of them developed COVID-19 — with several needing hospitalization. Another friend confided to me, after her father died from COVID-19 while her mother was also in critical care at a local hospital — that no one in her family knew where her parents contracted the virus given that they mostly stayed at home.

On June 3, when Antonio Ramas Uypitching Sr., the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in the province died from COVID-19, the city again mourned — but also asked the inevitable question: “If those with means could suffer, how much more those of us without means?”

Meanwhile, there are valid complaints of the vaccination rollout being slow. But from the LGU, we learn that it’s the whole province, not just Dumaguete, bearing the burden of the process: “We are waiting for vaccines, and the process is national government-province-city/town. We have tried to procure vaccines on our own, but we’ve been told to wait for allocation from the national government. And we cannot compare ourselves to Siquijor, for example. They get the same number of vaccines, but they have less population per category. Thankfully, Mayor Ipe appealed to the National IATF and was given 10,000 vials just for Dumaguete. That is the only reason we are vaccinating again.”

From the City Health Office, we also learn that the number of vaccinated residents since June 10 — from the 10,000 vials Mayor Remollo obtained — is more than that compared to the more than two months of vaccination using vaccines allocated by the IPHO.

And as of June 16, Dumaguete has begun vaccinating people under the A3 priority group. The LGU promises that it will continue the current pace of vaccination until the supplies are depleted, with Mayor Remollo pledging to find other ways to get more vaccines directly to Dumaguete. Walk-ins to vaccination centers, however, are still not allowed to ensure orderly vaccination and avoid overcrowding.

On June 15, a day after the province was placed under MECQ and a day before its implementation, someone posted a photo of people panic buying at Lee Plaza Hypermart. By then recuperated from his brush with COVID-19, Mayor Remollo implored: “There is no need for panic buying. The public market, supermarkets, grocery stores, and pharmacies will remain open under MECQ. Our health marshals will strictly enforce basic protocols of wearing facemasks and face shields, and physical distancing.”

But how do you keep people from doing what they want to do, at the risk of a further surge?

* * *

So this is where we are, on June 16, the first day of Dumaguete in MECQ.

It is 8 AM at the Tabo sa P.A.O. along E.J. Blanco Drive. If it weren’t for the pandemic, the bustle of the satellite market will have been considered completely ordinary. But the city is already at the cutting edge of pandemic tension, and yet — upon immediate observation of the marketplace — there are still many shoppers, and many vendors, not following health protocols: many are not wearing masks, or if they have put on masks, are wearing them improperly.

And then one woman at the tabo suddenly loses it, according to lawyer Golda Benjamin.

The woman is in her mid-40s, with the looks of a middle-class tita, one who could wear the most ordinary blouse and still come off sosyal, the type who’d buy basil and thyme at the tabo. She is wearing leggings and a shirt, complete with a face shield and mask for her ensemble. She is alone.

She begins raising her voice in protest: “Ngano man gyud mo dili magtarong sul-ob sa mask? Abi ninyo dili mo madutlan og COVID? Daghan na kaayong namatay. Mga dato gani wala kasagang. Magtabanganay ta. Hasta na inyong face shield, nganong naa sa inyong mga ulo. Gamita ninyo!

It is an unexpected demonstration of exasperation completely untypical in the City of Gentle People. But others around her soon join in expressing a mix of frustration and anger: “It has been more than a year since our last strict lockdown in the city. And yet, here we still are!”

Tinood!” others chime in. “Nag-antos na ta tanan. Balik na pud lockdown. Atong mga doctor, dili na makapauli sa ilang mga anak. Wala’y trabaho na pud ang mga isira na tindahan.”

It precedes a “slow mo” moment at the tabo.

The buluyagons do not say anything. Some go on to straighten their masks and their face shields. Some lower their heads. Some vendors go about accommodating customers, putting vegetables in plastic bags.

The woman then walks away, but not without parting words: “Maluoy mo sa inyong kaugalingon ug ma-COVID mo.”

Upon her wake, no one seems surprised at the outburst. No one goes, “Hala, na-unsa ‘to siya? Ngano siyang nag-wild?”

There is silence instead.

One can hope that this silence at this Dumaguete tabo is some sort of an affirmation: “Hala sa, sakto baya siya.”

[Photo by Raffy Cabristante]

Interpreter of hamsters. Author of Beautiful Accidents: Stories and Heartbreak & Magic: Stories of Fantasy and Horror