It didn’t really set in, even right around March, when the national government started mobilizing its excruciatingly slow vaccination program and announced several categories of prioritization, with the first to get the jab being those in the A1 category — the frontline health workers.
We were magnanimous in our agreement, there was righteousness in our conviction that these people were very deserving in being prioritized.
“These people are our heroes in this pandemic,” we said. “They need the added protection of vaccination in the still ongoing fight against the coronavirus. They are in the forefront of that battle.”
And so when we began to see our doctor friends and our nurse friends start posting their “bakuna selfies” on Facebook and Instagram. We sighed with some indiscernible longing still without a name, but applauded anyway. We knew there was a battle not just against a virus, but also against massive misinformation — we’d hear of too many people casting doubts on the efficacy of vaccines that they felt were “too rushed” in their production and were adamant about sitting out this campaign for achieving herd immunity — and so we felt that these photos of health workers grinning under their face masks and showing off biceps with the telltale mark of band-aids could be helpful ammunition in convincing the doubtful and the undecided that when their turn should come, they must opt for vaccination.
We knew what we needed ultimately: peace of mind.
When the A2 category — senior citizens aged 60 years old and above — came in the next round of prioritization, we heaved sighs of relief. We began to think of beloved family — our elderly mothers and fathers, our grandmothers and grandfathers, and the rest of our kin of that specific age range — and we thought it was indeed time for them to be properly protected, or at least given the necessary shield to counteract the deadliest outcomes of the disease.
“The vaccine is not a cure,” we began to say. “You can still get the coronavirus even when fully vaccinated. The vaccine only helps in preventing you from suffering from the most adverse symptoms of the coronavirus, and most of all, from dying from the disease.”
This was our pitch to our elderly — and to most of the rest as well, given that we now existed in a precarious time when anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists had gained some unfortunate ground in convincing many to be very afraid of this medical remedy from disease.
I told a friend, when COVID-19 was surging in deadly earnestness in Dumaguete in late May and into June: “It’s the peace of mind I want with the vaccine. It’s so difficult to get out into the world knowing that anytime and anywhere you could get infected — and in turn, infect everyone you come in contact with.”
What I wanted was peace of mind.
That sentiment came dressed in constant dread: that I could be an asymptomatic carrier of the virus, and unknowingly infect someone I love with it — and who in turn could somehow become one of those fatal statistics we’d hear only as numbers without names.
This was why — when I could help it — I forbade myself from getting in close contact with people close to me. In the past year and a half of the pandemic, I barely saw my mother in her house somewhere in Bantayan. She was 86 years old, still quite active and lucid for her years — but her age was a vulnerability the acuteness of which had only sharpened in our pandemic times.
After the pandemic began in February, she would frequently text me: “’Ga, I miss you.” Or: “’Ga, I love you.” Or: “’Ga, gaunsa man ka? Ako ra usa sige sa balay.” It did not take enough to read between the lines: the pandemic had made us isolated from each other, especially from our loved ones, but the only proper way to deal with it was still separation.
For six months, I did not see her. Once, during a morning walk sometime in August last year — and sometime after we both celebrated our shared birthday — I could not help but follow my feet to her driveway and to her front door: in her bedroom where she was already awake doing her morning prayers and devotion, I hugged her like I had never hugged her before. All my precautions melted away in that instant.
But there was also this: after that reunion, I felt enormously guilty. What if, by visiting her, I invited unknowingly the coronavirus in her midst? It was a terrible thought that gnawed at me — and I waited with bated breath the next few days for messages I did not wish to come. (Gladly, no such messages came.)
I’d see her again on Christmas on the most forlorn noche buena ever. I’d see her again on the second day of January. Once on February. And then much later, sometime in March. And with the end of every visit, again the gnawing guilt would come. For the longest time, I wished she could at least get vaccinated. For her sake, and for my peace of mind.
And so when the A2 category’s turn came in the prioritization call, I asked my brother Dennis to fill in her registration for vaccination from the Dumaguete City Health Office — and we waited. And waited. And waited. Day after day after day, I’d see pictorial posts of senior citizens I knew who were getting their first doses, and then, after two weeks, their second.
Still, there was no call for my elderly mother.
Friends began to worry with me.
But what else was there to do except wait?
I already knew about the precarious supply of vaccines allotted each local government unit. (“How come they are already doing A4s in Siquijor?” The answer: All LGUs are allocated the same number of vaccine doses, and it is easier for smaller communities to race through the vaccination program compared to bigger LGUs, like Dumaguete.) I already knew about the procedural bottleneck the local city health office was facing. (“How come it took me hours to wait in line for my vaccination?” The answer: Protocols take time to settle in like clockwork — and our health workers are overstretched.) And I could not blame people enmeshed in a national system that was flawed in the first place. Yet my own understanding of all these felt too intellectual, too theoretical — and my own emotive concern for my mother felt more immediate, more impatient.
And then, on June 14, my brother messaged me: “Mama is in Pulantubig getting her first dose.”
“Send me pics!” I immediately texted back.
He soon sent a flood of pictures of my grey-haired mother, in face shield and face mask, wearing a teal ensemble that meshed well with the teal color of her monobloc chair. I saw her getting attended to by a health worker, injection in hand. It was the perfect picture for rejoicing, for relief.
Peace of mind.
And then things began to change quickly when the A3 category — persons with comorbidities not otherwise included in the preceding categories — was announced. Suddenly we were seeing Facebook posts of people we knew (high school classmates, former lovers, office mates), some even younger than us, getting their “bakuna selfies” — and the same persistent question hang over our heads like a taunt: “What comorbidity does this person even have?” Comorbidities meant having heart disease, kidney disease, bronchial asthma, immunodeficiency, cancer, diabetes mellitus, and hypertension — and then we began hearing stories of people getting doctors they knew to issue them bogus medical certificates to claim one thing or other in the name of getting into that A3 list.
That was when “vaccine envy” set in for real — when we began to realize the system could be gamed, and here we were, still waiting for our call to come, our patience running thin, our anxiety running high.
No peace of mind.
On June 28, in the midst of a pandemic twist that saw the coronavirus spewing off deadly variants — Alpha [first detected in the United Kingdom], Beta [first detected in South Africa], Gamma [first detected in the United States but initially identified in travelers from Brazil], and what seemed worst of all: Delta [first detected in India] — the World Health Organization, via its Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, took to task the richer counties of the world who were hoarding vaccines and who were now slowly opening up their societies and even vaccinating young people who were not at great risk from COVID-19 — while the poorest countries still lacked doses they needed to stem their ravaged health systems. Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian, called the neglect a global failure: “Our world is failing. As the global community we are failing,” he told a news conference. “I mean that attitude has to be a thing of the past. The problem now is a supply problem. Just give us the vaccines.”
Ghebreyesus continued: “The difference is between the haves and the have nots, which is now completely exposing the unfairness of our world — the injustice, the inequality, let’s face it.”
This is “vaccine envy” at play at the highest levels.
On the ground, it looks like this:
You seeing photos of friends in New York watching A Quiet Place Part II in a movie theater.
Friends in Los Angeles having their first brunch with other friends in a restaurant.
Friends in Washington, D.C. visiting the houses of their friends, reconnecting old bonds laggard from disuse.
Friends in Toronto attending an actual graduation.
People in Wimbledon watching professional tennis without face masks on.
Friends visiting museums in Chicago.
Friends attending the Cannes Film Festival.
Live late night talk shows on TV with full audiences.
The photos go on and on, a whole litany of unfairness.
There were no “likes” or “loves” for these Facebook posts from me — and I realized I was seething from a jealousy that felt rabid. I found myself catching my breath, steeling myself from feeling too much, and assuaging myself with a promise that felt suddenly hollow: “Patience,” I’d tell myself. “Your turn will come.”
But it felt severely unfair that there were parts of the world already enjoying life like it was back in the old normal — while the rest of it, of us, still tiptoe about in caution and social distancing, still grieve of new deaths, still wait for some reprieve to come.
We waited, and we waited, and we waited.
Friends sometimes would message me: “Have you gotten your call from the City Health Office yet?”
“No, not yet,” I’d reply.
“Check your phone constantly.”
We waited, and we waited, and we waited.
No peace of mind just yet.
Then on a Friday afternoon, July 2, while I was settling into my office chair and readying to tackle work after a hearty lunch of Jo’s Chicken Inato, an unlisted number suddenly rang on my cellphone. When I answered hello, a voice boomed back at me: “Is this Sir Ian Casocot?”
“This is the Dumaguete City Health Office.”
To be continued…