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Notes From a Vanishing World

JOHN PATRICK ALLANEGUI shares his side of the COVID-19 lockdown story by recalling what Metro Manila was like just before the virus changed it completely. (With images from the writer himself.)

One morning in January, commuters crossing Taft Avenue reverted to their usual attire as they made their way to school and work. Students from the university belt, sporting sling bags, and backpacks, donned the casual combination of graphic tees and destructed jeans. Workers wore nondescript chinos, skirts, and classic button-down shirts as they hailed a metered taxi or lined up at the platform of Vito Cruz Station. 

The return to this style somehow betrayed the dread that had just shrouded the city. After all, Mt. Taal was on the verge of a catastrophic eruption, spewing fragments of rock, mineral, and glass that swirled into Luzon’s atmosphere. On the day of the ash fall, drugstore shelves were emptied by a mob. The volcanic activity persisted from afar as people in Metro Manila hoarded surgical and N95 masks, wearing them like an essential piece, and marched along the city’s ash-draped streets.

A few days later, the dust started to settle. By then, ordinary folks, including myself, had mastered the art of wearing masks and began throwing them in the trash bin. Perhaps nobody during that time along Taft Avenue ever thought that those masks would come in handy again shortly, only in a predicament of greater proportions.

Like any other omen, the news on the novel coronavirus wafted the air and reached people’s ears, like a whisper that many of them ignored. I’ve heard about the virus before Mt. Taal ejected its first plume of ash, from a friend assigned in one of our foreign posts in China. He said his mother was worried because she had read an article about people getting infected by a virus that causes a form of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The term SARS was enough to fluster me inside as it brought back vague memories of the 2002–2004 SARS outbreak, a time when I was a clueless teenager who came home to a television report of people dropping dead from a killer infection. Nevermind Korina Sanchez and Noli de Castro on screen. 

I began searching news about Disease X, which would later be named COVID-19, before going to bed. Search engines returned to me a flurry of results that seemed nothing too concerning at first: It’s just like the ordinary flu; the World Health Organization finds no evidence of human-to-human transmission; do not believe the media hype. In my mind, the virus would just be a mere nuisance in a city like Manila where one disaster simply stumbles into the next one.

At the ticket booth of LRT Vito Cruz Station, an alcohol bottle was oddly filled. Strange, I thought. I’ve never seen those Green Cross or Biogenic bottles ever being refilled. I received my ticket and pressed down on the pump bottle, sanitizing my hands from the metallic smell of loose change. 

The train opened its doors, revealing to me a fairly empty coach of commuters dazed in the early hours. Some were wearing surgical masks. I stepped in and browsed my phone as the train sped through its tracks, the sound of the engine’s hum blending with people’s chatter. An occasional cough here and there. My phone buzzed with a notification from a news app, delivering to me the day’s top stories. In the long tally of headlines I skimmed through, two words caught my attention: Wuhan. Lockdown.

Nakita niyo ba ang balita? May lockdown sa China [Did you see the news? There’s a lockdown on China,]” was the conversation starter of people at the office. In the coming weeks, I found myself glued to news outlets following the hot trail of Chinese tourists around Metro Manila suspected to have the virus. Exchanges over lunch centered on the spread of the pathogen as we watched interviews of Department of Health (DOH) officials, telling the public to practice the holy trinity of preventing infections: wash your hands, do not touch your face, and observe social distancing. 

Rumors of a lockdown have been aplenty even before the first COVID-19 case in the country: a Chinese woman—not a Filipino—contracted the virus in the last two days of January. The following day, the folks along Taft Avenue wore masks again, the news of the confirmed case quaking the city’s ground more than what Mt. Taal had done with its swarm of volcanic earthquakes.

F ebruary was the month of froth. In my mind, the shortest month became even shorter as I spent its days vigorously washing my hands with running water and soap, lathering between my fingers, under my nails, and rubbing my wrists for 20 seconds. I disinfected my devices with alcohol and wiped off the surface of my tables and countertops at home.

Not long after my affair with soap, the guards started firing thermal guns at our foreheads. The security personnel at our building took a while to get the device running properly. But on the 4th or 5th attempt, I was welcomed by a beep from the gun, displaying my normal temperature. 

One day, I received a call from my mother who spoke in a hushed yet stern voice. “Makinig ka nang mabuti [listen carefully,]” she said on the other line. There was an inexplicable dread in her voice. She said she saw a Facebook video of an American soldier posted in China saying that the virus is a biochemical weapon designed to kill us all and that Beijing had already fallen. A skeptic, I retrieved links from more reliable sources debunking a web of conspiracy theories and sent them back to her. Beijing was more hollowed than usual but it certainly did not fall in a way it did in the Chinese film, “The Wandering Earth.”

One night in early March, my phone lit up and received a screenshot of an announcement issued by a Taguig-based company. “We confirm that a colleague in our Deloitte Philippines office has tested positive for COVID-19,” it said in a statement. By then, the number of confirmed cases in the country had already jumped to six. And then it hit me: the threat of a deadly pathogen no longer felt like a faraway explosion from an unknowable source; its aftershocks felt so close, I thought that the tremors had already reached my door.

At the grocery stores, the alcohol bottles were the first ones to go. I found myself in the middle of a growing crowd at a grocery along Taft Avenue, with people stuffing alcohol bottles, disinfectants, and canned goods into their carts. Lines leading to the cashier were long as murmurs about an impending lockdown swirled around. I feigned off the look of a frantic buyer by filling my basket with small amounts of rice, canned tuna, tissue paper, and a bottle of isopropyl alcohol just in case. The cashier lady gave me a weird look, to which I offered an awkward smile.

T he television screen flashed a number: six. The following day, it became ten. News reports featured images of a desolate Greenhills, with its closed shops at Vira Mall, in San Juan City, later becoming the country’s first epicenter of the virus. DOH officials stressed the difference between local and sustained transmission. Elsewhere, footages of overcrowded grocery stores became a common sight, showing people lining up to prepare for an impending doomsday. 

When the television screen flashed number 20, schools were suspended. Malls operated on limited, modified hours. Flights, canceled. Restaurants along Taft Avenue posted announcements on their doors: for delivery and take-out only. The whispers inside the shuttle ride home repeated the afterthought that lingered in our hallways: what will life be once we are on a lockdown? 

One weekend, I went out to complete a 15-kilometer run to the outskirts of ASEANA City and saw how Metro Manila’s landscape called for little change with its parade of honking cars occupying Macapagal Road and military personnel manning checkpoints at a few junctures of Roxas Boulevard. Night had fallen over the city. I did a quick sprint next to Manila Bay, running across the Mall of Asia Complex before catching my second wind. I jogged the last kilometer, and upon arriving at an intersection near Buendia, I stopped to catch my breath. I took out my phone, the screen on my palm displaying the number: 111.

W hen I woke up on the 15th day of March, the city revealed a timely picture of the dry season: the sun shone, wispy strands of clouds hovered above, the salty breath of the nearby bay lingered, the sound of hammers pounding at the next building persisted long into the humid afternoon. Looking from my window, I never found any indicator that Metro Manila was in a state of crisis, declared by the government in response to the virus: a month-long community quarantine.

The seemingly normal view I afforded was different from the news reports that showed a sea of motorists choking at military checkpoints, people swarming wet markets in Quezon City, and hospitals fighting for personal protective equipment. The fact that the critically ill were put on ventilators made this comparison so ironic because the world elsewhere was indeed gasping for air. Yet, there it was, Makati’s skyline proving that a world still stood, not just in a way that I imagined it to be.

So strange how time moves in a pandemic, especially when you have the unsettling privilege to stay put and watch the seconds waste away from a wall clock. The calendar on my wall was left unturned as March unknowingly slipped into April. I forgot how to name the days as time took on a fluid and shapeless quality. Living alone, I lost the ability to mark the hours and gave myself an illusion of mobility, altering moments so that they don’t fuse together. Some days, I let the barangay siren, which sounds off every now and then, punctuate my time.

Taft Avenue does not feel the same without the spectacle of slow-moving cars below the train tracks. One morning, I walked out of the building with the intention of catching some sun after visiting vegetable and fruit vendors occupying the sidewalks of Pablo Ocampo Street. I did the usual to maintain the routine: broccoli, sprouts, and spinach.

Sometimes, the nights are hardest when the uncertainty looms. Before bedtime, I’d feel a gnawing discomfort that illustrated the disparity between real life and the terrifying news; it felt like leading a double life, giving me a glimpse of the things that are happening in China, in the United States, and the worse things that have yet to come to our shores.

O ne night, I woke up with a dull pain in my stomach. I had been ignoring it for the past three days but something about it that evening made me curl up with my chin tucked to my chest. In my head, I ran the possibilities. With no flu-like symptoms, I could risk getting the virus at a nearby hospital only to be prescribed with anti-gas medication. I could just stay in bed and wait until the pain disappears. My gut churned. I got up, put on my slippers, and with my right hand on my belly, I dragged my feet to the Adventist Medical Hospital along Donada Street.

The street lamps leading to the hospital flickered. Beyond the gate was a triage area, where three groups of people, all wearing masks, were waiting. Two medical workers, wearing surgical gowns, face masks, face shields, gloves, and protective goggles, explained to a middle-aged man that his x-ray and blood chemistry results showed bacterial pneumonia, and prescribed him with a week’s worth of antibiotics. Another man on a stretcher called the nurse, telling him that his head was hurting. In between the conversations, an attending physician told a coughing woman that there was no COVID-19 testing available at the facility.

The nurse motioned me to sit next to him and took my vitals, asking me the standard questions: Have you had any recent travel history? Have you had any fever? Have you been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient? No, I answered to all. I told him about my persistent dull abdominal pain. The internist then saw me and put me on a gurney outside the emergency room.

Ayoko na ikaw pumasok doon. Baka mahawa ka pa, [I don’t want you to go inside. You might end up getting infected.”] she said.

With a new set of gloves, she motioned her left hand across my lower abdomen. “Masakit [Does it hurt?]” she asked. I nodded and gave a burp. “Sounds like you have a lot of gas right now,” she said. She went back to the room and returned with a prescription of omeprazole and antacids. “Take this for a month. Drink plenty of fluids. You look constipated din,” she added.

A few minutes later, an ambulance sped through the driveway and unloaded a senior woman lying on a black stretcher, the medics rushing her through the emergency room doors. The doctor gave me one last word: Stay at home; you’re fine. I offered my thanks, paid my dues, and showed myself out.

T he road back home was darker than usual. The dogs from the surrounding residences barked at my movement. It felt different how this part of Manila was somewhat subdued and guarded amidst an ongoing global crisis. Near the intersection of Menlo and Donada Streets, a barangay tanod wearing a sleeveless shirt, shorts, cap, and a makeshift face mask, approached me.

Saan po sila, sir [Where are you headed, sir?]”

I said that I was on my way home from the hospital, showing him the doctor’s prescription. He nodded and returned to his companion who was seated on a monoblock chair, finishing his cigarette. I went on and briefly wondered what those two were talking about in the middle of a dark street, close to midnight. Would their tales be different from mine now that we live in some shared dystopian story? I don’t know.

Walking home felt like going through a time loop, in which the world has moved at half speed, while everyone in the city tread slowly with their new lives, hearing urgent health advisories, sharing thoughts on anxiety and isolation, about wearing masks, about staying indoors, about how this is new to us all, while we’re grieving in some way and living in a time when one particular day is simply a repetition of another.

Upon entering Vito Cruz Street, I came across a Korean restaurant that used to be open during odd hours. Now, its barricaded doors, closed windows, and busted neon lights depicted an uncertainty that an entire world was harboring along with its immense weight. I walked past the establishment, mulling over the chance of gathering around a grill table with familiar faces with no masks, flipping a charred piece of samgyeopsal over an iron griddle with hot burning coals underneath.

Somewhere from a distance, a siren wailed into the night.

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