By Kyle Helke
In January of 2020 I took a job in Manila, Philippines, where I now live as an expat with my family. Originally we were supposed to relocate in July of last year, but when the so-called pandemic began the Philippines initiated a hard lockdown and closed its borders in March, which have remained so to foreigners ever since, save those with special permission. It took my employer four months of lobbying the immigration bureau before we were granted a special visa and allowed into the country in October.
We spent most of last year in flux between jobs and moving house again and again, a five month state of limbo waiting for my visa to come through. Having lived in both New York and Italy during this time, I thought I had seen it all when it came to lockdown absurdity, but the Philippines are on a whole different level. Upon arrival, you are subjected to a PCR test and then sent to a hotel to quarantine (both at your expense). When we arrived, you were able to leave the hotel and go home to do your mandatory two-week quarantine after receiving your negative test result, but now they don’t even let you do that anymore; you have to remain at the hotel for the two-week duration. We were lucky to be able to move into our employer-provided housing during this time period, but getting food and taking care of other tasks was very difficult. I hate to think of how the less fortunate here manage in the same situation.
Regulations are stricter in Manila because it is the most populated region in the country. Face masks and face shields are mandatory when leaving your home, and you are subjected to temperature checks pretty much everywhere. There has been some push for people to use contact tracing apps, but because there are a plethora of them and the contact tracing system is not really standardised, it’s just really a formality. Most of the time when you enter a restaurant you can opt out of scanning the QR code or using the tracing app and just fill out your information on a sheet of paper. The culture here is one of compliance and rule-following, so no one really cares about the contact tracing stuff as long as they are seen to be following the rules. But, like many developing countries, the rules change frequently and without notice, so because of that everyday is a surprise. In November, we were allowed to bring our toddler to the grocery store; in December, that privilege was rescinded without public notice. One day there are one-way schemes on sidewalks with security admonishing violators by waving a compliance sign in their faces, the next week it could be like none of it ever happened.
The most grievous offence in this country, in my opinion, is the war the Philippine government has waged on children. Mask and face shield mandates are applicable for children two years and up. Children under 15 are technically not allowed to even leave the house, but this is such a young society that a blind eye is often turned on this regulation. For the longest time children under 18 were not allowed out, but I think in recent months the government is realising how unfeasible it is to keep working-age children at home, and they have reduced the age restriction to 15. However, children are still barred from restaurants, malls, and similar commercial establishments. Naturally, this also means children are not allowed in school, as it has been the case since March when the lockdown began. All learning is either done online, or, for public schools, through textbooks and workbook exercises that the schools drop off and pick up monthly at each family’s home. Every now and then there are a few articles in the news about getting kids back in schools, but I think this is just to placate the public; most people think this situation will go on until the end of the school year, and even into the next. All of this, of course, because the Government here – with the support of the Philippine Pediatric Society – is convinced that children are asymptomatic ‘superspreaders’ and therefore a grave threat to public health, which they base on numerous ‘scientific studies’. At this point, this country is one of the few in the world where children are not in some type of in-person school. How the Government here can know this and not be consumed by embarrassment and shame is beyond me.
I’d like to be optimistic about the situation here, but it’s not easy. Every month the Government meets to discuss easing lockdown measures for the upcoming month, which the media touts like a carrot on a string in front of a mule, only to delay any relaxing of regulations: “We’ll see next month. If there is no rise in cases…” Since January the conversation has started to shift, focusing on the deteriorating economic situation and the increasing number of those going hungry, but the new ‘variant’ has put more petrol in the Government’s tank and now the discussion for March has echoes of last year – we just need two weeks to see how the situation with the new variant will develop! Of course, there is talk about that holy saviour, the vaccine, but that’s not on the horizon until at least the summer. The Government took three months to decide which vaccine to purchase, and now, even though it’s ordered millions of doses, they still haven’t arrived, and the Government can’t figure out why there is a delay – or who to blame. The whole situation is an absolute fiasco, and because ‘normality’ is contingent on that vaccine, I can’t see it happening in this country for at least two years.
I keep thinking that in this country, where there are millions and millions who are so destitute and poor (and that have been made doubly or triply so by the draconian and maniacal lockdown), something has to give at some point, but I just don’t see it happening anytime soon. The most bizarre thing, as any sceptic already knows, is the degree to which people acquiesce to this nonsense. Stockholm syndrome is strong here. Speaking to people – locals and expats alike – it is clear that the corporate media has done its job well and most people are absolutely terrified of getting sick. I envy everyone back in the West; from what I can see at least there is some type of debate going on and some people are starting to realise that this is just not as bad as it has been made out to be. But that is all absent here in the Philippines. No discussion, no critical thinking, just blind compliance out of fear. I don’t think that there will be another ‘hard lockdown’ like in March, with quarantine passes and roving military trucks scooping up those who weren’t supposed to be out, as described to me by my colleagues who endured it. But waking up everyday to the same insanity with no end in sight is enough to make this sceptic sick. Nonetheless, I try to make the most out of everyday, do what I can to give my kid a normal childhood, and hold out hope that something will give – eventually.