LGUs in the Philippines

Benjamin Magalong: Mayor and czar who can’t feel safe

Pia Ranada
Benjamin Magalong: Mayor and czar who can’t feel safe
Faces of 2020: In the year of the pandemic, government frontliners like Baguio City Mayor Magalong juggle virus fears and the need to act and protect citizens.

This story is part of Faces of 2020, a series of profiles about people whose stories of loss and survival embody the year 2020.

Benjamin Magalong just had his 24th swab test.

No matter how often he does it, it still hurts. And though he has not tested positive yet, the paranoia always comes. It walks with him to his 91-year-old mother’s house. It sits with him as he plays with his 4-year-old grandchild, telling him not to hug, not to kiss, not to carry.

Paranoia is the acquaintance he had to make in 2020. Now, you might even call him a friend. Because paranoia keeps his family safe, especially with his job as both the country’s contact tracing czar and Baguio City’s mayor. 

“Every time na-expose ako, kinakabahan din ako puntahan ‘yung grandkids ko… Wala kang peace of mind eh, lagi kang nag-iisip. Bawat galaw mo, nag-iingat ka. Hindi normal,” Magalong said in a virtual interview from inside his car, traveling from one province to another.

(Every time I get exposed, I get nervous visiting my grandkids… You lose peace of mind, you’re always thinking about what you do, you’re always being careful. It’s not normal.)

Magalong’s 2020 was one of stress-inducing numbers. Holding the unique position of a national official and local chief meant he worried about the coronavirus cases of his city but also had to ramp up the contact-tracing statistics of all other cities and provinces. 

More work to do

“Still not enough,” he said about the country’s ratio of confirmed case to number of close contacts reached by tracers. His city still has the highest figure, 1:18. Most cities hover around 1:5 or 1:10. His ideal at the beginning of the pandemic was 1:37.

Like other national task force officials, Magalong has hardly stayed in one place this 2020, an experience far removed from the majority who’ve been stuck at home. From the heights of the Cordilleras, he’s flown to the white sand beaches of Boracay, trying to ramp up the ability of locals to find COVID-19 cases, calling whoever they were exposed to, and isolating them.

Unlike testing and treating patients, contact tracing is a part of the pandemic response that draws little fanfare. There are no mass testing operations or attention-grabbing isolation megatents. It requires only cold calls and meticulous record-keeping. Much like Magalong’s old job of police investigator. 

In fact, it was Magalong’s application of police questioning techniques to Baguio’s contact tracing that convinced President Rodrigo Duterte he was the man to helm the effort nationwide.

While he’s a longtime government worker, Magalong sees himself as a newbie to politics. The pandemic brought greater challenges to his role as an elected official.

“During this crisis, you have to make unpopular decisions, for the city and its residents. You know you have to be very decisive about it. You may have to sacrifice your political ambitions,” he said.

Time, a limited resource

Playing such a crucial role in curbing the pandemic has taken a toll on his personal life.  

Nakalimutan mo na asikasuhin ‘yung wife mo, ‘yung kids mo. Kumakain ka, may tumatawag. You have to be 24/7 because anything can happen,” he says.

(You forget to attend to your wife, your kids. You’re eating, someone’s calling. You have to be 24/7 because anything can happen.)

Magalong spent most of his year answering any of his 3 cellular phones, resolving requests, complaints, problems like an endless game of Whac-A-Mole.

When he’s able to take a breather, he takes out his mountain bike or goes boxing. His favorite stress reliever would usually be playing with his grandchildren, but paranoia has robbed him of the purity of that experience.

Like everyone else, he wants the pandemic to end. He’s keen for his job as contact tracing czar to not be necessary so he can focus on his city. There are so many other problems to solve – like the City of Pines’ garbage problem, traffic, the virus-hit economy.

For Magalong, the pandemic “upended” governance. But pandemic or not, governing is a task that never ends. – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.