[OPINION] What do the Titanic and the coronavirus pandemic have in common?

Khristine Jane Ejercito, James Leocadio
[OPINION] What do the Titanic and the coronavirus pandemic have in common?
'We were experiencing a tragedy similar to that of the passengers of the iconic ocean liner – the tragedy that our fate was determined by the social class we belonged to'

Bingeing on films and TV shows is one of our guilty pleasures during the quarantine.  Titanic (1997) is one of these films, as it is available on streaming site Netflix. It has, through time, remained afloat in the popular psyche as one of the most iconic tales of tragedy and love.

While watching the RMS Titanic sink in the film’s climax, we couldn’t help but notice that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic currently beleaguering the country, we were experiencing a tragedy similar to that of the passengers of the iconic ocean liner – the tragedy that our fate was determined by the social class we belonged to.

In this struggle, we are in the same boat but not on the same part of the ship.

The RMS Titanic was a microcosm of society. It was designed to accommodate passengers based on their social class. First class passengers were the wealthiest: politicians, businessmen, and members of the upper class, who could afford tickets worth €30 (approximately €3,300 today). The second class passengers were mostly made up of tourists, academics, the clergy, and middle class families who could spare €13 for tickets (approximately €1,500 today). Finally, third class passengers were mainly low-income families and refugees seeking a better life in America.  One adult third class ticket that time cost €7 (approximately €800 today).

Each passenger class was housed in specific portions of the Titanic, and each experienced different levels of comfort depending on their social standing and purchasing power. For instance, there were spaces on the ship exclusive to first class passengers, or a mix of first class and second class passengers. This setup, we can observe, bears a resemblance to the current goings-on in the Philippines under COVID-19.

Titanic’s first class passengers had suites with private baths and wardrobe rooms. They also had access to an exclusive reading and writing room, a grand dining saloon with live orchestra, a gym, a Turkish bath, and a swimming pool. First class accommodations were intentionally located mid-ship, where the rocking was less felt, thus preventing seasickness. It was also the closest section to the boat deck where lifeboats were situated.

Meanwhile, second class passengers slept in cabins two to 4 berths, which did not have private bathrooms but had a wash basin and a chamber pot. They also had access to spacious areas like an outdoor promenade, a smoking room, and a library. 

Third class accommodations were basic – cabins had up to 10 people on bunk beds and were located at the noisy, bottom part of the ship close to the engines. While there was a general room where most passengers socialized, there were only two baths for everyone in third class, one for men and one for women.

A new sinking ship

Affluent Filipinos can afford to stay in resort-like homes during the span of the quarantine without having to worry about anything, for everything is easily accessible and readily available to them. For most of them, being locked down is a boon, not a bane. They can afford their own hospital-grade protective gear, disinfectant, and sanitizers. They can hoard groceries. They can call their family doctors if they feel ill. If they are not themselves influential, they have ties with influential people who can prioritize them for COVID testing when they need it. They can even get away with breaching laws and quarantine protocols and haughtily tell the public “It’s an honest mistake.” In short, like the first class passengers of the Titanic, they have easy access to lifeboats. And while they are not entirely safe from the virus, they have a higher chance of surviving. (READ: #KokoResign, #KokoKulong: Netizens rage vs Pimentel for breaking quarantine protocols)

While on quarantine, most middle class individuals are given an option to work from home. Even though they don’t enjoy the opulence of the upper class, the middle class have access to necessities that can ease their everyday strife under the pandemic. They can have access to internet for work and school.  Those who own small businesses can shift to selling stuff online. They can afford online food delivery services and regular trips to markets or grocery shops. They can buy masks, gloves, and alcohol for protection. Some have employers who have shouldered and paid for their COVID tests. If they get sick, they can afford to pay for hospital bills through their health cards and PhilHealth premiums. However, unlike the upper class, the stash of the middle class is finite, so they have to find other ways to get by while on quarantine.

Under COVID-19, the poorest Filipinos are the most vulnerable. They have no access to the comforts enjoyed by the upper class and the middle class. They can’t afford to stay home and not work because most of them live on daily wages and have no other means to feed their families. They cannot fully protect themselves from the virus since masks, sanitizers, and disinfectants cost a fortune. Social distancing is also futile in neighborhoods where spaces are small and houses are built so closely together. Most of the time, they are left to take care of themselves since they have no access to quality health care. When they breach quarantine protocols, they are either incarcerated, punished, or worst of all, shot to death. They have no other choice but to fall in line and wait for relief from the state, which in most instances spurns them. Mired in poverty, the lower class cannot afford to be sick. Life for them is hard as it is, and the circumstances surrounding this pandemic are making it harder for them. (READ: ‘Walang-wala na’: Poor Filipinos fear death from hunger more than coronavirus)

When the Titanic sank, it was generally believed that about 1,500, or more than 60% of the 2,200 passengers and crew members on board, died. Out of 706 third class passengers, only about 25% were saved; out of 285 second class passengers, 41%; and out of the 325 first class passengers, 62%. While there is a high rate of death in all passenger classes, it is apparent that the percentage ascends as you go further down the ship.

It has been argued that the third class passengers did not have the same chances of survival because they were not treated as equally important. Some accounts indicated that there was a failure to sound a general alarm, causing third class passengers to not realize the direness of the situation until it was too late. While it was not proven that there was malicious intent to lock third class passengers below decks, the British Inquiry Report noted that gates on third class decks were indeed locked, but it was done in compliance with the American immigration law at that time. Nevertheless, third class passengers had to squirm their way through a maze of corridors and staircases, making it impossible for them to reach the boat deck in time.  

It is also important to highlight that while so many lives were lost from the third class, it was actually the crew who suffered the worst, with nearly 76% of the 908 crew members on board going down with the Titanic. According to some accounts, even though the crew already knew what was about to transpire, they still stuck to their duty. In the same light, in their battle against COVID-19, a great number of Filipino medical frontliners contracted the virus, with some losing their lives. As of this writing, according to the Department of Health (DOH), 2,846 healthcare workers have been infected by COVID-19. Of the total, 33 individuals died.

On a related note, just recently, the DOH drew flak over the non-distribution of the P1 million compensation to families of healthcare workers who died while combating COVID-19, and the P100,000 to healthcare workers who contracted severe infection from the disease, as mandated under Republic Act 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act. It is only recently that the DOH distributed the said benefits after the Senate hit the agency for their non-action on the matter.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made conspicuous the ever-widening gulf between the upper class and the lower class, the haves and the have-nots, the privileged and the deprived. More precisely, the inefficiencies and the seeming disjointedness of state actions in addressing this pandemic has aggravated this divide. It is because of these topsy-turvy policies that harrowing images of hopelessness come to the fore – the number of COVID cases in the country continues to rise over time; the virus has spread in provinces all over the country; starving jeepney drivers are still barred from fully operating, with some of them roaming the streets to ask for alms; issues and anomalies arise in the distribution of social amelioration funds; OFWs are left to camp in and out of airports despite the state’s promise of giving them VIP treatment; and up to now, there are no concrete plans for mass testing. (READ: How to help jeepney drivers affected by the coronavirus lockdown)

With the way things are going, it would seem that we all are left to tend to our own wounds. Faced with the horrors and quandaries brought about by COVID-19, it would appear that, to paraphrase Dante, all hope is abandoned. However, in these trying times, when everything and everyone seems to forsake us, hope is the steady outrigger that we can bank on. Hope, in the words of scholar Neferti Tadiar, “lies in the daily exercise of our creative capacities to remake the world.” Our collective hoping is the exercise of our collective power to shape our society. To each other we should bank on our hope. Hope is the weapon of the weak. – Rappler.com

Khristine Jane B. Ejercito is a young lawyer taking her Master of Laws at the University of the Philippines. James Leocadio studied Film in the same university. They are both engaged in government service. 

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