Dumaguete City

[OPINION] Contagious complacency: The new normal in Dumaguete

Ian Rosales Casocot
[OPINION] Contagious complacency: The new normal in Dumaguete

Illustration by Nico Villarete

'We are swimming in the hopefulness of the coming vaccine that we have begun to play at recklessness'

It’s the middle of May in the second year of the pandemic, and everywhere I go in my little city, I feel this undercurrent of uncertainty that hovers just above the din of everyday life. You could mistake the current bustle for the fervor of pre-pandemic times, were it not for one unmistakable thing: you still see most people go about in public in face masks, the regulation white and light blue of last year’s model now giving way to assorted fashionable ones of varying material and quirks in design — which tells you this: the pandemic has gone on for so long that face masks have ascended to the level of fashion.

I’ve mostly resisted this.

My face mask is still regulation white and light blue.

My face shield is still that simple frame fitted with acetate plastic.

They both have the severe look of the hospital about them, which I need, I think. They remind me to still be on my toes, and their no-nonsense aesthetic is my token that the dark times are still ongoing, and there is no vanquishing this virus yet. Somehow I feel that the moment I allow myself fancier face masks and face shields I have somehow contributed to the deadening responses to the battle still being waged. I cannot make fashion out of a pandemic necessity — but that’s just me. The moment I do, I’ve surrendered.

And yet I am not entirely wrong in my apprehensions and misgivings. A few days ago, on May 18, the Silliman University Medical Center — one of Dumaguete’s biggest hospitals — issued a public advisory announcing that they’d reached critical capacity status regarding their COVID-19 accommodations.

“Admissions of COVID-19 patients,” the advisory read, “will be temporarily suspended as all beds are fully occupied.”

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This prompted comparisons of bed capacity dedicated to COVID-19 care among all the other major hospitals within the Negros Oriental capital: [1] Silliman University Medical Center, 51 beds, 52 actually occupied; [2] Negros Oriental Provincial Hospital, 31 beds, all occupied; [3] Holy Child Hospital, 20 beds, 18 occupied; [4] ACE Dumaguete Doctors Hospital, 14 beds, all occupied; and [5] Negros Polymedic Hospital, 13 beds, 12 occupied.

Two days later, two cases were admitted, marking full bed capacity for Dumaguete — perhaps the first time it has reached this grim milestone since the pandemic started. And the cases continue to rise. By May 21, in Dumaguete alone, there were 155 active cases out of a total of 832, with 639 recoveries and 38 dead.

Thirty-eight dead. 

Certainly a small number when compared to the 3.43 million dead listed worldwide — but for a city as small as Dumaguete, 38 is a considerable number.

We already know of many friends and family who have contracted it, each one with their own peculiar war story, since COVID-19 is such a strange virus it affects people in very different ways. I know several who only had mild fevers, others with malaise and loss of the sense of taste. I know one whose bout with the virus seems to have quelled the tremors of his Parkinson’s. I know many who have lost loved ones — mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, assorted friends.

And yet there is now an air of contagious complacency embracing Dumaguete — and I have feeling, also everywhere else. On social media, most people still sing the chorus of “Amping!” that we have come to accept as the new norm of a greeting, which has helped us navigate the novel protocols of safety and the miasma of uncertainty. But that caution is now strangely absent when you make the rounds of the city.

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People are now having parties that are “socially-distanced” in name only — perhaps to escape irate comments when the incriminating photos are uploaded to Facebook.

People are flocking to restaurants with such gusto that one new establishment has instituted a “reservations only” rule to help stem the crowd — and if you know the Dumaguete food scene, you know this rule is rare, and almost alien to the way we dine out.

It’s all complacency. This is the latest fugue state of our evolving sense of “normal.” We have been digesting the cold statistics for far too long; we have learned to tune out the still ongoing horrors. We are so bored with locked down realities that defiance has become our new esteem. We are swimming in the hopefulness of the coming vaccine that we have begun to play at recklessness. Look, we’ve begun to think, the US is now announcing that masks would soon be a thing of the past — and for some reason this has given so many of us, in our third world reality, permission to let our guard down.

Did the pandemic not change us in a fundamental way?

I had hoped the “new normal” would no longer be defined by the frailties of our society. To quote playwright Edward delos Santos Cabagnot: “The global pandemic and months of forced isolation should have brought humanity to its senses. Finally forswear war, social injustice, greed, and corruption.” And complacency.

And yet.

Cabagnot continues: “Yet here we are still. I’m afraid we’re failing this final exam. Be very afraid.”

Are we failing this final exam for real?

Will we revert to our old selves?

Will we still insist on thinking that we, each of us, do not matter in the grand scheme of things, and so continue on thinking only for ourselves?

I don’t have the answers; no one has. Only time will tell.

We were buying takeout chicken at Jet & Jo’s Sizzling House along EJ Blanco Drive a few nights ago, and we had done the usual routines in the name of the theater of safety — face masks on, temperature checked, names logged, hands washed in disinfecting solution. But while we were waiting for our orders to come, one guy was able to come in sans mask, sans protocol, and was able to order without a hitch and so casually, like there was no raging pandemic in our midst. 

I wanted to shout at him. 

I wanted to berate the attendant on duty. 

But I kept my quiet, glaring as I went about my waiting.

Only a few days before that, I had visited my elderly mother — she’s 87 — at the family house I’d been loath to visit because of the pandemic. Mother was overjoyed with the sight of me, and I felt happy — but afterwards, I was stricken with this subterfuge of misgivings: was I really sure I was not a carrier of the virus when I hugged her, when I kissed her, when we gabbed about this thing and that? Because I had been going about my days now with more than a modicum of the old normal — meeting people, eating in restaurants, watching plays and exhibits, gallivanting in public parks — so I was not entirely sure I did not inhale the virus at any point in those interactions. And to unknowingly infect someone I love because I have learned to live on the edge of a pandemic knife was certainly troublesome for me.

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I was thinking of my mother when I raged quietly at the unmasked guy in Jet & Jo’s Sizzling House.

And through all these, we lurch on to some vague future that hints at some promise, at some reassurances.

The 10 pm curfew is still in full force, and everyone obeys.

Most people still put on face masks.

And the city has begun vaccinating senior citizens only yesterday — which made me dash out a missive to my brother Dennis: “Have you registered Mama?”

Thankfully he replied: “Already did.”

I guess it is this wish that sustains us now — in panic and in complacency — that on the other side of this historic upheaval, we will still be left standing, breathing and alive, with the ones we love. – Rappler.com

Ian Rosales Casocot teaches literature, creative writing, and film at Silliman University in Dumaguete City, where he was Founding Coordinator of the Edilberto and Edith Tiempo Creative Writing Center. He is the author of several books, including the fiction collections Don’t Tell Anyone, Bamboo Girls, Heartbreak & Magic, and Beautiful Accidents.