The first things I noticed about the strangeness of COVID-19 (if indeed that was COVID) were the converse manifestations of the sensations of its emerging symptoms. It was the beginning of December, and the body ache that came with that thunderclap arrival of fever — it was so sudden I felt like a hapless marathoner dropped into a race that had already begun — was to get to know your bones.
There is no English word for the sensation. In Binisaya, we call it “ngilo,” a phantom discomfort that goes deep under the skin. It was that, but also more: I felt my “ngilo” bones mashed up inside as if they didn’t fit, sockets and ligaments mere suggestions.
So I lied in bed hoping for the body to find truce for respite. The sleep I got those first 3 days was reprieve, but when waking came, I was at it again, making desperate sense of the “misalignments” of my bones, but knowing full well it was just in my head. How could bones feel this way?
I found a quick routine: sleep, wake, urinate, drink the coldest of water, shower, and take Bioflu at safe intervals. I needed to combat the fever, and it felt good to go to bed with the glorious sting of cold water on my skin. It was devilish quick comfort that was gone too soon, like the invention of Coke Sakto, but it was enough to remind me there was still humanity in my fever-drenched body, which I found hurtling around my small apartment in delirium. I forgot to eat, too tired to think of food.
I began noting the symptoms I had — all culled from Google, which distributed the manifestations on a day-to-day scale, a helpful map in a pandemic world swirling with disinformation. I knew I had hypochondriac powers to manifest symptoms in my body for assorted diseases I didn’t actually have. For Day 1 to 3: I had fever, check. I had body aches, check. But I didn’t have dry cough! It felt like a beacon of hope, that perhaps this was just the flu, which I doubted because I got vaccinated only last September, or what my brother hopefully diagnosed as dehydration, which was sweet.
Denial will always be a necessary defense, especially absent proper testing. I messaged my classes, citing my dilemma, and making hard choices regarding requirements with the term about to end. I messaged my friends with whom I had previous plans to have Friday dinner at a new restaurant that offered al fresco dining, and canceled my participation. I messaged my brother to convey my apprehensions. I messaged my boyfriend to update him about the slow ravages to my body. All these while swimming in delirium. No one said it was COVID-19, always something else — plus I was not coughing! I told them I would be monitoring things, self-isolate, and hope for the best.
The boyfriend messaged back: “Can you still taste things?” I got up, and looked for the best, strongest flavor in my pantry.
I eagerly messaged back: “I can still taste Nutella!”
That exclamation mark was all of happiness distilled into punctuation form.
The taste of cinders in the mouth.
That should have been a sign — and the jar of Nutella was still there in the pantry, eager for another taste test and lonely for bread in equal measure. We used to make jokes in the ensuing months of the pandemic that the reason why we were gaining weight, aside from the issue of a prolonged and mandatory sedentary existence, was that we were eating as a barometer of health. “I can taste this fried chicken! Thank God.” “I can taste this lechon! Thank God.” “I can taste this green pro-biotic shake! Thank God.” There’s some truth to that. In the absence of mass testing, we had to provide our own road map through uncharted 2020 terrors.
It was easy to ignore the semblance of ash in my mouth. Fevers bring that on. On the third or fourth day, finally remembering to eat — part of the pleasures of living on your own — I opened the take-out box of Tuscan chicken, a favorite meal, and stared in feverish delirium at the crispy brown tenderness of the meat glistening in oil and herbs. I dug in.
One bite, two bites.
Have you tried eating wet cartolina? Eating that Tuscan chicken was akin to the experience. It was unbelievably unappetizing that by the fourth bite, hunger felt like the better option. I gave the Tuscan chicken to the cat, and Mouschi felt like he was king of the world.
It was time to retake the Nutella test. I gingerly spooned a dollop, and took it. It was squishy mud on my tongue, absent of all its sweet hazelnut chocolate come-on. That full stop was sadness.
I went back to feverish sleep, like I lost a battle, but telling myself I was content with 4 bites of cartolina chicken and some spoonfuls of cartolina rice. I stuck to a fulfillment of my routine: sleep, wake, urinate, drink the coldest of water, shower.
Routine was good, but you also could not ignore a growling stomach. And then I stumbled onto another converse mystery: hunger pangs and loss of appetite can in fact occur at the same time.
The next day, I had another favorite meal: the chicken inato, the pecho cut, from Jo’s. It tasted like four-day old thick-crust pizza, with no toppings, left out in the sun for far too long.
I chose hunger, and gave the remainder to the cat.
But I knew I was playing a dangerous game: I had to put something in me besides all the water I was drinking. So I had some longganisa and scrambled eggs, a meal that came with a preamble: “Swallow, no matter what, and hold it in.”
I lasted 5 swallows, not without effort, but it was my body regurgitating the blank vileness of what I was eating, threatening to push the last bite up my throat, while I desperately willed myself to hold it down. I considered 5 swallows a success — and the cat licked its whiskers, Mouschi’s green eyes conniving and superior.
The sense of taste is a peculiar thing, and like all things most vital in our lives, we take it for granted and its absence becomes a gaping void we are surprised could thoroughly disorder our world. I didn’t appreciate before that taste is very much our gateway to sustenance, which without, makes hunger like Piolo Pascual. I ticked one more symptom down. Loss of taste, check. This one had been my secret indicator to panic. And then the loose, watery stools also began. So I ticked another symptom down, check.
I was still trying to self-monitor, like how we are all advised, harboring the vaguest of hopes that it could be just something else. My friend Malcolm Hiponia, after all, had this to say: “I had all the symptoms. Tested negative twice. Went to urgent care on the second week. The doctor said I had bronchitis, and prescribed antibiotics. I got well two days later.”
But I also knew a friend who knew someone whose single symptom was a headache that would not go away. And he tested positive for COVID-19, twice.
You never know, really, until you get tested.
I texted Jacqueline Antonio at the City Tourism Office, and she gave me the Dumaguete hotline to call. I was apprehensive. It was, I knew, my Day 4. And I also knew that by Day 5, the notorious breathing difficulties, on the average, could appear. Breathing is important, and I’m not sure even the cat could be of much help in that regard.
There is cold brutality in numbers. As of this writing, Negros Oriental has recorded 47 new cases, and also 19 new recoveries, bringing the total number of local active cases to 174. Dumaguete currently has 104 active cases and remains as the province’s COVID-19 epicenter. “This is also the first time that any city or town in the province recorded more than 100 active cases in its area alone since the pandemic began,” the news report I’m reading goes.
Tanjay comes with the second highest count with 16 active cases, followed by Sibulan with 13, and Siaton with 10. Valencia has 6 active cases, Zamboanguita has 5, Amlan has 4, while Bayawan and Guihulngan have 3 each. Bacong and San Jose have two cases, while Bais, Mabinay, Manjuyod, Bindoy, Ayungon, and Dauin each have one active case. The total case count for Negros Oriental as of this writing is at 984 — with 782 recoveries, but also 28 deaths.
Twenty-eight deaths — anonymous, for the most part — in one province is one too many, as far as we should be concerned. Taking into account the worldwide scope, the number is even grimmer: 1.85 million dead. There is no processing that number, especially for an illness that began early last year being downplayed by many as “just another flu.”
That indifference is hard to break.
We are told, for example, that numbers do not lie — but alas, they also have a flattening effect on most people. People are made curiously apathetic by numbers, a psychological phenomenon known as “psychic numbing,” which causes us to feel indifferent to the suffering of large numbers of people. It is the same curious indifference we feel when we regard the body count of a distant plane crash, the casualties of a faraway war, the victims in the thousands of a so-called “drug war.” It is the same curious indifference that makes some people deny the Holocaust. It is the same curious indifference that made Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin say, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
It is the same curious indifference that makes so many of us in Dumaguete complacent in the midst of a pandemic. There are too many people no longer wearing masks, too many people no longer physically distancing, too many people partying in numbers beyond the new accepted limits. The community transmission has been underway since October when bureaucratic indifference became our weak link, and the infamous “APOR” became the target of our outrage — and yet many of us still go about as if normalcy is still the norm.
It’s easy to see where this indifference springs from. Fear subsides, and we learn to believe ourselves to be Teflon to danger. The threat is also invisible — hence our guard is mostly down, our enemy a phantom we cannot even begin to comprehend. The lockdown has also been taxing in its boredom — hence our search for connection, for defiance against what we are told not to do. The hard information about the disease comes to us in trickles, and must swim and compete in an ocean filled with fake news — hence our propensity to believe in ardent conspiracy theorists.
In my case, the diligence of the early months soon gave way, slowly, to a wanting for old normalcy. By November, I was again meeting friends, having dinners, reconnecting with the old life — all with a nod towards protocol (masks and physical distancing) and the assorted theater of safety we’ve come to ritualize (temperature guns and registration books and disinfectant mats), but minus the urgency that once characterized our lives in the pandemic.
And then the fever came, and with it the realization that the time to let our guard down is never now.
On Day 6, I was finally able to call the Dumaguete COVID hotline. I knew the seventh day was crucial: this was how long it took, on average, for some patients in Wuhan, China to be admitted to the hospital after their symptoms started, many developing shortness of breath on this day.
But by then my fever was gone, although my loss of taste persisted in an ugly way and my body felt ravaged still, like a rag doll violated by the most fearsome of child’s play. Still, no cough! — its absence felt like a kind of hope.
The hotline consists of 3 numbers, each one attended to by a name. I chose Hannah at 0935-272-2440, who listened to me — and then referred me to Gem from Lo-oc Health Center, to be nearest my local health monitor. Gem was a patient and calm voice at the other end of the line, careful and sufficient in her questioning. She recommended that I self-isolate for the next 7 days; my symptoms were not harrowing enough, perhaps, to require going to the hospital. But I was required to monitor my temperature on a daily basis.
“Would you like for us to come to your house to monitor your symptoms? Or would you prefer you monitoring for us and reporting by phone?” Gem asked.
“What’s with these options?”
Apparently, they have developed this protocol to shield people from stray eyes and busy tongues in the neighborhood — the presence of health workers in the vicinity causes unease. I chose the option to phone in.
But I also wanted a test. I wanted the sureness of definitely knowing. I was told that, following local protocol, I was not in immediate need for a swab test — but a rapid test (the antigen test which detects protein fragments specific to the coronavirus, which has a rapid turnaround time for results) could be arranged at the end of my fourteenth day in quarantine.
In the meantime, I was to rest, nurse myself, and mark time.
Quarantine was slow and horrible, an elastic time that barely wobbled, finding the hours turning on themselves in a Dali landscape. Solitary confinement, coupled with slow convalescence, does things to your mind that blur the boundaries between night and day, sleeping and waking, consciousness and the realm of nightmares.
“Is this how I’m spending Christmas?” I thought and wept. I prayed once — fervently, for the world to heal, and for some deal made with God that if ever I became better, I would fearlessly seize all the rest of the days in my life. And then, having written so many obituaries of other people this year, I also wrote my own — and sent text and pubmat to the boyfriend, with instructions to post when the time comes.
I stuck to the routine: sleep, wake, urinate, drink the coldest of water, shower, monitor temperature, report. (Some days I was not able to report, stuck in overwhelming sleep that knew no hours.) These days in the doldrums required angels: my caregiver was my boyfriend, who brought me food, medicine, drinks (the Gatorade was most helpful), and whatever I needed to survive — all the while keeping his distance, his face masked up and shielded.
Slowly, I got better. The crippling fever was gone, the diarrhea subsided, and my sense of taste slowly returned by the end of the second week, the end of quarantine.
Going to the City Health Office was my first brush with the outside world: blue skies, fresh breeze, the bustle of downtown — each sensation was alien and frightening, yet also exhilarating. I went to get my promised antigen test, which Gem helpfully facilitated over the phone, endorsing me to the clinic.
The laboratory I was told to go to was curiously deserted, no amount of “ayo” could conjure attendance by someone. I waited, and then walked around to inquire about getting a rapid test, only to be told to wait at the same spot in the laboratory. Someone appeared — and when I inquired about my appointment, she turned out to be a condescending woman (who will remain unnamed) who gave me some run-around about stuff, putting me in my place about how busy she was, and told me to wait.
I waited, while also texting Gem my confusion.
Salvation came in the form of City Health’s Loryly Palubio-Ignacio — a gracious woman whose quiet demeanor belied a weariness you could almost touch. Why this was so, I would later on learn — after she sat me on my examining stool, after she asked me further questions in protocol, and after she took a syringe of my blood for antigen testing. I asked her questions — mostly about how the city was faring in the pandemic.
I learned then what exactly was COVID capacity for each hospital. (Turns out, not a lot.) I learned about why I was not given the proper PCR test, and almost was not even given an antigen test. (Turns out, both tests are in increasing short supply locally, and they had to revise protocols accordingly.) I learned about how City Health personnel have been driven to the brink almost every day, most of them out on the field monitoring cases and administering tests for hours on end. (Hence, Ma’am Loryly’s weary look.) I asked her whether there’s cause to worry about community transmission, and Ma’am Loryly shrugged and said, “We’re overwhelmed.”
The next day, I received my test result from Gem. “Good afternoon, sir,” she texted. “Negative ra imo RDT.”
It felt like exultation, a relief — but in the back of my head, caution whispered:
An antigen test is not a PCR test.
A test is not immunity.
My city is still this province’s pandemic epicenter.
Was what I had COVID-19? I hope not, but we will never know for sure. Still, what I had — ugly manifestations of symptoms and the confining reality of quarantine — was certainly a taste of it, and I knew — and still do — that I never wanted to go through that again. – 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.