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Frontliners, too: Meet some young Fil-Ams braving the coronavirus pandemic

Camille Elemia

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Frontliners, too: Meet some young Fil-Ams braving the coronavirus pandemic
Outside of the health care profession, these young Filipino-Americans work silently day in and out, putting their lives on the line to serve others

ARIZONA, United States – As cases and deaths pile up in the US, some young Filipinos continue to brave the coronavirus pandemic in their new home.

Outside of the health care profession, these young Filipino-Americans (Fil-Ams) work silently day in and out, putting their lives on the line to help and serve others. Often unheralded, these are workers whose jobs require physical contact with others, making them more vulnerable to infection.

As of May 4, the US has the highest number of recorded cases in the world – more than one million, with nearly 70,000 deaths.

While senior citizens are at greater risk, young people can also be infected and can be carriers without showing any symptoms. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also confirms that COVID-19 does not spare millennials and Gen Z. 

Rappler talked to some of these young workers – a fast food staff member, a grocery cashier, and a server at a retirement home – as their lives go on while most of the world has practically stopped.

A future nurse’s ‘early’ preparation

Andrea Cabangbang, 19, has been working for half a year at a popular American retail store in Norwalk, Connecticut – a state that borders New York, the center of the coronavirus crisis in the US.

She moved to the US just a year ago and is currently working while studying nursing. From 4 pm to 11 pm daily, she works as a cashier and a customer service associate.

Just like many other people, everything was going well for her until the pandemic happened.

“I was very scared because I had two places to go to: school and work. At the time, we still had in-person classes. But just like what other people say, we can’t do anything but be very, very cautious,” Cabangbang told Rappler in a video interview.

“The virus is already there, I mean it’s gonna be in our lives. It might take longer before it goes away,” she added.

WORK. Andrea works as a cashier and customer service associate at a huge retail store chain. Photo by Andrea Cabangbang

Her company does not provide masks, only gloves. As a cashier, she has direct interaction with customers.

“I protect myself by sanitizing every now and then. I bought my own masks. They never gave us masks,” she said.

Almost everyone in their household is a frontliner. Her brother and sister-in-law work as nurses; her niece works as a secretary in a nursing home; her nephew and another relative work at a dairy shop, a business deemed essential in the state.

Cabangbang said she was the first in their household to undergo quarantine after she had high fever. For weeks, she skipped work and stayed isolated in their recreational van (RV) until her symptoms were gone.

She might have escaped COVID-19 disease but her brother and nephew were not as lucky, as they contracted it. It was bound to happen at some point, she said.

“We expected this to happen. Our family talked about it and we said we are not gonna survive this time without us getting it. All of us in the house are working at the front lines and even my mom in New Haven, she’s a caregiver. My aunt, who lives in another house, is a medical scientist. We really said this is not going to be over without us getting it,” she said.

Her brother and nephew already recovered from COVID-19. But as with most frontline workers, fear and anxiety remain. (READ: Surviving COVID-19: How a Fil-Am nurse and his family fought coronavirus at home)

Her sister-in-law Gerarda earlier told Rappler: “The fear is always there. This is a horrible disease. I’ve never seen this much death.”

The young nurse-in-training expects these experiences to come in handy in the future.

“It’s like an early preparation for a future frontliner like me. I am going to be a nurse in the future…. I am going to be fighting everything, the viruses in the future pandemic,” Cabangbang said.

‘It just makes me happy’

Milano Carden, 20, works for a branch of famous West Coast burger chain located in Avondale, Arizona. He works 5 hours a day, 5 days a week. He left the Philippines in 2015.

Due to the state’s shelter-in-place policy, the restaurant is open only for drive through. As a store associate, Carden’s job includes cleaning the store and taking customers’ orders.

Carden, also an accountancy student, made the deliberate decision to continue working despite the dangers. He said he does not really consider himself as a frontline worker.

“I consider frontliners mostly just the health care workers, not myself. But I guess people consider fast food workers as frontliners now,” he told Rappler in an interview.

“It just makes me happy. Now’s a bad time for many Americans and when they go to us, they become happy even if it’s just a burger. It’s a symbol of happiness,” he said.

At work, they are required to wear masks and practice distancing – a hard thing to do, considering the small size of the store.

The management also regularly asks them 3 things before starting work: if they are feeling sick, if they have symptoms, and if they had contact with someone who has symptoms.

Outside his job, he said he practices physical distancing – even with his parents. He is so worried for them that he temporarily left their home to avoid infecting them.

FAMILY. Milano and his parents. He has left their home while he works at a fastfood store as a safety precaution. Photo by Milano Carden

“I’m more worried about infecting other people. For people our age, we can have the disease and we may not know it. But for them, it could be dangerous,” he said.

“Since I always go to work. I have a high chance of contracting the disease. I haven’t been staying home. I don’t want to pass it on to my parents,” said Carden, who has since been living with a friend.

Although initially sad, his parents eventually understood his decision.

“At first, they didn’t want me to leave. They were sad about it. But it’s for their own safety. If they do get it, there’s no way for them to get it, but to get it from me. I thought that if I move out, their chances of getting the virus is zero,” he said.

Despite the risks, he has no plans of quitting his job.

“Yes, they’re saying that we’re one of the important people now. It’s a nice feeling to know but I don’t really care about it. I just mostly care about serving customers, to make them happy in this really sad time.”

‘I don’t feel any different’

Franchesca Garcia, 17, works as a fulltime staff at a retirement home in Peoria, Arizona. She prepares and serves meals to their elderly residents.

Before the pandemic, she and her colleagues would serve meals in a dining room setting, much like in a restaurant. But with the outbreak, they have to go to each of the resident’s rooms.

With stay-at-home rules in place, families could no longer visit and see their elderly relatives. This has now become the de facto job of staff like Garcia.

“We’re going door-to-door. It depends on who the resident is if we have to go into the room. If the resident can’t come to the door, we enter the room. With this going on, their families can’t come to see them. We check in on them. I help some residents to do their laundry or to throw away their trash,” Garcia said.

She saw how difficult it has been for the residents. In their own little ways, she said she and her colleagues try their best to cheer the residents up.

“It’s hitting them hard. A lot of our residents go down to talk to our counselors. It’s hard for them because they were used to seeing their families…. We talk to them. Sometimes…me and my co-workers, when we see residents struggling with stuff, we go to the store room in our break find something to cheer them up with,” Garcia said.

“A lot of them do have respiratory issues. They need oxygen to breathe. Some of them have really bad mental state, like it is difficult for them to remember things. So we help them carry on with their day-to-day stuff,” she added.

One of their residents have tested positive for COVID-19. Since the beginning, the management has required them to wear masks and gloves, which they must change every after interaction with a resident.

Photo by Franchesca Garcia

This new reality is not lost on Garcia despite being a minor.

“Yes, I have that lingering fear like what if I’ve been exposed to that? But it does not really consume me. Maybe when I really get exposed to it, I won’t come home,” said Garcia.

She lives with parents and her two siblings. Her mother is a nurse.

When pointed out that she is a frontliner in this pandemic, Garcia said: “I don’t feel any different than I usually do. I’m still thankful I have my job, a source of income. I’m doing something I am doing on a normal basis.” – Rappler.com

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Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is a former multimedia reporter for Rappler. She covered media and disinformation, the Senate, the Office of the President, and politics.