COVER STORY

Our frontliners fight as heroes yet struggle as victims

These frontliners may not have always chosen to lay their lives on the line, but nevertheless do so. Here’s what a day in their lives looks like.

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Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — For those of us who are lucky to stay home in a pandemic, the days may seem long, and work, inconsequential. But for others whose services are deemed essential in this new economy, a single day tells a different story.

Doctors, grocery workers, market vendors, policemen, military personnel, delivery riders, and other frontliners not only serve for extended hours, but also around the clock. They expose themselves to the virus every day. Yet without them, life as we know it — already hampered by a quarantine — will grind to a complete halt.

CNN Philippines Life interviewed some of these individuals who may not have always chosen to lay their lives on the line, but nevertheless do so. Here’s what a day in their lives looks like.

Waking up at 2:30 a.m., the day starts early for market vendors like Janet Villarin. Photo by JL JAVIER

Before the quarantine, Villarin procured from Malabon (among other locations) the fresh seafood she sells at the market. Photo by JL JAVIER

Villarin sells fresh seafood the Sierra Madre Market in Mandaluyong. Photo by JL JAVIER

6 a.m.

Market vendor Janet Villarin has already laid out a blanket of pusit, bangus, bisugo, tulingan, tilapia, and galunggong in front of her stall at the Sierra Madre Market in Mandaluyong. As of 6 a.m., residents have formed a line outside the market, eager to select the ingredients for a day’s or a week’s worth of meals.

Villarin has been awake for four hours now. By 2:30 a.m., she rises from bed, then at 3:15 a.m. she is already at the bagsakan at Nueve de Pebrero Street, procuring supplies to be sold at her stall. By 4:30 a.m., she is let in by the guards at the market. She wears a mask to protect herself.

Before the quarantine, Villarin procured from Malabon (among other locations) the fresh seafood she sells at the market. She also used to buy in bulk. “Mahirap bumiyahe ‘pag sa malayo ka kukuha,” she says. “Paunti-unti na lang kinukuha ko ngayon, kilo-kilo na lang, hindi na sa banyera…kaunti lang naman ang diperensya. Bente o sampu lang ang patong…okay na rin, kaysa mamasahe.”

What profit she makes as a market vendor is reserved for her three adoptive children. “Ako lang ang naghahanapbuhay,” says Villarin. Thankfully, her eldest — aged 18 — can be trusted with childcare while she’s away. “Sila ang naghahanda ng pagkain ko. Tasty [bread] at piniritong itlog, ilalagay sa plastic,” which she takes to the market as her breakfast.

This week, she expects some cash assistance from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). “’Di lang naman kami ang ininterview ng DSWD,” she says. “Sa dami ng kapitbahay, tinapos nila ‘yung interview ng lahat-lahat. Dapat matapos muna iyon.”

At 53 years old, and as a market vendor who works outside almost all week (except Monday, which is sanitation day), Villarin is more vulnerable to COVID-19 than most. By 1 p.m., she closes shop, then cleans her stall for one or two more hours before going back home, spending roughly 12 hours exposed to the virus outside.

“Siyempre, kinakabahan ako,” she says, “pero dasal lang po…siguro naman babalik tayo sa dati, kasi galing naman sa China ang virus na ‘yan. Nasa atin naman ang pag-iingat.”

Serving at the front lines as a grocery worker, Rocelyn Perillo makes it a point to stay protected for her family's sake. Photo by JL JAVIER

Perillo sometimes needs to walk for 40 minutes to get to her place of work. Photo by JL JAVIER

Strict safety measures are practiced in public establishments such as the grocery where Perillo works. Photo by JL JAVIER

7:30 a.m.

Grocery worker Rocelyn Perillo is on her way to work, after having breakfast with her family and ensuring her children are taken care of. Some days, she waits for free shuttle services, provided both by the local government and the supermarket she works for. But when they do not arrive by 7:40 a.m., Perillo begins the 40-minute walk from Purok 13, Sitio Pag-asa, Alabang, Muntinlupa City, to her place of work.

She’s there around 8 to 8:20 a.m., donning protective gear and arranging fresh seafood by her station before customers arrive. “Lalong dumami ang mga mamimili namin, ‘yung tipong hindi sila nauubusan ng pera,” she observes. “Nakakatuwa sa pakiramdam dahil merong iilan na nagpapasalamat dahil andito pa rin kami nagtatrabaho, at meron din nagsasabing mag-ingat kami.”

She appreciates the gratitude. All things considered, Perillo enjoys an extra allowance on Saturdays and everyday meal allowances from the agency that employs her, on top of free lunches and merienda provided at the supermarket. Her workplace also provides face shields, DTI I.D.s (for travel ban-exempt workers), and free transportation.

In Purok 13, where she lives, quarantine measures are strictly enforced and volunteers pitch in to help the community. “Hindi sila nagpapasok ng hindi taga-sa amin at hindi rin basta-basta nakakalabas kung walang mask o I.D. Nagtulong-tulong din sa barangay namin katulad ng pag-solicit para makabili ng chlorine or Zonrox din, para pang-disinfect sa aming lugar.”

By the end of her shift at 6 p.m., she again waits for the shuttle. “May libreng sakay naman po kami, kaso limited lang po kaya mas madalas naglalakad talaga akong umuwi,” she says.

Yet Perillo worries despite observing protective and precautionary measures to prevent herself from contracting the virus. “Bilang isang empleyado nakakabahala kasi kami ‘yung na-e-expose sa kung sino-sinong costumer lalo na’t may mga anak ako,” she says.

“Kaya ginagawa ko nalang ‘yung dapat gawin, katulad ng pagsusuot ng mask, face shield, gloves, paghuhugas ng kamay at sanitizer, then ‘pag nakauwi ng bahay linalabhan ko na lang ‘yung sinuot ko para mas makaiwas na rin,” she adds. “Bago lumapit sa mga anak ko,” — which she does by 7:30 p.m. — “nagpapahinga muna ako.”

Lorenz Cabrera continues to serve as a food delivery driver in Pasay amid the quarantine. Photo by JL JAVIER

Following new protocol on handling of orders, delivery drivers are faced with bigger responsibility. Photo by JL JAVIER

While traffic may have cleared up to facilitate deliveries, riders like Cabrera don’t exactly have it easy. Photo by JL JAVIER

10 a.m.

Lorenz Cabrera, a food delivery rider, is off to pick up his fifth delivery of the day. His seventh month on the job was greeted by a quarantine, but it does not dampen his spirits.

“Every week pumi-pick ako ng shift na gusto ko, kasi pwede ka pumili kung anong oras at araw mo lang gusto magtrabaho,” he says. All around Pasay, he picks up requests for orders and delivers them to households rendered restless by the lockdown and availing of free delivery promos.

“Sobrang daming orders lalo na sa lunch at dinner time,” he adds, “tapos after ng shift ko ni-re-remit ko ‘yung na-collect kong cash sa nearest remittance center.”

This quarantine, his food delivery company opted to provide their salaries weekly. “Malaking tulong sa aming mga riders ‘yung ginawa [nila] na ‘yun,” he says. Even before the quarantine, he also has the liberty to choose his own shift. “Kahit na hindi ka duty ng 8 hours, basta masipag ka, maganda ang kikitain. At dahil doon nabibili ko ‘yung mga kailangan sa bahay at nakakatulong ako sa pamilya ko,” he adds.

While traffic may have cleared up to facilitate deliveries, riders like Cabrera don’t exactly have it easy. “Mahirap lang is ‘yung mga saradong daanan at ayaw magpapasok, tumatagal ang deliver … Kaya umiikot kami kahit malayo para lang madala ‘yung foods.”

In compliance with curfew periods, Cabrera rides home by 6 p.m., as opposed to his usual 10 p.m. before the quarantine. He notes that while some areas in Pasay strictly observe the lockdown, others do not.

Riding around the city, Cabrera observes the lack of enforcement of physical distancing in public areas as of our interview date. “Marami akong nadadaanang lugar dito sa Pasay na hindi nag-social distance, sige pa din ang kumpulan sa talipapa…at may iilan din akong nakita na mismong frontliners ng barangay ay walang face mask.”

Sa palagay ko, mas okay kung talagang wala munang lalabas,” he says. “As in totally lockdown. Marami kasi talagang matitigas ang ulo.”

Captain Alexis Tuazon is one of the front liners running a checkpoint in Kawit, Cavite. Photo by JL JAVIER

Checkpoints are manned by either police or military personnel. Photo by JL JAVIER

Tuazon takes it as his duty to ensure safety in his area of assignment through strict enforcement of the quarantine. Photo by JL JAVIER

4 p.m.

Captain Alexis Tuazon stands at a checkpoint in Kawit, Cavite to strictly enforce the terms of the quarantine. “Umaga, tanghali at gabi, ako ay nag-iikot sa aming area of responsibility upang masiguro na ang aking mga tao ay sumusunod sa mga deriktiba ng Inter Agency Task Force at ng higher head quarters ng Philippine National Police patungkol sa enhanced community quarantine.”

A quarantine is a time of great confusion, in which law enforcers are tasked to clarify what citizens may or may not do. “Noong nagsimula ang enhanced community quarantine,” says Tuazon, “maraming motorista ang naguluhan dahil sa pagbabago ng kanilang araw-araw na pamumuhay sapagkat naging limitado na ang kanilang mga kilos.”

In the Philippine response to the COVID-19, police and military personnel like Tuazon take on a greater role: to fulfill the marching orders of the president. “Para sa akin, ang pagsasailalim ng ating pangulo sa enhanced community quarantine ay isa sa pinaka-epektibong paraan upang mapigilan ang pagkalat ng nakamamatay na virus,” he says. “Malaking tulong na tanging mga mahahalagang serbisyo ang pinapayagan na magtrabaho at lumabas sa kanilang mga tahanan.”

Yet, even as he has to apprehend violators within his community, a pandemic is also a time when social inequalities are made more apparent — a matter not lost on Tuazon. “Noong nagsimula ang enhanced community quarantine sa kabuuan ng Luzon, nasaksihan ko ang kahirapan ng mga nawalan ng trabaho na umaasa na lamang sila sa ayudang ibibigay ng pamahalaan at ibang pribadong sektor upang makakain ang kanilang mga pamilya at mairaos ang kanilang pang araw-araw na pamumuhay,” he says.

The police force has been praised for holding the line and, most recently, also criticized for abuses of power of its erring officials. In his checkpoint in Kawit, Tuazon keeps to his sworn obligation to serve the people despite the circumstances, and even as he fears for his own life and for his family. By 11 p.m., he calls it a day and rests, spending roughly 15 hours on duty since 7:45 a.m.

But he does not go home. He sleeps at the police station most days, believing that doing so lessens the risk that his family will contract the virus from him.

“Bilang isang normal na tao na miyembro ng pambansang pulisya ng Pilipinas ay natural lamang na makaramdam ako ng takot sa aking araw-araw na pagtatrabaho, sapagkat ang kinakaharap natin na kalaban ngayon ay hindi natin nakikita,” he says. “Subalit ito ang aking sinumpaang tungkulin, na mapanatiling ligtas at payapa ang ating pamayanan.”

Barangay executive officer Andrew Ledesma takes his responsibility seriously, especially at this time. Photo by JL JAVIER

Ledesma says that people sometimes give the barangay officials and volunteers food at the checkpoint so they can continue carrying out their tasks. “Hindi nawawalan ng pagkain dyan,” He says. Photo by JL JAVIER

During the quarantine, barangay officers like Ledesma have no notion of “shifts.” As much as possible, he must always be in the frontlines. Photo by JL JAVIER

8 p.m.

Barangay Hagdang Bato Libis is at the crossroads of Mandaluyong and San Juan, with convenient shortcuts for motorists — making it a busy passageway for deliveries, quarantine or not.

Not all deliveries are allowed to enter the barangay, however. Barangay executive officer Andrew Ledesma takes his responsibility seriously, especially at this time. “’Pag delivery, strict kami,” he says. “Minsan may galing ng Rizal, so dito, pinapa-stop namin sila, sinasabi namin sa delivery, pakitawagan yung customer, papuntahin dito.” Rizal has implemented its own lockdown since April 6. “Meron isang instance na nagcomplain, kasi senior daw siya [at may delivery sa kanya],” he adds, “sabi na lang namin, ipautos na lang sa ibang tao [at kunin dito sa checkpoint].”

Barangay officers like Ledesma play a flexible, but definite role in all this: they help ensure quarantine rules are followed, and contain “troubles” on the ground by way of responding to various complaints. Most of the time, they just help out in any way they can. “Kung merong papasok dito, like senior citizens, kami na nagbubuhat, tinatanong namin, saan kayo nakatira, dadalhin na namin sa bahay nila,” he says.

Ledesma especially remembers that time he drove a person suspected of COVID-19 to a nearby hospital. “May nag-radyo sa akin [last month], emergency. So ‘yung tao, talagang no pulse, no breath,” he says. “Na-shock ako.”

“Pagbalik ko [sa bahay], napaisip ako… Kasi siyempre hindi ko alam ‘yung sitwasyon ng patient, saan galing, history niya,” he says. “Iniwan ko ‘yung sasakyan, tumakbo ako sa amin, naligo ako.” Thankfully, the patient did not test positive for COVID-19.

At these times, barangay officers like Ledesma have no notion of “shifts.” As much as possible, he must always be in the frontlines. “Noong lumabas ang COVID, actually wala kaming tulog eh,” he says. “Konting tulog [na lang], three to four hours, bangon na naman, duty na naman.”

He has no idea how a ‘new normal’ looks like after quarantine restrictions are lifted. For now, he complies with official directives and helps other people do the same. “Tulungan lang, kung may problema, tulong-tulong muna,” he says. “Tigil muna ang pulitika.”

Dr. Jarylle Chu from the Makati Medical Center handles cases of COVID-19. Photo by JL JAVIER

Her shift would start at 7 a.m. and end the same time on the next day. Photo by JL JAVIER

Doctors like Chu have tight rotational duties. She spends one week at the hospital then one week at home. Photo by JL JAVIER

7 a.m.

Dr. Jarylle Chu, a nephrology fellow at Makati Medical Center, is on her way home after a week of duty in the hospital. Her ride home, as with her rides to and from the hospital these days, is care of “Grab Ben.”

Makati Med has its own drop-off shuttle service, but “Grab Ben” (as she fondly calls him) or Mang Ben, is the driver of Dr. Claver Ramos, Chu’s consultant for her fellowship.

A month ago, Chu did not know how to get home when the quarantine was suddenly implemented during her shift. Luckily, Ramos immediately offered her free rides to and from work for the duration of her quarantine duty. “Medyo nakakahiya, pero this season, wala akong way,” he says. “Not everyone is privileged to have those generous people.”

If not for Ramos’ offer, “maglakakad ako pa-EDSA, 30 minutes or so,” says Chu. ”Tapos aantayin ko ‘yung bus, na sana maabutan ko, kasi ‘pag di mo maabutan ‘yung bus, another three hours ang sunod niyang daan.”

That first day of the quarantine and the early days of the spread of COVID-19, a lot of things were uncertain. “The challenge came because it was an unknown disease. It was something we did not know how to handle,” says Chu. For those who came in sick, “talagang malala sila ‘nung dumating, talagang walang nakakahanap ng [support],” she adds. “Lahat ng specialties nag-chip in sila to find support.”

Those days, when someone was intubated, the prognosis was bleak: they were seen as good as dead. Eventually, things improved, at least in Makati Med. “Mas marami na ang nakakauwi ngayon na ‘di nakatubo,” says Chu.

The improvements came because doctors and medical personnel were constantly learning and on their feet. Chu herself has a tight rotational duty, where she spends one week at the hospital then one week at home. “Since walang masakyan at nakatira ako sa Mandaluyong, tumira ako sa call room ng Makati Med, so sa 10th floor lang ako...so technically, nakatira ako sa Makati Med,” she says with a laugh.

Her shift (for COVID-19 cases, which now take precedence over her regular shift in the renal care services / kidney unit) starts at 7 a.m. in “Covidlandia.” After examining endorsed cases and receiving protective gear, she eats breakfast, but doesn’t drink much water. “Iihi kasi kami. The hazmat kasi is very expensive and dino-donate siya ng most people. Kulang kasi, eh ang dami naming nasa loob.”

For a 12-hour shift, preserving the hazmat suit ideally means no bathroom breaks for the same number of hours. “Pwede namang lumabas,” says Chu, “pero alam mo ‘yung guilt na, sayang ‘to eh...natapon ko.” The hazmat suit also takes 30 minutes to wear, and another 30 minutes to take off: “If mali ang pagakasuot mo, you’re as good as infected,” she says. Medical personnel also have the bear with the heat while inside it.

By the end of her shift at 7 a.m. the next day, Chu is heavily burdened not only by the weight of the hazmat, but by sheer physical, mental, and psychological exhaustion. She spends the whole day resting on the 10th floor, and then it’s time to put on the suit again.

“It helps that we talk to friends in the medical world,” she says, as a way of keeping her spirits up. “Pinagtatawanan na lang [namin] ang pinagdadaanan [namin] … Kung sino na lang kasama mo diyan, kausapin mo doon… Pare-pareho naman kami, ‘yung mga nurses at tagalinis, pare-pareho naman kaming nagtatrabaho.”

Arguably, medical personnel carry the heaviest burden in curbing the tide of the pandemic, as they do not only deal with human lives; any available data arising from their work should also guide policy making. They have thus been valorized as “heroes” (among other frontliners) in the media.

It’s a label that may have lost its meaning. “Siguro nga during those early times, sinasabi na... suwerte ka because you died for your country. Kasi those times, ‘di naman talaga tayo handa. Walang handa sa pandemic,” says Chu. Now that we’re approaching two months in quarantine, she says, “’di na siya dapat nangyayari.”

For Chu, the bottomline is that no doctor should die. At the very least, not anymore.

***

Frontliners have been thanked all over the world in many different ways: through songs sung in balconies, through tribute videos, through generous donations of protective gear, among others. No matter how big the gesture, however, expressions of gratitude are for naught if not repaid in kind. This does not merely mean providing for substantial hazard pay.

Just by way of example, for doctors and the medical community, this should also mean additional funding for important research. For market vendors, street vendors, and other workers in the informal economy, this means inclusive social security and social safety nets from both national and local government. For contractual workers, like delivery riders or grocery workers, it means tilting laws in their favor to avoid exploitation by some employers. Government workers and volunteers also need to have ample benefits and incentives for their public service, and their efforts must not be derailed by bureaucratic red tape.

All these go beyond the parameters of a crisis, let alone a pandemic.

Out of the six interviewees, only Ledesma, the barangay officer, and Tuazon, the police captain, expressly stated that they receive hazard pay. It is highly unlikely that a market vendor such as Villarin would be entitled to it, even though her work is as crucial and hazardous as the others. Chu has not had the opportunity to check if she receives one, in light of her long duty hours.

Setting aside financial considerations, Ledesma implies that being a frontliner entails helping freely and without thought of repayment. “Nasa puso ang pagtulong,” he says.

In his barangay, four have tested positive for COVID-19 as of our interview date. All were asymptomatic. All were frontliners.

At home, Ledesma’s wife and five children could only hope for his good health, and safe return.

***

Produced by ELIZABETH RUTH DEYRO and DON JAUCIAN
Cover design by THE PUBLIC SCHOOL MANILA