Better Days Ahead: Pandemic Through the Eyes of a Tarlaqueña College Student

The date was March 12, 2020.

As my dad drove my family along the NLEX, I looked out the window, a grilled cheese sandwich from Cafe France in one hand and my phone on the other, lost in thought of the things I’d have to accomplish come the resumption of classes the following week.

A few days prior, Mayor Isko, the Manila City Mayor had announced the suspension of classes from March 9 to March 15 from the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the country, and my mom wanted to go home to the province of Tarlac. She felt a lockdown would soon ensue in the metro and she wanted us out of the city as soon as possible.

So as I look out the window at the wide stretch of highway, my mind fast tracks to the list of deadlines I had to reach and affairs I had to settle; foolishly unaware of the creature slowly tightening its grip on the Philippines.

While my mom was right about the lockdown, we were oblivious to everything else that would soon take the place of ordinary life. 

The Ghost Town from the Lockdown

We were gathered around the dining area as my mom and elder cousin were explaining the situation at SM Tarlac during their grocery run for the week. 

The fluorescent lights were dim; airconditioning was off; grocery shelves were stripped bare; and to top it off, it took an hour at the very least to check out at the counter. To ensure social distancing, the mall’s tiled floors were marked with red electrical tape approximately 5 feet away from each other and the path to the supermarket was cordoned with black belt stanchions. With masks and face shields on, everybody had to stand at a safe distance away from one another. The usual buzz of indistinct conversations was gone. 

Almost all the stores were closed, save for the supermarket and the Watsons pharmacy. 

I remember the exact words my cousin used to describe it, “It felt like a ghost town.”

As curious as I was to see the scene for myself [as well as help with the errands, of course], only people aged 21 – 59 were allowed out. I was only 19 then. The best I could do was helpunpack the boxes of groceries into the cupboard.

By that time, our province had 2 confirmed cases and 229 people under investigation.

Understanding the Acronyms

ECQ, MECQ, GCQ, MGCQ.

These were the four acronyms that determined the guidelines your city had to follow for the next 15 days or so. 

However, my family and I were often so confused as to what each acronym meant. While it did seem elementary enough, when you’re in the middle of a seemingly never-ending uphill battle against the virus, you won’t always have the time to search and analyze the distinctions among each classification. 

This is something I can confirm as my friends have also expressed confusion. I like to believe there could have been more convenient ways of classifying the levels of risk in each community.

Wrapping up School Year 2019-2020

Come the resumption of classes, you could find me hunched over my laptop, finishing an essay for either our Ethics or Literature class, while dealing with an unstable internet connection.

With a total of seven in the house and an internet speed of less than 2mbps, you could only imagine how foreign the concept of “stable internet connection” was to us.

Though, I’ll save you the full story and leave it at this: It took me an entire evening to upload a 5 minute video to Google Drive.

Even as professors and students alike expressed struggles in adjusting to the demands of online learning, the ball kept rolling. 

Even as professors and students alike expressed struggles in adjusting to the demands of online learning, the ball kept rolling. 

And while we were lucky enough to have professors who were understanding and reasonable, that wasn’t always the case. Still, we pushed ourselves to finish.

By the time the academic year 2019-2020 came to a close by June, the Philippines had about 27,238 confirmed cases and the province of Tarlac sat at around 34.

…In Quarantine Still

While we were one of those who were able to transition to the General Community Quarantine (GCQ) as early as May 16, it didn’t particularly mean we were free.

Whether it is an announcement on social media or by our own governor, we were warned that the transition to more relaxed preventive measures did not equate to our freedom to meet up with friends at the mall or leave home as we please.

Standard health protocols still sat in place, quarantine passes were still required, and the age limit remained. 

When we transitioned to the Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ), it honestly didn’t feel like much had changed. Despite means to stay connected and beat cabin fever, it was clear the exhaust had gotten in and over our mental health. 

Browsing through social media, Twitter tweets and Instagram stories expressed weariness of staying locked up indoors. And in online conversations with friends, we talked about our eagerness to go out and meet up in what’s becoming clear to be a make-believe world of “post-quarantine”. 

Setting aside Netflix movie nights and rounds of Among Us (a virtual multiplayer game), it became common among my friends and I to reminisce about things we took for granted as we made plans amid uncertainty. 

I found myself looking back on night outs and coffee dates—realizing I’ve taken so much for granted—and, somehow, still looking forward to the future, excited to make up for the lost time once given the chance to.

I found myself looking back on night outs and coffee dates—realizing I’ve taken so much for granted—and, somehow, still looking forward to the future, excited to make up for the lost time once given the chance to.

‘Little Quarantine Tradition’

As I write this, I’d have seen a total of 105 films this quarantine, mostly thanks to our family movie nights. 

Yes, a little thing we have are our movie nights, where we settle in the living room and spend the next two hours lost in a world outside our own. 

I like to believe it started out in the garage when my dad wanted our relatives to watch Two Popes. So we set up our old white SONY Bravia TV in the garage, connected it to my cousin’s laptop, and logged into Netflix. Thus, the birth of our little quarantine tradition.

With a cloud of uncertainty constantly surrounding us, it’s important to hold on the little things that keep us grounded. However, that’s definitely a piece of advice easier said than done. We’re all reacting to the quarantine differently. 

With a cloud of uncertainty constantly surrounding us, it’s important to hold on the little things that keep us grounded. However, that’s definitely a piece of advice easier said than done. We’re all reacting to the quarantine differently. 

I’m fortunate enough to have a strong support system at home.

And as I set out to do the most I can amidst quarantine, it’s the little things like helping me arrange my study desk and giving me the privacy I ask for that elicit the impression that I can always turn to my family in both the good and the bad.

Looking Through a Window

Recently, Tarlac has over 290 COVID-19 cases, and the Philippines has over 260,000, with more than 4,000 new cases added in just one day. 

When I look out at other countries as their restrictions slowly lift, there’s an undeniable pinch of jealousy that makes me feel left out. Why didn’t we handle the virus as efficiently as they did? Why aren’t we doing it right?

What hurts as well is seeing restaurants and hang out spots you’ve known suddenly close down. It makes me wonder what kind of “normal” would be greeting all of us when this ends. 

It’s clear that many sectors of the county have been stripped bare from the crisis, and it hurts feeling like we’re still far from the clearing. It’s as if we’re constantly just looking through a glass window that’s tainted with exhaust and fear.

And we can try to distract ourselves by cooking up new recipes or binging on a new series, but there’s always going to be the question, what happens next?

However, I still think that things can and will take an upturn. Maybe this sounds pathetic coming from a privileged hopeful 20-year-old, but I like to believe that instead of transitioning to a new normal, we could still transition back to normal.

Sometimes when I look out at the streets of Tarlac, I see little signs of color coming to life once more.

The province of Tarlac has always been known as a melting pot of rich cultures and traditions; so when I look out and see these hints of life, I know this will eventually pass. 

I mean, it has to, right?

About the Author:

Subselfie - Gab Jopillo

Gab Jopillo is currently a third year AB Communication student at the University of Santo Tomas. Feel free to reach her through gabjopillo@gmail.com or on Instagram @gabjopillo.

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