By Diana G. Mendoza

Gathering information and retelling people’s stories have taken a different tack during the pandemic. But three Filipino female journalists continue to deliver the news, however bad this time, and thrive while on varying forms of lockdown in foreign lands.

Missing the pleasant sound of human chatter

“I thought I was a loner but now, I know that I actually miss being with people – just being able to be around other human beings, not even people I know.” Stella Gonzales hit this realization while on lockdown in London. “It could be the bus driver or the train station staff or even the homeless people asking for spare change or kind commuters sitting across you, who nod at you in a greeting.”

Stella, a digital production journalist of London’s Financial Times (FT), has lived in London for nine years. The UK government announced a lockdown on March 23 for non-essential workers, but more than a week before that, the FT had already told its employees to work from home if possible. Stella worked for three days after the FT made the announcement. While most people had already started working remote, the handful who weren’t were not even social-distancing. She was worried about her commute, and was paranoid she might catch the virus despite taking the usual precautions.

The “desolate and too quiet” last three days in office made it gloomier. “I felt sad when I went out during my lunchbreak and seeing the sidewalks, usually packed with tourists, almost empty.”

Stella, a veteran journalist for over three decades, has been with FT for 13 years, the first four years in FT Manila office. She was previously head of the news service of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Now almost three months on lockdown, Stella says she misses the routine of commuting to work and working in an office, of seeing people, whether they be other commuters or her colleagues or other workers or tourists. “I miss hearing the chatter, the hum of conversation – there is no such thing when isolating. I now realized that hearing people talk, in different languages, on the phone, or with each other, on the train or bus or on the streets or in the office, can be a pleasant sound.”

Stella Gonzales traveling in an almost empty airplane (Photo: Stella Gonzales)

But her daily WFH activities make up for the sad last days in office, because the editorial team she’s in has a daily video hangout for about 15 minutes where they catch up on what’s going on with their lives. The hangouts made her feel much closer to her colleagues now under lockdown than when they were working in the office. “Our office has made it a point to encourage everyone to keep in touch with each other, pointing out the dangers of social isolation have on mental wellbeing,” she said.

She manages her remote work well by waking up an hour before her shift and logging on a few minutes before her shift starts. Her first task is to check her emails then to create a group chat for the day for easier team communication. Then she starts editing stories, takes an hour of lunch break, and resumes editing.

“Our office has made it a point to encourage everyone to keep in touch with each other, pointing out the dangers of social isolation have on mental wellbeing,”

Stella may have missed being with fellow humans outside of her home but she likes it that she continues to be in touch and spends time with her friends from different countries through video calls. She has saved on transportation expenses. She can also sleep and wake up later than usual; can wear comfortable T-shirts and lounge pants while working.

One last lockdown thing she likes – “I don’t have to wear make-up.”

Remembering the world outside

Thailand did not go on total lockdown, and has in fact lifted curfews, but Johanna Son, Bangkok-based founder and editor of the Reporting ASEAN media series, recalls stocking up on essentials in mid-March as the partial lockdown started. “I remember having to go to three places to find the oatmeal I use, when people were overbuying out of anxiety,” she recalled.

Johanna Son (left), Bangkok-based Filipino journalist (Photo from Son’s FB page)

By the time Bangkok started easing up restrictions, she already had many dishes added to her menu list because she cooks a lot. When going out to buy food, she brings her own containers to cut down on plastic packaging. She is not a fan of food deliveries.

Johanna, a journalist who has followed regional issues for more than three decades, mentors Southeast Asian journalists. She’s a trainer and contributor to various news outlets like the Bangkok Post and Nikkei Asian Review. Her busy schedule pre-Covid continued into her WFH timetable.

For two months now, she has been doing the Reporting ASEAN series and social media page with at least one infographic around regional trends and highlights on COVID-19, with data viz done by a colleague and friend, Yvonne Chua. They choose something interesting, different, or worrisome to highlight. “We showed statistics that give more context beyond gross numbers. I look at it as battling many of the wrong conclusions that appear in news or online spaces and also at times, confused reporting,” she said.

Johanna also handles stories related to the “reset” the world needs to do, or the decisions and changes people adopt as a result of the pandemic. Some of the stories look at misconfirmation or disinformation, and how people understand and process online information. The stories also scrutinize social media information that has played a big part in the “info-disinfodemic” and the way publics respond to the pandemic.

Photo from Johanna Son’s Facebook account

Somehow, the isolation did her good in her writing and editing, which, “means a lot of time by oneself anyway, and it feels like there is more intellectual space.” She had also managed to finish a lot of writing through the lockdown period, including “a handbook of sorts.” She also welcomes having less distractions such as shopping, and wishes this habit lasts. She finds relief in cleaner air, because Bangkokians have been using masks since December to January, pre-pandemic, because of the smog. “It’s nice not to see pollution indicators rising to orange or red or violet, and without having to open your air purifier,” she said.

A regular walker and gym enthusiast, Johanna is not used to being sedentary. “I take regular walks for a few blocks to get some sun and remember there is a world outside.” She likes the space to watch performances and films offered free online, but she also tries to listen to podcasts and others to reduce screen time, because at one point, she got a neckache from looking down too much at her notebook computer. 

Online gym classes help but it’s not the same as going to the gym, which she misses, and having to meet up with friends. One thing that’s gone is the freedom to not going through a checklist of things before doing something or going somewhere, such as doing errands. She makes sure she has face mask and face shield, alcohol and gloves, even if, she said, “these are tiny things in the larger scheme of things in our very ill planet.”

Stories can scrutinize social media information that has played a big part in the ‘info-disinfodemic’ and the way publics respond to the pandemic.

Johanna saw the lockdown restrictions as a reality that she can live with. “We all have a lot to be grateful for and it is not deprivation.” But while she likes the ‘feeling’ of quietness, “in many ways there is a disquiet because it’s a difficult time for many.” There may also be less external noise, she said, “but ambulance sirens remind you of the times.”

It’s very easy to lose track of time during the pandemic, she said. “Not too nice is the feeling of not knowing which day it is, when the days melt into weeks and now, months.”

News pitches, email interviews and a time for prayers

Mariecar Jara-Puyod, a senior reporter of Gulf Today, the English daily broadsheet and online portal of the Dar Al Khaleej Press, Printing, Publishing company in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (UAE), has been on remote work since March 17, 2020, two days after editor in chief Aysha Taryam circulated a memo directing all those in field work to work from home (WFH).

Mariecar Jara-Puyod in the Kone Plant in Lohja, Finland during the August 2019 Business Finland-organized Tour for journalists in relation to Finland’s participation at Expo2020 Dubai (Photo: Mariecar Jara-Puyod)

The company publishes the Arabic newspaper, Al Khaleej that has Arabic dailies in the Middle East and North Africa, with other publications on trade, women and life and leisure. Gulf Today is among four English mainstream newspapers in the UAE and the only one from Sharjah, one of the seven UAE emirates, north of Dubai. Abu Dhabi, the capital, is south of Dubai.

Since August 2005, Mariecar has been with the company, covering ASEAN missions and communities, Korea and Finland missions and communities, health, science, environment, and women, including the Dubai Courts from 2007 to 2009.

“That memo made me uneasy. I wondered how I could get the news. Though I do email interviews, I prefer face-to-face interviews and attending events and press conferences,” she said. “That is how I was trained in the Philippines; even by my dad, Manolo B. Jara (veteran journalist and editor who reports for Gulf Today from the Philippines).”

However, she did not follow the remote work memo immediately as she had a scheduled interview with an Indian woman in Dubai, who is among the pioneer members of a multi-racial, ethnic quilting association for women since the 1990s.

After another reminder from executive editor Shaadaab Bakht, requesting all reporters to start remote WFH, Mariecar took a bagful of used bond papers for her writing use as scratch. That was the last day of her journalism field work.

After a few weeks, she realized that WFH works for her. “I am enjoying remote work and the avalanche of news pitches.” she said.

Public relations (PR) practitioners propose news topics and webinars. Even if sometimes, journalists get irritated with PR people, she said she’s grateful because they keep her posted for possible news with much of the world under quarantine. “Professionalism and ethical journalism are still the tenets when journalists work with those in PR. They understand that I work for news and not just attach my byline in their press releases.”

Using WhatsApp, she interviewed and reported the repatriations of Filipinos after being alerted by embassy officials of Indonesia in Abu Dhabi and the Indonesian Consulate General’s office in Dubai. She recalled having exchanged messages with Consul Baim, First Secretary and Consul for Media and Information at the Indonesian Embassy, until 2:30 am after he posted a press release at past 12 midnight.

Her virtual interviews and reports regarding Filipinos in Abu Dhabi and the Western Region were made possible through the help of Philippine Ambassador Hjayceelyn Quintana and Consul General Marford Angeles in Abu Dhabi.

Just recently, Mariecar said she asked Consul General Marford Angeles to help her connect with Labour Attache’ Alejandro Padaen to verify news about the Philippine Department of Labor and Employment’s $200.00 one-time cash assistance to displaced Filipinos. Padaen indeed called her up. She also received help from Consul General Paul Raymund Cortes and Labour Attache’ Felicitas Bay who handle Filipinos’ needs while on lockdown in Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah.

Mariecar Jara-Puyod at the Consular Reception for the National Foundation Day of the Republic of South Korea hosted by the Consulate General of the Republic of South Korea-Dubai in November 2019 (Photo: Mariecar Jara-Puyod)

The parade of names is Mariecar’s new normal as she interacts with people to get the news while she’s having fun attending virtual sessions in the UAE and other parts of the world such as the Philippines and the UK.

She recalled breaking out twice from WFH mode to cover, along with photographer Kamal Kassim, the inauguration of the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company COVID19 testing centers in Dubai, Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah, which was organized under the patronage of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed Bin.

“In that field work assignment, I saw several Filipino healthcare workers, and I interviewed them,” she said.

Her second field work was reporting on the wastewater treatment plant Qatra Water Solutions in Sharjah’s Al Sajaa Industrial Area. The French general manager, Gurvan Dersel, took her and her photographer to see artificial lakes.

“I saw nature and wildlife there after two months. It was a breather,” she said.

Mariecar doesn’t mind the daily flurry of news pitches, email interviews and webinars because of the relaxed and comfortable WFH setting. “Reporters would always bring news no matter what,” she said.  

“I have more time for rest and prayers now,” she also realized. “Trust and dependence on God keep my life as a journalist rolling and exciting.” WWW