By Agnes Españo-Dimzon

In the first week of July, a colleague at work tested positive for coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

This was bound to happen as more and more people were going out to do their errands in malls, banks and government service centers, and Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) and locally-stranded individuals (LSIs) were pouring in unregulated and not properly coordinated from Manila to the cities and provinces as a result of the government’s balik-probinsya (return-to-provinces) program.

We had one or two positive cases daily according to the Department of Health (DOH) reports but the numbers began to rise to 10, 17, 25, most of whom were repatriated OFWs and LSIs from Negros Occidental. Now, the numbers have risen to over 200 positive cases in a day.

Post-quarantine trip to Southern Iloilo (Photo by Agnes Españo-Dimzon)

We, of course, could not stop them from coming as Iloilo is also their home. Where else would they go? Still, it could have been handled more properly so local government units are prepared enough to receive them. The number of community transmissions began at around the time my colleague became positive, and also when about eight doctors at a major private hospital also tested positive of the virus.

We were on our way to the office on July 1, a Wednesday, when we were informed of our officemate’s positive result in the antibodies rapid test. Right then, we realized we have become PUMs (persons under monitoring to use the old terminology), having had close contact with him. With about eight other companions, I stayed in his airconditioned office for more than an hour the previous Friday for a meeting that should have been virtual if not for our bad internet connection. He was already feeling unwell at that time but did not inform us. His positive result was validated in the RT-PCR (reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction, one of the most accurate lab methods for detecting COVID-19 from nasal secretions; also known as a nasal swab) test which came out three days after, on July 3.

We proceeded to the office but stopped at the gate when our director declared that staff should go on quarantine. We did not wait for the City Mayor to declare a lockdown or we would not have been able to leave the compound. Upon reaching home, our admin officer instructed us to inform our respective barangays who would tell us the proper protocols to follow.

Children playing in a rural community in Southern Iloilo (Photo by Agnes Españo-Dimzon)

Good thing most of us were allowed to go on home quarantine. I was willing to be housed in the barangay facility, but the barangay captain, who is also my cousin, said it was okay for me to stay home as long as I am able to isolate myself from the rest of the household. I also had two private doctors as neighbors – another cousin and a niece – who instructed  everyone in the house to strictly stay home, and not allow visitors including our helpers. They made sure that I was not having any symptoms of the virus.

Good thing too, that I had my own bedroom, and a bathroom I used to share with other family members which would now be for my own exclusive use. I ate my meals separately so there were no more precious talks with my child over lunch and dinner.

Then the discrimination started. Some neighbors wanted to file a petition to transfer me to a quarantine facility because I was a health risk in our community. I understood them somehow, but could not help feeling hurt. My COVID-positive office mate, who had since been admitted to the hospital, was subjected to all sorts of radio commentaries speculating that his sex life could have caused him to contract the virus, even if his could be a case of local transmission.

Lucy, a lockdown companion (Photo by Agnes Españo-Dimzon)

My perception that Iloilo was doing well in handling the pandemic seemed to be mere fantasy. Because travel to and from the city and province was no longer restricted, the number of positive cases was rising and the local government units (LGUs) had their hands full.

The capability to handle the crisis varied from LGU to LGU. There were those who were quick to respond, while others lacked the resources but were able to manage it well. Some LGUs identified low-risk cases that only needed to complete the 14-day quarantine without undergoing a swab test to determine if they were positive or not. But there were those who lacked a strong leadership to handle limited resources like testing kits and personnel. In my village, the only medical technologist in our rural health unit (RHU) had to go on quarantine after being exposed to a COVID-positive case, leaving a backlog in processing test results.

I ranted on Facebook, called a fellow worker at the Department of Health office and the office of a congressional representative. Funny, because it only took some coordination with the Provincial Health Office (PHO) to dispatch temporary replacement personnel for our town to address the backlogs.

Doing crochet clears the mind during quarantine (Photo by Agnes Españo-Dimzon)

The delay in the conduct of RT-PCR tests in our town drove my anxiety to the ceiling. [A PCR test looks for the genetic material of corona virus when the person is actively infected. Editor] Good thing, my sister who is working in a nursing home in the U.S. stepped in and sponsored a swab test from a private hospital for the three of us in the household – my 18-year-old daughter, my older sister who just turned 60, and me. I was hesitant at first because it was too expensive at PhP7,500 (US$155) per test for the likes of me – but knowing what I was up against relieved my anxiety.

I was worried about the delay as my child twice forgot and used my bathroom in the middle of the night. I was afraid that if I turned out positive, I could have infected her already.  “Mapatay ako sa nerbiyos, indi sa COVID (I would die of anxiety, not from COVID),” I kept saying.

The medical technologist from a private hospital went to our house early in the morning of July 10 to administer the test. (It should have been done within seven days after our last contact with the COVID-positive case.) Since the COVID testing of his hospital was not accredited by the DOH, I still had to go through the scheduled swab testing by the RHU later that morning.

The LGU ambulance picked me up at about 9 a.m. I was brought to the quarantine facility where the LSIs were being housed and waited for close to an hour for the medtech from the PHO to get my nasal specimen. My anxiety was eased further when the DOH nurse told me the risk of infection from my office mate was low because we were seated at a safe distance from him and we were all wearing face masks. He barely spoke, too (perhaps because he was already feeling sick).

The results of our swab tests from the private hospital were out by 4p.m. that same day. It was negative for the three of us. I managed a sigh of great relief. The DOH test results came after 19 days  because the machine used in the processing of specimens at the Western Visayas Medical Center broke down, adding to the already rising backlogs in the province. The whole system was so pathetic it made me want to cry. I wondered where all the money the national government was trumpeting about went because their support could hardly be felt at all in the barangays.

Mountains of Southern Iloilo (Photo by Agnes Españo-Dimzon)

I could not rant anymore because I would be making enemies of my relatives. My cousin, the barangay captain who had a heart by-pass operation a few years back is working so hard at his job that included handling LSIs who managed to sneak in through the borders of the barangay. Members of the Barangay Health Emergency Response Team (BHERT) are assigned the huge task of monitoring cases though they were not really trained for COVID-19.  The one assigned to my case first remotely monitored me only through my house help – instead of asking me directly, until I ranted to the RHU and she finally interviewed me. I had to assure her it was okay to text me regularly to check up on me.

The municipal doctor would not sign our clearance although we completed the 14-day quarantine because our DOH swab test results have not been released due to the machine breakdown.  She followed the instructions of the governor instead of the DOH guidelines. I got my results on July 29 – two days short of one month from my first day of quarantine (July 1).

I have been back to work for more than a month now, having visited three mountain barangays already while keeping in mind proper health protocols. Still, fear rises up my throat every time I have to join mass gatherings that are supposedly still prohibited by the local inter-agency task force monitoring COVID-19 cases. I encountered people who forgot to protect themselves – like one youth federation president who came late in one program and proudly announced that he just came from the airport to fetch someone. He went straight to sit beside me not wearing a face mask. I stood up and moved way from him. I realized I just have to take care of myself so I would not infect other people. WWW