Text by Aedrian Josef Mariano
Like a flightless bird caged by the walls of their home, trapped by the walls of discrimination and pinned under judgmental gazes and rumors, grief in the time of a pandemic is a painful chapter for the Buquid family.
Eight months have passed since the Buquids’ loss, but for granddaughter Myara, the pain of losing her beloved maternal grandfather Lolo Boy still lingers.
Growing up closely with him, Myara considers Lolo Boy a very important man in her life.
“My parents separated when I was seven and I stayed with my mom. My Lolo became my father figure growing up,” she says.
Myara remembers him as a warm and tender grandfather who always had a friendly smile across his face. She remarks how much of a hard worker he was, running their meat shop despite his age, and a good cook — one who has poured much love into his food.
But after she lost him to the virus, never will his presence grace the Buquid home again, nor will their market stall be manned by him. The character he exemplified has been tarnished by stigma in his last moments in this world.
It happened early March at the onset of the public health crisis.
As the nation grappled with understanding the virus, along with the government’s unclear health response to the global pandemic, the viral disease rattled the Buquid household.
“It was one weekend, nilagnat na siya [Lolo Boy]. Tapos, ayun na. Akala namin… ‘Hindi naman siguro.’ Ang symptom niya nga lang ay lagnat [at] ubo,” recounts Myara.
Myara’s family assumed that Lolo Boy must have contracted the virus at the market while he was working in their meat shop. Prior to his exposure, Lolo Boy was already suffering from health complications brought by his age of 70, furthering his susceptibility.
With vague protocols at the time and with only common symptoms manifesting from Lolo Boy, the best their family could do was isolate him in the meantime and observe his condition. The family hesitated to bring Lolo Boy to a hospital at that time with the fear of further exposing him. It was a tough decision — a dreadful waiting game for Myara and her family.
What started as an on-and-off fever and slight colds soon turned into severe coughing, breathing difficulties, and even diarrhea. After almost a week with no sign of recovery from his worsening condition, Lolo Boy was finally rushed to the hospital during one sleepless dawn.
“Nagising kami mga 2 a.m., at ayon na, nagsabi na si Lola, ‘Tignan niyo si Tatay [Lolo Boy] niyo, parang nagdedeliryo na’,” Myara recalls. ”Parang nag-iba na ‘yung color ng skin niya. At doon na siya dinala sa ospital… It took us a while to find a hospital that would accommodate him.”
The memory of that night still burns in Myara’s memory: her panic as she called several hospitals, hopping from one line to another in hopes of finding one that would admit her grandfather.
Her family’s anxiety grew as the seconds ticked away. They knew what was coming, but it was too painful to accept at that moment.
No more than 24 hours into his hospital admission, Lolo Boy passed away.
“It was very quick. Namatay siya without us knowing whether he was positive or not. Sabi nila [the hospital], [in] two days daw malalaman,” Myara said, finding out only two weeks later that Lolo Boy was positive.
Like a thief in the night, the pandemic had claimed another soul. Lolo Boy was among the first fatalities of COVID-19 in the country.
In his passing, the pandemic etched a scar on Myara and her family — a bitter prelude to what was to come next for them.
Even before receiving Lolo Boy’s lab test results, the Buquid family immediately placed themselves under a two-week quarantine. They could not get themselves tested at the time as the protocols for testing were yet unclear.
Thankfully, none within the household developed any symptoms during that period.
“Walang nag-contract ng symptoms sa amin. It was really just my Lolo which is somehow a blessing in disguise… Kasi kinabahan kaming lahat. We all knew how contagious it [the virus] can be,” Myara said.
However, a different story circulated in their community.
“Wala pa kaming nakukuhang results ng diagnosis after [kung] na-COVID ba si Lolo Boy. But s’yempre, ang kapitbahay kapag namatay [sa panahon ng quarantine], COVID na agad ‘yan,” she says.
The rumors circulating Lolo Boy’s death bred more untrue stories about the Buquid family. One gossip alleged that their whole family contracted the viral disease. In another, it was only Myara’s grandmother who was positive, with some supposing that she had passed away, too.
Like wildfire, the gossip spread even to their neighboring barangay. Their voices, as much as they pleaded and explained their side, were drowned in their community’s unfounded fear of being infected by them. The whispers grew to rumors and eventually, translated to acts of discrimination.
“’Di pa kami lumalabas sa gate, kunyari magho-hose lang kami ng tapat. Parang iiwasan nila [kami]. Iba ‘yung tingin eh. Tapos malalaman mo may mga usap-usapan na,” Myara laments.
On another occasion, when Myara’s uncle and stepfather went out to purchase food and supplies, some establishments declined to render service to them.
The situation went out of hand to the point that the barangay captain had to intervene.
In Myara’s household, it was hardest for her grandmother, who was the subject of gossip, and her uncle, who directly experienced discrimination as the house’s errand-runner.
With the pointed stares, the buzz of gossip and the suffocating anxiety of others’ judgment of them — in a time when they should have been grieving — the Buquid family’s loss was weighed down by the treatment they experienced.
Under normal circumstances, there would have been a funeral, and messages of condolences would have been pouring for their bereaved family — but the pandemic robbed them of that opportunity, replacing it with fear and anxiety.
Looking back, Myara wished people understood the boundary between caution and discrimination.
“To a point, I understand the concern… S’yempre mahalaga pa rin malaman kung sino ‘yung nasa paligid mo na may cases. Pero, to the point you spread false information, it is very harmful,” says Myara.
During these trying times, it is understandable for every individual to be vigilant and cautious of the virus. After all, knowledge and awareness safeguard the community against the pandemic. However, as much as information is key, wrong information is also harmful.
From the onset of the new coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) immediately warned against the “infodemic” of misinformation in these times of crisis. With the risks posed by fake news from social media to circulating community rumors, a study affirms that misinformation can reinforce health-related fears and phobias.
More pressingly, misplaced fear may develop into negative social responses like discrimination as experienced by the Buquids. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres stated that “the instability and fear that the pandemic engenders is exacerbating existing human rights concerns.”
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation is another virus plaguing us. Community rumors breed amid fear as we face the shroud of the uncertainty of whom among us may be infected.
“Rather than showing malice or hostility, let us practice more empathy when it comes to dealing with these kinds of stories, with these kinds of cases,” Myara says. “COVID isn’t something that discriminates against the rich, the poor, the old, the young – it can hit everyone and anyone. And wala namang may gusto magka-COVID.”
For Myara, the death of Lolo Boy, along with the aftermath of their loss and grief, is now a bitter memory that only time can heal.
But as long as this pandemic continues to plague the country with thousands of new COVID-19 cases each day, Myara knows that there could be another family out there who, like them, might be going through the same pain and struggle they suffered eight months ago.
Community solidarity and awareness-raising from the grassroots level of society is key to fighting the pandemic. However, with over 427,000 cases and counting, a gap of accountability from the government needs to be filled as well.
With the administration’s blunders in responding to the pandemic — from implementing a late nationwide lockdown to enforcing militaristic solutions to a health crisis — there yet remains a need for proactive, pro-people and science backed measures facilitated by responsible governance.
Lolo Boy and Myara give a face to the real, human struggles behind daily tallies of COVID-19. While the end of the pandemic is far from sight, Myara is hopeful that discrimination towards those afflicted by the virus will soon end. “COVID-19 is no gossiping matter — it really isn’t. Confirm facts, learn to sympathize with those who are affected instead of adding sa bigat ng nararamdaman nila, and be more considerate.”