Graphics by Renz Joshua Palalimpa

Text by Kiara Gorrospe

That the pandemic would persist until December was unexpected when Filipinos were first told to stay at home in March. 

Since then, many have become acquainted with a new reality built around observing social distancing, working from home and following strict public health measures. With the holidays right around the corner, however, this “new normal” is expected to take a turn for the worse. 

Though restrictions on mass gatherings have forced most people to rethink their celebrations in the middle of the pandemic, these festivities are foreseen to resurface this holiday season. As the daily count of COVID-19 cases continues to rise, this poses a major risk to the already alarming spread of the virus in the country.

By the end of the year, the UP Pandemic Response Team (UP PRT) estimates an average of 585,216 COVID-19 cases — falling anywhere between 402,821 and 767,611. 

Why Christmas mass gatherings are a disaster waiting to happen

The Department of Health reported a spike in daily cases by mid-December after relaxed mandates allowing persons 15 to 65 years old to go out unpoliced. 

The sudden rise in cases can be linked to the public’s increased mobility at this time, UP PRT’s Peter Cayton said. 

The public’s gradual return to social gatherings after eased lockdown rules is also a major culprit in the heightened spread of the virus, Cayton added. Since June, many provinces around the country were placed under general community quarantine and modified general community quarantine.

“Any physical social interaction risks infection. When there is a large gathering of people in relatively close distance to each other in a relatively small area with poor ventilation, the virus can spread faster,” he said. 

The virus primarily spreads through aerosol particles, particularly in indoor and crowded places. Physical contact without protection, even with just one person who could potentially be a carrier, poses a risk of infection. 

It can also spread when people carrying the virus sneeze, cough, or touch surfaces such as doorknobs, tables and handrails. Contamination is highly possible when coming into contact with these surfaces without prior disinfection or hand-washing. 

With the densely populated nature of urban areas such as Metro Manila, residents in the country’s capital are at a higher risk of contracting the virus. This is owed to the difficulty of managing public activity and the abundance of small, close-contact spaces. 

In light of this, some people have resorted to spacious outdoor celebrations under the impression that there is a lower risk of contracting the virus. 

Can outdoor spaces reduce the spread of the virus?

While open-air setups can reduce the spread, Cayton said there is still a present risk, especially if the density of gatherers in an area is sufficiently large.

Think a small restaurant with 20 or more people, or a living room with a full set of extended family members. Regardless of whatever social circumstances surround such gatherings, the setting of a small but densely populated area makes viral transmission easier because of proximity.

“Social gatherings will involve instances of removing protection or touching surfaces. One cannot eat or drink without removing a mask and one will touch surfaces in moving around, like handrails, utensils, tools and walls,” Cayton added. 

In such instances, medical experts and government authorities have been calling the public to continue wearing face masks and shields, disinfecting one’s hands and surfaces regularly and practicing social distancing.

Wearing surgical masks, in particular, is advised to be the most effective practice to reduce disease transmission since they block out larger air particles and wet droplets that can carry the virus. 

Still, health experts caution that it should not be a substitute for social distancing. 

Gatherings as part of a ‘nationally constructed identity’

With the Christmas season lasting from September to January, holiday traditions are evidently deeply embedded within Filipino culture. Gatherings of any size are thus expected to take place throughout this period. 

UP Department of Sociology instructor Ash Presto said Filipinos’ tendency to gather during the holidays falls under a larger concept of national identity. 

“We have this nationally constructed identity as sociable, hospitable people who really like to come together and mingle,” she added.

Filipinos’ hospitable reputation is what drives them to host celebrations and accommodate others ‘with open arms in their homes,’ Presto said. 

One of the most tangible Filipino holiday practices, for instance, is the nine-night-long Simbang Gabi, with its convergence of both religious and communal traditions.

However, given the record-high crowds that flock to churches during these Catholic holiday masses, the risk of COVID-19 transmission even with social distancing threatens those who choose to continue with the practice physically.

Migrating the Christmas celebrations online  

With COVID-19 daily cases projected to climb in the days ahead, cultural holiday traditions are not immune to the major adjustments that come with the “new normal.” As events made their way to the internet given the past months’ restrictions on mass gatherings, Christmas festivities are expected to follow suit.

Migrating festivities online without sacrificing cultural traditions is definitely not an easy feat, Presto says, but it is one of the safest options should Filipinos choose to push through with their celebrations. 

Dahil nga nagkakaroon ng pandemic fatigue at nahihirapan yung mga taong mag-organize ng mga virtual conferences or virtual reunions, hindi natin naiiwasan na lumabas talaga, thereby tumataas ‘yung mga kaso sa Pilipinas,” Presto said.

The downside brought on by such alternatives, however, is that many Filipinos still lack access to sufficient technology, internet and funds to gather with their loved ones online. 

Itong capacity natin to migrate our cultural practices online, hindi rin siya the same across the board. Magkakaiba tayo rito,” she added.

Though emotional fatigue can drive people to seek out the pre-pandemic way of life, the risk of COVID-19 remains an imminent threat to individual and public health. As cases begin to sharply soar amidst relaxed restrictions and increased movement, Cayton shares that projections for the future become all the more murky. 

“We still see new COVID-19 cases coming up next year. Whether they will decelerate or accelerate is still an unclear picture,” he said.

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