Before the pandemic hit, there was first an epidemic in the Philippines. From January to July 2019, the Department of Health (DOH) recorded 146,062 dengue cases in the country—98% higher than that of the previous year. Because of this spike in cases and 622 deaths, a national dengue epidemic was declared to better mitigate both the causes and effects of the disease.
Dengue wreaks the worst havoc during the rainy season, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. With the country frequently experiencing monsoon rains and about 20 tropical cyclones a year, DOH introduced its health campaign against WILD Diseases—an acronym for common illnesses during the rainy season.
Photo from DOH Bicol’s Facebook page
W IS FOR WATER-BORNE DISEASES.
According to Dr. Lionel Peters, a public health physician, water-borne and foot diseases are caused by the ingestion of contaminated water or food. Examples of these diseases include:
- typhoid fever
- acute gastroenteritis characterized by diarrhea and frequent vomiting
- dysentery or bloody diarrhea
- Hepatitis A, a liver infection caused by the hepatitis virus
“Water-borne diseases are usually bacterial or viral,” said Dr. Peters. “Diarrhea is its most common symptom, but patients can also experience fever, muscle pain and vomiting.” These illnesses are widespread during the rainy season, which compromises sanitation and access to safe drinking water.
Dr. Peters, also a doctor to the barrios, has seen first-hand how these diseases affect Filipinos living in remote areas. “There are so many places where people don’t have sanitation facilities and toilets. This system makes it easy for human waste to contaminate water sources, which is how people get sick. Water-borne diseases can kill through dehydration, especially among children and those with an weak immune system.”
During the rainy season, Dr. Peters and his team make it a point to visit barangays to remind residents to do the following:
- Boil water before drinking. Those living in remote places rely on wells for water. But during the rainy season, the run-off water from the mountains which may carry human and animal wastes end up in wells. To ensure clean drinking water, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) recommends filtering cloudy water through a clean cloth or paper towel before bringing it a roiling boil for 3 minutes.
- Frequently wash hands. “Hand washing is one of the best measures against disease. Proper hand sanitation is the key, as well as the proper sanitation of the body,” said Dr. Peters.
- Practice proper food handling and storage. Wash hands before touching food, and always store food in clean containers. To prevent food spoilage, cook only what you can consume immediately. This is especially advisable in places without refrigeration.
- Maintain clean surroundings. This minimizes food and water contamination, and discourages pests which may carry diseases.
I IS FOR INFLUENZA-LIKE ILLNESS.
Aileen Espiritu, program manager of the DOH’s National Aedes-Borne Viral Disease Prevention and Control, stated that influenza-like illnesses are lung diseases caused by the influenza or flu virus.
Because flu symptoms are similar to those of COVID-19, Espiritu offered this guide:
|Symptoms appear 1-5 days after exposure to the virus.||Symptoms appear after 5 days or more after exposure to the virus.|
|Its main symptom is severe coughing. This may be accompanied by fever and symptoms, which last for 1-7 days.||Usual symptoms include fever, cough, difficulty in breathing, fatigue, sore throat, runny nose, muscle pain, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, and the possible loss of taste and smell.|
|Flu can lead to complications like bronchitis and lung infection. It may be fatal.||According to WebMD, those with both COVID-19 and comorbidities may end up with pneumonia, acute respiratory failure, acute cardiac injury and many others. COVID-19 may be fatal.|
Because flu and COVID-19 have similar symptoms, Espiritu recommended taking the RT-PCR test for COVID-19 to determine the disease. “To ensure our safety and that of our loved ones, we should always remember to quarantine or isolate ourselves while waiting for our swab test results,” she said in a mix of Filipino and English. “This prevents us from spreading the virus.”
Leptospirosis is prevalent in urban places. (photo by Jilson Tiu/Greenpeace)
L IS FOR LEPTOSPIROSIS
According to Dr. Peters, leptospirosis is caused by bacteria found in animal urine, particularly from rats. “When we cross a flooded area contaminated with rat urine and we have wounds or a break in the skin, the bacteria can enter our bodies and cause infection.” The most common symptom of leptospirosis is fever. “So, if you have fever two days after your flood exposure, consult a doctor right away. We want to keep the infection from progressing and causing complications.”
Complications, which include kidney failure may cause death. Dr. Peters stated the other common symptoms of leptospirosis aside from fever:
- muscle ache
- body pain
- severe headache
- eye redness
- abdominal pain
- vomiting and diarrhea
“The best way to avoid leptospirosis is to avoid flood exposure, especially if you have wounds and skin breaks. Preventive measures include preparedness. If you live in a flood-prone area, make sure you’re protected. Even before the rainy season comes, invest in rain boots and protective clothing to prevent flood water from touching your skin,” said Dr. Peters. He added that leptospirosis is rampant in urban areas. This is why children should not be allowed playing in flood water.
D IS FOR DENGUE.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dengue “is transmitted by female mosquitoes mainly of the species Aedes aegypti.” Though dengue is at its peak during the rainy season, Espiritu said it is present any time of the year. “When the rains come from July to October, the mosquitoes’ breeding sites multiply. The dengue-carrying mosquitoes prefer dark places with stagnant water.”
Like the other WILD diseases, an early medical consultation is vital to prevent dengue from worsening. “If you’ve had fever for 2-7 days and experiencing at least two of its symptoms, set an appointment with a doctor right away,” advised Espiritu. She shared the following dengue symptoms:
- Feeling of being weak
- Muscle and joint pain
- Pain at the back of the eyes
- Loss of appetite
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Red or itchy skin
From the declaration of the National Dengue Epidemic in 2019, DOH data showed that there was an 81% decrease in dengue cases and deaths in 2020. Espiritu largely attributed this success to the enhancement of DOH’s 4S strategy.
Photo from DOH Bicol’s Facebook page
- Search and destroy mosquito-breeding sites.
Anything that holds stagnant water inside and outside your homes should be emptied regularly. These include tire tubes, basins and flower vases. “If you have to store water because of water interruptions, make sure that your containers have lids so mosquitoes can’t use them as breeding places,” Espiritu said. “Make sure your surroundings are clean. Recycle or dispose of containers in and outside your homes so they won’t catch rain water.”
Wear long-sleeved shirts, pants and insect repellent to ward off mosquito bites.
- Seek early consultation.
Early prevention prevents dengue or any other disease from escalating. “We understand that many of us hesitate to go to clinics or hospitals because of COVID-19. But we have tele-consultations wherein doctors can advise you on your illness.
- Support fogging or spraying.
According to DOH, this is “only done in hotspot areas in anticipation of increased infectious diseases, especially during the rainy season.”
Recently, two barangays in South Cotabato were placed under a state of calamity due to the dengue. But Espiritu assured the public that the declaration was a proactive measure to contain and prevent the further spread of the disease. “Our health development centers and local government units (LGUs) immediately acted on the issue. We do our vectors surveillance and fogging operations, which have 3 to 4 cycles every 7 days. We do targeted indoor and outdoor residual spraying that have 3 cycles every 4 months. We also give NS1 antigen tests among suspected dengue cases.” Espiritu added that the 4S strategy is carried out as a “4 p.m. habit” since it is at this time when dengue-causing mosquitoes are most active.
Since 2019, Espiritu said that fast lanes for dengue patients have been established in health facilities. As to the fear of contracting COVID-19 through mosquito bites, Espiritu explained, “According to WHO and CDC, COVID-19 cannot be transmitted through mosquito bites.”
How to stay healthy during the rainy season
As Espiritu said, it is doubly difficult to get sick during the pandemic. The adage stays true: Prevention is better than cure. “We can avoid these diseases with simple measures,” she said. These include:
- Maintaining a healthy diet
- Getting enough rest
- Boiling water from the faucet before drinking
- Consulting a doctor when feeling sick
- Being informed about the diseases
- Keeping your surroundings clean
- Following health protocols against COVID-19
The WILD diseases may be virulent, but as Dr. Peters put it, “They can be easily prevented if we are alert and armed with the right information.” Meanwhile, Espiritu stressed the importance of being responsible for our own health. “We should prioritize our health, so we can be productive citizens. Being healthy also means protecting our loved ones.”
According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, in 2019, the tourism industry’s contribution to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was 12.7%, equivalent to ₱2.48 trillion—over 10% higher than that of the previous year. But when the pandemic hit in 2020, this was reduced to more than half at only 5.4%. In February this year, Department of Tourism (DOT) Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said that 4.8 Filipinos working in the tourism sector were affected by the pandemic.
But now that restrictions are easing in most parts of the country, DOT is reviving the country’s tourism. “One advantage in the Philippines is that we have a wide domestic tourism base,” shared DOT Usec. Benito Bengzon Jr. in a mix of Filipino and English during a Panayam sa Panahon TV interview. “We don’t solely depend on foreign visitors. Filipinos themselves can help boost our economy. So, we call on our fellow Filipinos to support the reopening of travel destinations while following health and safety protocols.”
Wearing a face mask and face shield is a must during traveling. (photo by Lorna Mamaril)
How you can travel during the pandemic
As the Department of Health (DOH) continues to record daily new cases by the thousands, and with the emergence of deadlier and more transmissible variants, is it really safe to travel during this time? Usec. Bengzon assured the public that DOT consulted with DOH before restarting the travel industry. “We also listened to the pleas of those who lost their jobs—and this is one of the reasons why we’re doing this. We made sure that the 2reopened destinations are in areas which have contained COVID-19, or have low case counts. All these tourism enterprises have health and safety protocols—not only in their accommodations, but also among tour operators and in tour buses, restaurants, and convention facilities.”
According to Usec. Bengzon, the government also made traveling more convenient with the following initiatives:
- Uniform travel requirements
Because travelers complained about different travel requirements from local government units (LGUs), the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) streamlined the protocols. Right now, the only requirement is a negative RT-PCR test. But because situations may change any time, www.philippines.travel provides a list of destinations, their quarantine statuses and particular travel requirements. As of writing, Baguio City welcomes fully vaccinated tourists without the COVID-19 test. “Areas under MGCQ (modified general community quarantine) or GCQ (general community quarantine) are allowed to open their destinations, but if their LGUs don’t want to accept tourists, then that is something we respect,” said Usec. Bengzon.
- Subsidized RT-PCR tests for local tourists
The DOH’s advisory on the price range of RT-PCR testing is a maximum price cap of ₱5,000 for private laboratories, and ₱3,800 for public laboratories. Since this is a must before traveling, the DOT released ₱35.17 million this year to fund 50% of the testing cost for domestic travelers who have confirmed round-trip transportation tickets and a booking confirmation with a DOT-accredited accommodation establishment. Done in partnership with the Philippine General Hospital and the Philippine Children’s Medical Center, Filipino tourists can apply for the subsidy program through this website.
- No age restriction
Filipino of all ages are now allowed to travel. “Before, those below 18 and over 65 years old weren’t allowed to travel,” recalled Usec. Bengzon. “We had to adjust because we all know that when Filipinos travel, they bring the whole family.” Still, all members including infants are required to undergo RT-PCR testing.
- Lessened quarantine period for those entering the Philippines
Recently, the IATF announced that fully vaccinated travelers from “green” countries entering the Philippines now have a lessened quarantine period of 7 days from the previously required 10 days. “Green” countries are “classified by the DOH as low-risk countries or jurisdictions based on disease incidence rate.” Currently, the 57 countries and jurisdictions include:
Antigua and Barbuda
The British Virgin Islands
Cote d’ Ivoire (Ivory Coast)
Isle of Man
Northern Mariana Islands
Saint Kitts and Nevis
Saint Pierre and Miquelon
Turks and Caicos Islands (UK)
IATF now allows children below 18 years old to travel. (Photo by Blueberrie Recto)
Ensuring travel safety
Based on a DOT survey conducted last year, Usec. Bengzon stated that the top destinations Filipinos want to visit when restrictions eased were Boracay and Palawan. But top results also included road trip and staycation destinations. Now that leisure travel is allowed, Usec. Bengzon offered these safety tips:
- Follow minimum public health standards.
“We say this over and over, but this is the most important. We should comply by wearing our face masks and face shields, and by practicing frequent handwashing and physical distancing.” In turn, tourism establishments should also follow strict health and safety protocols. “These protocols were actually crafted by the Department of Tourism,” shared Bengzon. “Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat instructed us to craft safety protocols to ensure everyone’s safety—from tourists and tourism employees to local communities.”
- Conduct transactions online.
To minimize face-to-face contact, accommodations encourage online transactions such as reservation and registration. To reduce the risk of infections, front desks and restaurants are equipped with glass or acrylic partitions. Hotels also limit the number of occupants in a room, depending on its size.
- Allot enough time for planning your trip.
Because traveling during the pandemic requires additional logistics, Usec. Bengzon advised giving yourself enough time to prepare. “If there’s one good thing that came from this pandemic, it’s that we’ve become disciplined in doing our research and making plans. Read up on your destination and its travel requirements. Use technology to your advantage when getting information and making reservations. When moving around the different destinations, cooperate and be patient.”
Helping the travel industry
Technology has also helped travel agency owner, John Paull Belleca, in pivoting his business called Travelleca. “Since the pandemic, we shifted to conducting our business online for the safety of our employees and clients. The good thing about that was we were able to provide 24/7 services, and even grow our market.” Aside from preparing itineraries, Travelleca also assists in securing travel requirements such as swab testing and passport renewals.
But despite the ease in restrictions, Belleca confessed that his business has yet to fully recover. For struggling travel agencies like his, Usec. Bengzon said that the DOT has prepared a 6-billion peso budget to be used by tourism enterprises for their capital loans. “The terms and conditions are very friendly. The loans don’t require collateral or interest. Businesses only need to pay a service fee.” The loan period is up to 4 years, with a grace period of up to 2 years. “For those who lost their jobs related to tourism, we have a program with the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), which allotted ₱3 billion for cash assistance.”
Right now, the DOT continues its training of tourism frontliners on the Filipino brand of hospitality, and helping destinations in their branding, marketing, and events using virtual platforms.
Passport assistance services help travel agencies like Travelleca stay afloat during the pandemic. (photo from Travelleca’s Facebook page)
Is it really safe to travel during the pandemic?
Though pandemic travel still has its risks, Usec. Bengzon believes that it is matter of balancing health and safety protocols with the need to restart an industry that provides millions of jobs to Filipinos. “We know that tourism significantly contributes to our economy. If we cooperate, and with patience and understanding, we’re confident that we can revive our country’s travel industry.”
Still, the ball is in the Filipinos’ court. Whether they choose to travel or not depends on their risk appetite—as well as the country’s pandemic recovery. As Belleca put it, “I think herd immunity is also one of the keys in reviving tourism. This will also ease our fellow Filipinos’ fear of COVID-19.”
Panayam sa Panahon TV airs every Tuesday at 5 p.m. on Panahon TV’s Facebook page.
Latest data from the Department of Health (DOH) stated that at least 2.6 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. According to herdimmunity.ph, this is only 3.76% of the 70-million population the government aims to vaccinate this year to achieve herd immunity. The website says that at the current average rate of 216,451 daily vaccinations, herd immunity will be reached in 1.6 years, or in February 2023. For us to achieve herd immunity by the end of the year, the government needs to ramp up its vaccination 3.3 times its current rate.
Herd immunity or population immunity is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the “indirect protection from an infectious disease that happens when a population is immune either through vaccination or immunity developed through previous infection.” To better understand how we can reach this goal faster, the pilot online episode of Panayam sa Panahon TV featured the experts—health reform advocate Dr. Anthony Leachon and Dr. Noel Bernardo from the Philippine Red Cross.
(photo from Quezon City Hall’s Facebook page)
Why PH is falling behind in the global vaccination drive
When the COVID-19 vaccines still weren’t available, governments resorted to lockdowns to stop the spread of disease. But now, countries like the United Kingdom and the United States have freed up their economies, thanks to systematic and rapid vaccination programs. In a recent segment of Panahon TV called Buhay Pandemya, which featured a Filipino caregiver in Jerusalem in Israel, maskless locals can be seen flocking to the streets and celebrating the return of normalcy. Israel was one of the countries that started their vaccination early, which began last December 2020.
But the scenario in the Philippines is a different story. Though cases in the National Capitol Region (NCR) have been somewhat contained, other areas are experiencing surges. Lockdowns and quarantines are still in place, keeping the economy from fully recovering. If we already know the tried-and-tested formula of mass vaccination as the main key to herd immunity, why then are we still behind in the immunization drive? Our experts chalked it up to three main reasons.
- Lack of vaccine supply
Based on Our World in Data’s latest report, the Philippines ranks 8th among the 10 ASEAN countries in terms of vaccine rollout. During the interview, Dr. Bernardo expressed surprise over his discovery that out of the 3,700 approved vaccination sites in the country, only 1,700 are active. “Based on my experience on the ground with the different LGUs and the bakuna centers of the Philippine Red Cross, a big factor is the lack of vaccines,” he said in Filipino. “Bakuna centers don’t receive enough vaccines. Other LGUs (local government units) can only operate half-days.” Dr. Leachon was quick to agree. “If you don’t have vaccines, it doesn’t matter if you have vaccination sites. People will still have no access to vaccination.”
- Lack of organization
With data gathered from DOH, the National Task Force Against COVID-19, the Inter-Agency Task Force and news outlets, Herdimmunity.ph states that we currently have over 17 million vaccine doses, “enough to fully vaccinate 12.47% of the target population.” If such is the case, why is the vaccination still slow?
Dr. Leachon pointed out that LGUs have varying levels of governance, with some more organized than the others. Because best practices are not adopted by all LGUs, they also have varying levels of success, making it harder for the country to reach herd immunity.
Meanwhile, Dr. Bernardo said that we should attack the issue with a “system approach”. He cited how a simple step such as securing a vaccination schedule has become problematic. “People shouldn’t have to walk in like chance passengers. When we schedule them, we know that number one, they fully consent to the vaccination. Second, they should know their vaccine brand so they can manage their expectations. That way, we avoid overcrowding. Third, our supply should cope with our demand. If people leave the site disappointed because of the hassle or lack of vaccine, then they will recount their bad experience to others. But if their experience is positive, others will be motivated to be vaccinated.”
In January this year, a Pulse Asia Survey resulted in 4 out of 10 Filipinos not wanting to get vaccinated. According to Bernardo, the survey was repeated in March. This time, the figure climbed up to 6 out of 10 Filipinos refusing vaccination. “There must be something about the people’s experience in the bakuna centers that increased hesitancy—which we must address right away. Because even if the government promised a flood of vaccines eventually coming in, will people agree to be vaccinated?”
- Vaccine Hesitancy
According to DOH, 9% or over 100,000 of vaccinees who received their first dose missed out on their second dose. According to Dr. Leachon, apart from disorderly systems that discouraged Filipinos, this may be also attributed to the lack of information, leading to decreased awareness. “Maybe they don’t know where they will go to for their second dose. Different vaccine brands have different durations between the two doses. Vaccinees should be given a checklist that includes all the info they need, including when they should return.”
Leachon also suggested massive info campaigns on the possible adverse effects of the vaccine, and the mode of registration. “Online registration is very difficult for the elderly and the poor. Why should we make it hard for them? We need to have a faster registration process.” Another common complaint among registrants is the slow response of LGUs.
Recently, the issue of vaccine brands became even more heated when hundreds of Indonesian health workers became infected with COVID-19 after being fully vaccinated with Sinovac. Recently, 10 Indonesian doctors died despite their complete inoculation with the Chinese vaccine. Until now, China has not provided large-scale data on Sinovac’s effectiveness against the Delta variant. “Our life is all about choices,” Dr. Leachon said. “We choose our spouse, clothes, food. So, it’s even more important to choose what is injected into our bodies. When we don’t give people choices, we’ll have a hard time convincing them to get vaccinated.”
According to WHO, the Sinovac vaccine, in a phase 3 trial in Brazil “showed that two doses, administered at an interval of 14 days, had an efficacy of 51% against symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection.” With vaccine brands such as Pfizer and Moderna having an efficacy of 90% or more, some Filipinos are thinking twice about being inoculated with Sinovac. “About 70% of our vaccine inventory is Sinovac. What we’ve seen in Parañaque and Manila wherein residents flocked to the vaccination sites that gave out Pfizer is a sign that Filipinos are brand-conscious. They know their health is on the line. They value the quality, efficacy and safety of the vaccine,” Leachon said.
“Bakuna bus”—a partnership of the Philippine Red Cross and UBE Express
Ways to improve the vaccination drive
Once the main issue of vaccine supply is addressed, our interviewees suggested the following to ramp up our vaccination drive:
- Prioritize urban areas that drive the national economy.
ABS-CBN Data Analytics Head Edson Guido recently tweeted that though COVID-19 cases in NCR are decreasing, only 7.4% of its population are fully vaccinated. Dr. Leachon suggested that prioritizing the NCR Plus Bubble can help the country achieve herd immunity faster. “We shouldn’t spread the vaccine supply thinly across the country, especially those with no cold-chain facilities. For example, we’re expecting 40 million doses of Pfizer, which will fully vaccinate 20 million people. It’s better to prioritize super metro areas like NCR Plus, which has a population of around 26 million—and 70% of that is 18 million. If herd immunity is achieved in NCR Plus, we can open our economy in time for December 2021.”
- Make vaccines more accessible.
Although mega vaccination sites may work, Dr. Leachon pointed out that these are available only in selected areas. He believes that small but multiple vaccination sites may be more efficient. “Mega vaccination sites are prone to bottlenecks and may be superspreading events. Vaccination sites should be convenient for the elderly and those with comorbidities. These sites should be many and close to residents, who can be vaccinated faster because they don’t have to worry about transportation. Because the crowd is spread out among multiple sites, waiting time is reduced.” Dr. Leachon suggested taking inspiration from successful countries, which mobilized malls, drugstores and other convenient stores which have cold-chain infrastructure in the vaccination drive.
Dr. Bernardo agreed that the solution lies in community-based vaccination sites. “We really have to bring the vaccine closer to our people, so they will be encouraged. If every barangay has a mini-vaccination site which can only accommodate 20 people a day, that can already make a big difference.” He also enjoined the government to give vaccination leaves for employees. “In bakuna centers I’ve visited, I asked those who weren’t able to get their second dose what happened. They told me it’s because they couldn’t file a leave. We have to consider living factors like this.”
To help more Filipinos be vaccinated, Red Cross Philippines has partnered with UBE Express in employing mobile vaccination buses to reach far-flung areas that do not have cold-chain facilities. “We are ready to partner with national agencies, LGUs, NGOs and private sectors to maximize this initiative and utilize all the logistical support that Red Cross could offer. When the vaccines arrive, we will go to places not accessible to health workers and NGOs.”
- Strengthen governance.
One important aspect of good governance, especially in our country, is disaster preparedness. Currently, we are in the middle of the rainy season, which may pose challenges in the vaccination drive. “First, vaccination programs are usually done in open courts, gyms and other large open spaces, which have good ventilation. But when it rains, these outdoor areas will be affected,” Dr. Leachon explained. “Second, you need to separate evacuation centers for typhoon victims, isolation and quarantine facilities, and vaccination sites. Because the moment people from these areas mix, this can be super-spreading event.” Another concern is power outages that may affect cold-chain facilities.
Government responsiveness is also important in gaining public trust and cooperation. “For example, we know that the reason why the cases are not going down is because we lack contact tracing. But the governments don’t respond to this. The same way with surveys done by SWS and DOH, which showed the participants’ preferred vaccine brands and their perceived effects. You have to execute a program based on what the citizens want, or else you will be doing the same thing all over again, but expecting a different result,” said Dr. Leachon.
Marmick Julian, a proud vaccinee in Parañaque, displays his injected arm. (photo by Robi Robles)
Achieving herd immunity
Dr. Bernardo believes that promoting vaccine confidence is an important step toward herd immunity. “The first vaccine brand we received should’ve been the best and most trusted. But a lot of doubts and issues were involved in our first vaccine—which was one of the main reasons of vaccine hesitancy.” To promote vaccine confidence, Dr. Bernardo stressed the need for better communicators. “There was a comms group that suggested that we relate vaccination to family. When you get yourself vaccinated, it’s a sign of love for your family and friends.”
As to achieving herd immunity this year, Dr. Bernardo was skeptical but hopeful. “We need 500,000 vaccinations a day if we want to have a happy Christmas this year.” Meanwhile, Dr. Leachon still emphasized the importance of vaccine efficacy. “We can only achieve herd immunity when the vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca arrive. We need to step up to the plate in the next 3 months and revisit our strategies,” he ended.
The scene looks straight out of a disaster movie. A 500-kilo false killer whale almost four meters long is washed up on the shore, its sleek and dark gray body mapped with scratches and wounds. It is still alive, but looks weak and disoriented. It seems even less capable to heave itself back into the deep.
The sight of a usually strong and lithe creature suddenly rendered helpless and pulled out from its environment seems like a portent of the world’s end. But the reality is that more and more incidents of marine mammal stranding are reported across the country. In fact, the false killer whale story is true, which took place in a barangay in Dansol, Pangasinan just last May. A month before, a melon-headed whale was discovered stranded along Agoo, La Union shoreline.
The false killer whale rescued in Pangasinan last May was named “Hope”. (photo courtesy of PMMSN)
Marine Mammal Stranding
“Stranding” or getting stuck on the beach usually happens to marine mammals, which include whales, dolphins, seals, walruses, dugongs, and polar bears among others. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, marine mammals have these distinct characteristics:
- They breathe air through their lungs.
- Are warm-blooded
- Have hair at some point during life
- Produce milk to nurse their babies
- Living most/all of their lives in the ocean
Dr. Lemnuel V. Aragones, head of the Marine Mammal Research and Stranding Laboratory (MMRSL) stated that the conventional hypothesis on why marine mammals get stranded is because they want to breathe easier. “When the marine mammal is weak, it’s hard for them to come up for air after being submerged in the sea for a while,” he explained in Filipino during a Panahon TV interview. “When on the shore, they get to breath air but often times also a challenge if there are strong waves; thus, most stranders only have a slim chance of survival.”
MMRSL is involved in “the data collection, archiving and sometimes detailed examination of stranded marine mammals along the Philippine coast.” By studying the stranding phenomenon, it ultimately seeks to successfully conserve and manage our country’s marine mammals. According to Aragones, the awareness on stranding is relatively new among Filipinos. “The Philippine Marine Mammal Stranding Network Inc. (PMMSN) was established in 2005. Back then, Filipinos still didn’t know what stranded animals meant, so we only received a few stranding reports. But since 2009, when we have already trained quite a few representatives from various coastal regions nationwide, the reports climbed up. From 2014 until now, we record an average of more than 100 stranding reports a year.”
Stranded animals on Philippine shores (photos courtesy of PMMSN)
Causes of Stranding
Based on PMMSN’s Stranding Manual, stranding is a complex phenomenon and has many possible causes. These include the following:
- Illness, malnutrition, natural toxins, parasites, or infectious disease
- Physical injury caused by: 1) human activity (fishing interaction) or 2) predators
- Tight social bonds (altruism)
- Errors in navigation and judgment
- Complex topographic conditions and weather
“The intermonsoon from March to April, when the amihan is transitioning into habagat, is when most strandings happen,” said Aragones. During this time, fishermen most likely flock to the sea because of the warm weather and calm waters. Unfortunately, they fish in areas also frequented by marine mammals such as dolphins and whales. “Some marine mammals may get entangled in fishing nets. Others find it hard to compete with the fishers for food, so probably they swim nearer and nearer to the shore, where there are unfortunately more threats, which may be attributed to their stranding.”
For instance, a sudden low-pressure area that brings about localized thunderstorms may also cause marine mammals to be stranded. Aside from net entanglement, injuries from fishing interactions may come from dynamite fishing and illegal fishing gear.
Sometimes, mass stranding— the simultaneous stranding of more than two similar-size marine mammals—may have natural reasons. “Marine mammals have often tight social bond, which, in technical terms is called ‘altruism’. They have selfless concern for each other, so even if only one member is sick, the rest of the group will stay with the ailing mammal. Sometimes, this causes a group to be stranded on the shore,” Aragones explained.
But what should you do if you witness a marine mammal stranding? Aragones gives these tips:
1. Observe. Before doing anything, observe first if the stranded marine mammal is still alive. See if it is weak or injured, or if it has simply lost its way while chasing food. If the animal appears uninjured, leave it be. Often the animal can swim back to the sea once the water level rises. But if the animal looks weak, don’t push it back to the water. That’s because it’s in danger of drowning if it’s too weak to swim. Remember that mammals need to breathe air like us.
2. If the marine mammal is weak, assist and stabilize it. Do this by making sure that the top of its head where its blowhole is located is always above water. This prevents it from aspirating sand or breathing in water, which can enter its lungs and may cause damage and eventual death.
3. Report it to the Philippine Marine Mammal Stranding Network. According to the PMMSN website, you may report a stranding that needs immediate response by calling (47)252-9000 or 0928-5018226. Aragones stated that the PMMSN has trained almost 5,000 respondents across the country. All of them are linked to the LGUs, BFAR regional offices (and other NGAs) so if you witnessed a stranding event, you can also call the mayor’s office, the agricultural office, or the BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) regional office. These agencies can contact the trained responder in their respective areas.
For more information on marine mammal strandings, visit PMMSN’s resource center.
Respondents assisting a stranded dolphin (photo courtesy of PMMSN)
Holistic Approach to Saving Marine Mammals
To better understand stranding, Aragones said it’s important to study it in the context of both the physical environment and the animals’ biology. “We are trying to corollate and associate all parameters that we could think of in relation to what is happening to these animals and their environment. We adopted a One Health approach, so I have former students working with me who looked for pathogens, others look for pollutants. There is a veterinarian MS student who looked at the medical aspect of the stranding, and a physics major who studied the physical environment.” Aragones and his team had a study whose publication will come out soon on the characterization of the sounds of dynamite blasting and its potential impacts on whales and dolphins who navigate, and find their prey and partner in the waters using their sense of hearing (biosonar).
The health of our marine animals also reflect the health of our seas, which are hubs for human activity. Many Filipinos live near the water, and depend on it for food. But the seas’ problems are part of a much bigger picture. “Our ecosystems are ailing. Our tropical rain forests are decreasing, our wetlands are totally ignored. The pollution in our rivers end up in the sea, and this affects our coral reefs, seagrass and mangroves. We assume that areas far from the sea are safe from disturbance. Unfortunately, that is not true. What we are seeing right now, based on our data, is that there are so many pathogens, parasites and bacteria that can cause diseases. Just imagine—the toxoplasmosis disease that causes meningitis in the brain is supposedly land-based as the reproduction of this parasite is completed through cats or feline. But we can now see this type of disease in cetacean species found in the deepest parts of our seas and oceans. It’s mind-blowing how widespread water pollution now is,” said Aragones.
Other human-induced pollutants found in our seas also come from our power sources and pharmaceutical products. Aragones stressed that wherever we are, we play a part in either damaging or saving our seas. “Whatever damage the mountains experience goes straight into the oceans. If we want to have a positive impact, we must have the initiative to change our habits. Be responsible. Don’t throw your garbage anywhere. Plastic is not the one at fault, it’s us, humans. I hope we realize that we are a mere part of this huge world of biodiversity, which is our planet’s most unique component.”
Everything we—or don’t do—impacts the oceans, which make up 96.5% of the Earth’s waters. Marine mammal stranding is now part of our impact, and is something we can address if we take better care of our planet.
Dr. Lem Aragones is Professor at and former Director of the Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology of the College of Science at UP Diliman. He received a PhD in tropical environmental science from James Cook University, Townsville, Australia.
Just three days after the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced that La Niña had ended, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) announced the onset of the rainy season last June 4, 2021.
From October 2020 to March this year, a weak and moderate La Niña, which refers to the cooling of ocean surface temperatures, prevailed in the country. Coupled with the Northeast Monsoon or Amihan, it was predicted to bring above-normal rain conditions, which were seen in previous typhoons. On November 1 last year, Super Typhoon Rolly, 2020’s strongest tropical cyclone in the world, devastated 8 regions including Bicol. Floods, mudslides and storm surges affected 2 million people. In the same month on the 11th, Typhoon Ulysses struck Central Luzon, causing massive floods and landslides.
Now, the Southwest Monsoon or Habagat—warm and moist air that speeds up cloud formation that causes rainfall—has become the dominant weather system in the country. This is one of the factors that prompted PAGASA to declare the start of the rainy season. In a press statement, PAGASA administrator Dr. Vincent Malano explained, “The passage of Tropical Storm Dante and the occurrence of widespread rainfall in the last five days for areas under Type 1 climate confirm the onset of the rainy season. Intermittent rains associated with the Southwest Monsoon will continue to affect Metro Manila and the western section of the country.” The western parts of Luzon, Mindoro, Negros and Palawan fall under the Type 1 climate category.
Massive flooding in Romblon due to the torrential rains brought by #DantePH. (Photos from PIA-Romblon)
The End of La Niña Does Not Spell Safety
With La Niña ending last June 1, WMO said that “neutral conditions are likely to dominate the tropical Pacific in the next few months.” PAGASA hydrologist Rosalie Pagulayan further explains, “There’s no La Niña, no El Niño, which means wind conditions have returned to normal. So, we can expect a normal amount of rainfall from June to September in the whole country.”
But as with everything related to the weather, nothing is set in stone. In WMO’s press release, the chance of neutral conditions continuing until July is at 78%. This decreases to 55% by August to October, while conditions are uncertain for the rest of the year.
Despite this high chance of neutral conditions, PAGASA warned that “The probability of near to above-normal rainfall conditions is high in the next two months (June-July.) The public and all concerned agencies are advised to take precautionary measures against the impacts of the rainy season.” Simply said, the end of La Niña does not mean that the country will be safe from tropical cyclone risks. “We can’t discard the possibility of extreme events,” says Pagulayan. “Our mindset should always be disaster preparedness.”
The Philippines is the country most-visited by tropical cyclones in the world. Here, the rainy season is synonymous with typhoons and floods. “This month of June, PAGASA forecasts that we may experience 1 to 3 tropical cyclones. Usually, tropical cyclone occurrences peak from July to September.” Though PAGASA announced there will be monsoon breaks or non-rainy periods which may last for days or weeks, Pagulayan stressed that we are currently in the thick of typhoon season.
How Manmade Activities Worsen Natural Disasters
But despite the absence of La Niña, Tropical Storm Dante caused flash floods and landslides in Visayas and Mindanao earlier this month. The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) reported 11 deaths and over 122,000 people affected. Damage in agriculture was pegged at over ₱90 million, while infrastructure damage was over ₱130 million. “The amount of rainfall Dante produced was staggering and unexpected,” admitted Pagulayan. “In my opinion, the change in landscape may have been a major contributor.”
Aftermath of tropical storm #DantePH at Barangay Cabil-isan in Daram, Samar. (Photos courtesy of Slug Rosales)
Pagulayan refers to the altered natural environment brought about by human acts such as deforestation and development projects. In an earlier interview, Dr. Renato Solidum Jr, officer-in-charge of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, and undersecretary for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate explained how manmade activities can worsen disaster impacts. “Landslides occur in steep places or those with soft ground. Destroying our mountains through deforestation or housing developments leads to faster erosion and lowland flooding. The eroded soil along with improper waste disposal fill up our rivers and drainages, also causing floods.”
WMO echoed this statement by saying that now that La Niña has ended, climate events are now in the hands of human-induced climate change. “La Niña has a temporary global cooling effect, which is typically strongest in the second year of the event. This means that 2021 has got off to a relatively cool start – by recent standards. This should not lull us into a false sense of security that there is a pause in climate change,” said WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas.
Taalas warned that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere remain high, fueling global warming. In fact, WMO predicted a 90% chance of at least one year between 2021 to 2025 to become the warmest on record. Soaring temperatures mean warmer oceans, which spell disaster. This, Pagulayan confirmed in a previous article. “Warmer oceans result to more evaporation. When there’s more moisture in the atmosphere, this may result in intensified tropical cyclones,” she said. “This means stronger rains, storm surges, and the possibility of tornadoes. Coastal communities will be inundated even those that do not usually experience floods. Heat waves may occur. While some parts of the country may experience droughts, other parts will receive excess rainfall. The greatest impact is on food production.”
Preparedness as a Personal Responsibility
It’s the second year we, Filipinos, find ourselves grappling with both the typhoon season and the COVID-19 pandemic. While this makes the management of evacuation centers challenging, Pagulayan stresses the importance of being pro-active when it comes to preparedness. “Let’s not rely solely on the government for our safety. Let’s ask ourselves what we an contribute.” She gives the following tips:
- Coordinate and work with your community’s disaster manager. Your community’s topography and needs are unique. You, your fellow-residents and barangay leaders can best map out a preparedness plan for your community.
- While staying alert to advisories released by your community’s disaster office, it’s also advisable to read updates from national agencies. Read the reports and listen to expert interviews. The additional knowledge boosts your preparedness by helping you form a bigger picture of possible scenarios.
- If you need to evacuate, always remember to bring a Go Bag. “This includes everything you need for the first 6 hours in the evacuation center,” says Pagulayan. Keeping yourself safe as an individual is a form of community service.
During the early months of the pandemic last year, the demand for ginger surged all over the world. But due to the virus, import shipments of goods including ginger were delayed. Because the supply could not meet the demand, ginger prices drastically rose in many countries. According to this article, these include Ethiopia, wherein the “wonder root” was sold almost three times more than its original price.
The focused interest in ginger came when global health authorities were still churning out initial information on COVID-19. At the same time, social media blazed with claims of ginger being a COVID-19 cure. This prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to nullify such claims, stating that “There is no scientific evidence that black pepper, honey and ginger protect from COVID-19 infection. In general, however, some spices are considered to have properties that may be beneficial for health.”
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine goes further by saying that
“Viral infections spread in your body when the virus enters your cells and makes copies of itself and then those copies enter new cells and repeat the process. Ginger will not destroy the virus in your body or stop the copying process.”
This article stated that during a press briefing, Executive Director of WHO Health Emergencies Program Michael Ryan acknowledged that herbal teas such as ginger are beneficial. Still, he warned against false statements that may lead to pandemic risks. “Anything that makes one feel better, anything that provides that reassurance and anything that you believe can help your health that’s not dangerous certainly has a positive impact on your health, but it’s a different thing to say that something is effective in treating the disease,” he said.
Powers of Ginger
For centuries, ginger has been an important part of Filipino cuisine and folk medicine. This comes as no surprise because ginger originated in Maritime Southeast Asia, which includes the Philippines. During the spice trade in 1500 BC, ginger even reached Europe and was used by ancient Greeks and Romans.
Ginger is a popular ingredient of our local dishes such as tinola, arroz caldo and pinakbet, and is known to effectively eliminate fishy odors in seafood-based recipes. But when it comes to home remedies for colds and sore throat, one of the most popular is salabat, traditionally made from boiled fresh ginger.
In a Panahon TV interview with Gab Labrador, a nutrition officer at the National Nutrition Council, he explained in a mix of Filipino and English that ginger became popular during the pandemic because “it helps reduce inflammation brought by respiratory diseases.” In fact, a 2008 study by the Common Cold Center at the Cardiff University in Wales concluded that hot drinks like salabat can soothe “runny nose, cough, sneezing, sore throat, chills and fatigue” better than beverages in room temperature.
Labrador also shared ginger’s other health benefits:
- Has a good amount of fiber that’s good for digestive health
- Can calm an upset stomach and acts as a laxative
- Alleviates dizziness and nausea
- Is high in antioxidants that reduce cell damage
- Boosts immune system
- Reduces the risk of heart disease
- Controls blood sugar levels
But is there such a thing as ingesting too much ginger? Labrador said that though the effects of eating excess ginger are rare, they are still possible. “It can lead to an upset stomach and heart burn. There may be some people who are allergic to spices like ginger. The allergy manifests through skin inflammation.” He also added that ginger may interact with some drugs. “These are the anticoagulants or blood thinners. If you’re taking these drugs, you might want to ask your doctor if you can still take ginger tea.” To avoid complications, Labrador recommended limiting the salabat we drink to one cup a day.
Staying Healthy During the Pandemic and Beyond
Though ginger is undoubtedly beneficial to our bodies, staying healthy this pandemic is still all about avoiding exposure to the virus. “That’s basically following health protocols— social distancing, proper hygiene…and it’s better for the population to take the vaccine once it’s offered to them,” said Labrador.
Echoing WHO, Labrador is all for taking salabat if it makes people feel better. But he warned, “It’s not really good to brand natural remedy as a cure of a certain disease. So, it’s still better to get proper medical action from a medical professional during these times.” Moreover, we can strengthen our immune system by having a holistic approach toward health “Number one is to eat a variety of foods including fruits and vegetables every day. Prioritize natural and fresh foods over highly-processed or fast food. We also want to maintain a physically active lifestyle during these times. Just go to the internet and search for body weight exercises that you can do. That can definitely help us in improving our immune system and maintain a healthy weight which…in the long run, will benefit us.”
How to Prepare Salabat
Labrador gives these steps in preparing your own throat-soothing ginger tea:
- Thinly slice ginger into 5-6 pieces.
- Boil them in a cup of water.
- Boiling time depends on how strong you want the ginger flavor to be. 10 minutes will result in a mild ginger taste, while 15-20 minutes will bring out the ginger’s spiciness.
Watch our interview with Gab Labrador here.
A year after the pandemic, the World Health Organization updated its health advisory last April, stating that COVID-19 may be acquired through airborne transmission. This is in addition to the droplet transmission, which was previously the widely recognized mode of spreading the virus.
But what does this new discovery entail? Panahon TV sought the advice of Dr. Rontgene Solante, chairman of the Adult Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine Department at the San Lazaro Hospital, and a member of the Vaccine Expert Panel of the Department of Science and Technology.
Droplet vs Airborne Transmission
Dr. Solante mentioned that the COVID-19 virus is expelled through coughing, sneezing, or talking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) adds to this list by stating that “People release respiratory fluids during exhalation (e.g., quiet breathing, speaking, singing, exercise, coughing, sneezing) in the form of droplets across a spectrum of sizes. These droplets carry virus and transmit infection.”
“The droplet is composed of virus particles within the saliva,” explained Dr. Solante in a mix of English and Filipino. “This means it’s much bigger and heavier. When you cough or sneeze, the droplet can travel up to 3 feet. It falls quickly on surfaces.” It’s because of these reasons why COVID-19 prevention involves regular hand washing and regularly disinfecting frequently-touched surfaces.
On the other hand, COVID 19’s airborne transmission involves the aerosolized form of the virus. “Why is it aerosolized? It’s because when you cough, you expel not just droplets but also tinier particles. These particles are lighter so they stay in the air longer. This is what we call airborne.”
While droplets are most infectious within a 3-feet or 1-meter distance between people, the airborne particles, which can remain suspended in the air for up to two to three hours, may infect people within an 8-feet distance.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), medical procedures and treatments that produce aerosols may also transmit COVID-19. These include endotracheal intubation, open suctioning, administration of nebulized treatment, manual ventilation before intubation, turning the patient to the prone position, and disconnecting the patient from the ventilator.
The CDC states that the higher the amount of virus a person is exposed to, the higher the risk of infection. Through the airborne transmission, you are more likely to catch COVID-19 when the following factors are present:
- Enclosed spaces with poor ventilation. This includes air-conditioned spaces that let droplets and aerosol particles build up in the air.
- Increased exhalation of an infected person’s respiratory fluids. This person doesn’t need to cough or sneeze to spread the virus. He or she may simply be shouting, singing or engaged in a form of physical exertion such as an exercise.
- Prolonged exposure to these conditions for more than 15 minutes.
Though bikers are required to wear face masks, they do not have to wear face shields as these pose safety risks according to the Department of Health. (photo by Jire Carreon)
What Airborne Means
“Airborne diseases are easily transmitted when you are not wearing the proper face mask, when ventilation is very poor, and more importantly, when you are in a closed space,” warned Dr. Solante. Tuberculosis is an example of an airborne disease. “The reason why the Philippines has a high case of Tuberculosis is because many of us live in communities with houses built close to each other. When one has this disease, he or she is likely to transmit it to family members. In a way, this is similar to COVID-19, which easily spreads within the household because of the droplet and airborne modes of transmission.”
The fact that COVID-19 is airborne and may be transmitted beyond 6 feet only means that more than ever, we need to be vigilant about health protocols, and stay in well-ventilated areas. Dr. Solante said, “Chances are, if you are in a room without ventilation or with poor ventilation, the virus can stay longer— for about 3 hours. The minute you remove your face mask or face shield, then you can get the virus within 15 minutes of staying in that closed space.”
But what does proper ventilation mean? Dr. Solante said this is achieved when air inside the room is able to flow out, while air outside the room is able to flow in. “Without air ventilation, the aerosolized virus can stay in the air for two to three hours. But if you open the windows, and there’s ventilation, the virus will only be airborne for less than 15 or 30 minutes, as long as there are only a few people inside the room.”
Sign inside a jeepney. This year, face shields were also required inside public transportation. (photo by Paul Michael Caisip)
How to Prevent Airborne Transmission of COVID-19
Dr. Solante offers these prevention tips in various settings:
- Open windows to encourage ventilation.
- If the heat is too much, and you want to turn on the air-conditioning, make sure to have less conversations and interaction among family members inside the room. Wear face masks, and limit the number of room occupants.
In the office
- Maintain a distance of at least six feet from other people.
- Limit the number of people in the room.
- Always wear your face mask and face shield inside the room. Dr. Solante doesn’t recommend doubling your masks as this may make breathing difficult.
- Avoid unnecessary talking. Use chats or other forms of communication that don’t require you to open your mouth.
- Always practice cough etiquette and regular hand washing.
- If ventilation is poor in the office, Dr. Solante urges the management to consult with engineers on how to improve air flow.
In Public Transport
- Always wear a face mask and face shield. Make sure your eyes, nose and mouth are covered.
- Try not to open your mouth. This means avoiding activities such as eating, conversing and talking on cellphones.
- Maintain physical distancing. Passengers should at least be a seat apart.
In a nutshell, Dr. Solante gives these 5 important tips during the pandemic:
- Practice regular hand washing.
- Wear your face mask and face shield.
- Maintain a physical distance of six feet or more.
- Avoid crowded areas.
- Only visit places with good ventilation.
Though the airborne transmission is cause for alarm, following health protocols is still an effective countermeasure. Complying to guidelines set by health experts and being vaccinated are still your best bets in safeguarding your health and that of other people.
*interview by Trisha Garin
Toulouse, the capital of the Occitanie region in Southern France, is rich in history and culture. It was part of the Roman empire until the 5th century, and is now known for its aerospace industry, housing Europe’s largest aerospace center, including the French space agency.
It had a huge role in the history of Catholicism. It is where Romans persecuted early Christians and martyred a saint, and the site of a religious riot that started the French Wars of Religion. Toulouse became the templar stronghold in the first crusades, and Saint Dominic founded the Dominican Order here. Currently, it is home to several cathedrals, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Basilica of St. Sernin, Europe’s largest surviving Romanesque building.
Toulouse is France’s fourth-largest city, whose center’s architecture is mainly composed of terracotta bricks, earning it the title, “The Pink City”. This is where we find Marjorie Mosura-Dumont, who has been residing here for 3 years.
Marjorie and Henri strolling in town before the nationwide lockdown during COVID-19
After marrying Henri, my French fiancé, I moved to Paris in 2010. I loved Paris because of its beautiful architecture and buildings, but after a year, he said he was tired of its gloomy weather and gloomy people. We agreed to move to the Philippines slowly by backpacking from Paris to India, Nepal, and other countries between there and Manila.
After living in Metro Manila for five years, a lot of factors led us to decide to return to France. His nuclear family came from the north but decided to settle in the south of France, including his brother who was based in Toulouse, so we chose to live here.
Toulouse vs Paris
Toulouse is in the southwest of France, close to the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean Sea. This is perfect for us because we love hiking, and we once trekked all the way to Spain. It’s one of the stops in the Camino de Santiago or the Way of Saint James, which is a pilgrimage you do on foot for a month. We’re also conveniently close to another pilgrimage site called Lourdes.
Marjorie hiking to Lac d’Espingo in Pyrenees
The city has a distinct architecture and it looks magical a few hours before sunset. It’s well known for its terra-cotta bricks that glow pinkish-orange.
In terms of museums, Paris has the upper hand. Museums here are few, and mostly house roman and medieval pieces. The theater scene here is also limited, but it feels more intimate.
History is a huge part of Toulouse, which is the birthplace of Aeropostale. After World War I, the post service company delivered mail from Toulouse to different parts of the world, including Casablanca and South America. The flights were a big deal because before then, mail traveled only by boat. Because of Aeropostale, French colonies received mail much faster.
Aeropostale flights could be dangerous—something which Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince wrote about in his novel Vol de Nuit (Night Flight). Saint-Exupéry was an Aeropostale pilot, so The Little Prince was his semi-biography. Some streets here in Toulouse are named after him.
Through the years, Toulouse has retained its “aero center” status. Now, it’s famous for developing and building technology for the aerospace industry. One of the museums here is dedicated to outer space travel. The Airbus planes are also built here, which explains why there are a lot of engineers and expats in Toulouse. We also have a good amount of Irish pubs for some reason, with real Irish bands playing to boot!
Where the old Aeropostale airport used to be is now where you can find the La Halle De La Machine’s giant mechanical minotaur and spider. I shot a report for a news agency when they launched it a few years back. The minotaur and the spider walked all around old Toulouse for three days and it was a sight to see! Roads were closed, people ran after it, I saw a grown adult cry. I hung from a hotel window at the main square with photographers to take video of all that happening. It was other-worldly, but it was the magic of engineering, music and imagination.
A lot of people like it here because it’s warmer and less rainy than Paris, and the vibe is more chill. It’s France but a little Basque. The locals like drinking, partying, and going to tapas bars. We live a few minutes by foot from the Garonne River and the historic center, and we can walk to our favorite bar across the Pont Neuf bridge. Before the pandemic, we used to drink at the bridge and enjoy the music spilling from the bar. When our drinks ran out, we’d just duck back in for refills and rush right out into the fresh air. There seemed to be an unwritten agreement for the whole city to be out at five. I think that’s the best image I could draw for you about life here—seeing your friends, having a drink and watching the glow of the sun set on the pink city.
Toulouse and COVID-19
At the start of the quarantine in March, we had to print out a form indicating the date and time we left our home. For example, I’m going out on this date: March 11, from 1 to 2 p.m. We only had an hour to jog or walk the dog within a 1 kilometer radius from our address. Two household members at a time could go out of the house. For a time, the restaurants were closed, and the lines at the supermarkets were very long. Only ten people at a time could enter. But at least we were still allowed to walk and stretch outside, that helped manage my anxiety.
Back then we didn’t have a lot of cases in Toulouse, but there was still a shortage of face masks and they were very expensive. I made masks for a friend who is a nurse so she could distribute them at her hospital. She said other hotspots flew their patients here because our hospitals had a lot of empty beds. It was only last August when the government required face masks in the streets. Before that, we were only required to wear them in stores. In July, travel restrictions were lifted because the cases went down, and it’s too much to ask the French to stay at home during summer.
But things have changed after summer. We’re now one of the hotspots for COVID cases. We had a curfew for a few weeks and then the government decided to close the bars, restaurants and activity areas to prevent the spread of the disease. A lot of businesses closed down despite some monetary help from the government because they were still paying rent for shops that can’t open.
Despite the health crisis, what’s good about living in France is its universal healthcare. When I had a pulmonary embolism two years ago, the firemen came at 5 a.m. and took me to the hospital. I waited for my bill in the mail but nothing came! Henri and I try not to go to the doctor for every little thing to avoid overtaxing the system. Socialism is awesome only if everybody’s truly egalitarian. As a member of the middle class in the Philippines, it sucked to pay so much in taxes and get nothing in return when we needed money to treat my dad’s cancer.
Pinay in Toulouse
Toulouse is a rich melting pot. I have friends from many different countries that I would never have met if I didn’t go to my state-sponsored French classes. Thanks to them, I’ve learned a lot of fascinating things about life in South Africa, Syria, Turkey, Mexico, and the Ukraine (just to name very very few). On my end, I’ve introduced them to Pinoy food.
At first, it was hard to adjust to the fact that there were no Pinoy stores here, unlike Paris that has at least two. After early evening mass at St. Joseph’s Church near the Champs Elysees in Paris, there’s a Pinoy palengke at the church steps. In my first 4 months of living here, I didn’t hear anyone speaking Tagalog.
Then one time, I was at an Asian supermarket with my Vietnamese friend and I heard someone speaking in Cebuano. So I called out: “Ate, Pinoy kayo?” She said,“Oo!” It was comforting to know I had kababayans here. If you want ensaymada, pan de coco, or sapin-sapin I have connections. There may be no Pinoy store here, but there are enterprising Pinoys who make and sell native treats.
Here, I started painting again. My dad was a frustrated comic book artist, and one of the most precious gifts he gave me were art supplies. We used to bond over drawing things and he wanted me to be an artist, but I became a writer like my mom. When I got here, I started painting Filipino food just because I missed them. And I know I could have gotten a rambutan from a specialty store but I felt guilty and privileged about the contributing to the carbon footprint of one measly rambutan that isn’t really necessary for my survival. I just missed it, but I guess most of all I missed the context of it. So when I finished painting I threw in the baybayin script under the artwork to make it plain that I’m talking about this food as a Filipina, with the context it has as a thing you can see in the palengke or hanging in a tree, with the common experiences we have around it that nobody else might immediately understand, but give me a minute to tell you its story.
Marjorie’s adobo painting sticker with a background of a fortified city from the dark ages
I’m part of a small painting community with five other Filipina friends. My friends have encouraged me to branch out into landscapes and flowers. I’ve tried that but I’ve mostly dug in my heels with Pinoy subjects. I started an Instagram account and (more recently) a website to share what I’m doing and reach out to people who are missing the same things I have. I’ve met some interesting people this way. I used to print my paintings on sticker paper and stuck them on random spaces around Europe. I thought about it as a way to teach my culture to anyone who would bother to look at what’s written under the painting of a tomato, for example. But if a Pinoy saw one, my hope is that they would realize that a fellow Pinoy passed through there, and that they’re not alone.
All in all, I like living here. Henri and I have always wanted to live in a place where we can grow things and here we get a lot of sun. For now we have an edible garden on our apartment balcony. So far, I’ve managed to grow calamansi, which I got from IKEA two years ago. Henri and I laughed about it then because they think it’s ornamental, but to me it was like the heavens opened. However, I think the age of innocence is at an end because Henri saw a fancy specialty store selling calamansi a month ago.
Marjorie’s calamansi harvest from her edible garden
The thing is, we want to be self-sustaining. Eventually, we want to be able to recycle water and use renewable energy. We want to reduce our carbon footprint. But for now, Toulouse fits our purpose, and I’m soaking in its laid-back vibe, allowing it to fuel my Pinoy-inspired art, wherever it takes me.
Sometimes, it only takes a small step to spark a movement.
When 26-year-old Ana Patricia “Patreng” Non decided to start a community pantry near her home in Maginhawa Street, Quezon City, it was because she wanted to help. “My small business was affected because of the lockdown,” she explained in Filipino in a Panahon TV interview. “But even if I didn’t have any income, I could still eat three times a day. I thought of those whose livelihoods depended on being out on the streets. They needed support.”
Soon, news about Patreng’s Maginhawa Community Pantry, fashioned from a bamboo cart, spread like wildfire. People came in droves, dropping off food donations, and getting food. The initiative was so popular that even the German Ambassador to the Philippines Anke Reiffenstuel dropped by to donate goods. She tweeted that she was “deeply impressed by the solidary spirit of the Filipinos.”
Patreng and her bamboo cart of donated goods (photo from AP Non)
Maginhawa Community Pantry’s Evolution
To accommodate the growing volume of crowd and donations, the pantry relocated to a bigger space at the Teacher’s Village East Barangay Hall. Quezon City authorities were called in to maintain health protocols. But the line continued to grow, extending all the way to Philcoa along Commonwealth Avenue. Senior citizens, though prohibited to go out of their homes, joined the queue. To get in line early, people broke curfew.
To address these challenges and to meet the needs of community pantries that mushroomed in the area and all over the country (as far as Mindanao), the Maginhawa Community Pantry recently announced that it would no longer serve beneficiaries. Instead, the pantry has evolved into a drop-off point for donations, which will be distributed among other pantries and places that needed aid. This decentralizing move seeks to promote better barangay coordination and observation of health protocols, and to spread out the crowd lining up for goods.
Inspired by Patreng’s initiative, UP Campus residents set up their own community pantry. (photo by Mary Jhoy Aap)
Ensuring Safety in Community Pantries
Though initiating community pantries is commendable, organizers should always remember that the country is still grappling with the pandemic. Safety and Preparedness Advocate Martin Aguda Jr. explained in Filipino, “Each time you go out—whether you’re an organizer, a volunteer, a donor or a beneficiary—you are at risk for COVID-19, especially in crowded community pantries.”
On the day when a senior citizen collapsed and died while waiting in line at a community pantry, the Quezon City government released its Community Pantry Guidelines to minimize health risks. Aguda also offers these tips:
Map out a risk management plan. Recognize the risks of your endeavor. How will these affect everyone involved? “You have to check the risks and you have to put in your safety measures,” stressed Aguda. The risk management plan involves wisely choosing the pantry’s location, which will largely depend on the crowd volume you are capable of handling. “Is this an area that will draw in crowds? You need to survey the place because from there, you can gauge your expected crowd.”
Check if your resources are enough. Make sure that the amount of goods you will be distributing matches the expected number of beneficiaries. “When the people outnumber the goods, that will result in long lines and extended waiting time. The longer people wait in line, the more they are exposed to other people and the risk of COVID,” shared Aguda. Limited resources may also cause people to forego discipline and cause a stampede.
Ensure the safety of everyone involved. Aside from making sure everyone is wearing a mask and a face shield, and is practicing physical distancing, organizers should also check the pantry’s surroundings. Aguda explains, “The location should be away from traffic to prevent accidents. Physical distancing can be enforced through physical markers. Enlist the help of safety officers or barangay officials to ensure that lines and health protocols are followed.” Aguda also suggested to set early operation hours so people don’t have to wait under the heat of the sun. This reduces the risk of heat stroke and dehydration.
Regularly brief the crowd. Reminding the crowd to follow health protocols cannot be made often enough. Because there’s always a fresh batch of people joining the line, always reiterate the measures to ensure their safety. Set an example by wearing PPEs and following physical distancing. Provide alcohol for public use.
“It all boils down to planning. We all want to help, but we don’t want to deal with unintended consequences,” warned Aguda. He advised people going to community pantries to also bring drinking water and umbrellas. “Learn to be practical. Remember your health is at risk.”
In turn, Aguda advised organizers to never let their guards down. “You need to protect yourself because you are interacting with different people. Don’t remove your mask at any time. Your volunteerism is a noble act, but you can still help others by ensuring your own safety,” he ended.
Watch Panahon TV’s full interview with Martin Aguda Jr. here.
For those who want to donate to the Maginhawa Community Pantry, visit its Facebook page.