HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE – Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star ) – May 31, 2020 – 12:00am
COVID-19 has been on our minds since January. It is now the eve of June and, more than ever, this deadly scourge continues to rule over all aspects of our lives.
The poor are helplessly trying to survive this pandemic. Many are falling into the cracks. The middle class is struggling. The rich and powerful are also not spared. Surely, they are also shaken in many ways, maybe even more than everyone.
In the future, the year 2020 will be remembered as the time when those who ruled the world economically, politically and even militarily found themselves humbled by this virus that has wreaked instability in everyone’s lives. They realized that they are not in control of everything. The year 2020 is the year of changing fortunes — mostly for the worst.
It’s unnerving for those in power to realize there is a limit to what they can do. What good is wealth when everyone else is sick? Travel is restricted almost everywhere. And even if you had your own plane, where in the world can you go where it is completely safe? With all your money in the world, you can’t even shop, eat out, or have a good time the ways you used to. For the moneyed class, the only great way to splurge these days is by giving to charity. Donating is one way to feel good while responding to a higher calling.
Nobody knows what the future may bring, but I do know it will not be the same future we imagined in 2019. A big lesson many are learning is that we can only plan so much. This pandemic is an extraordinarily shocking lesson for those who run the world. I am talking of presidents, CEOs, business, social, political and church leaders, scientists, men and women who wield power over the life and death of entire communities.
The pandemic has changed the world. There is no going back whether we like it or not. Many of the world’s old leaders, including those who created the virus, must step aside. They do not have the solutions to the problems. They are a big part of the problem. They must be stopped from shaping the future.
Barack Obama addressed a graduation class recently and told them that they may have to mature faster to be able to engage, survive and even thrive in this new reality. It is time to put an end to things that divide people. We must say no to racism, respect religious differences, accept ethnic diversity, solve the gap between the rich and poor, improve education and make economic opportunities more accessible to everyone, etc.
From all over the world, some of the most successful leaders who were able to contain the pandemic in their own countries have been women. They are Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Angela Merkel of Germany, Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, Sanna Marin of Finland. They are all exceptional leaders. I do not wish to draw a conclusion here about the sexes. But I do wish to say that we should not limit ourselves when choosing our leaders. Jacinda was also an actress and a disk jockey before becoming a politician. Merkel had a doctorate in quantum chemistry.
In many places in the world, societies are tentatively lifting quarantine restrictions hoping that the worst is over. But nobody really knows what the outcome will be at this point. I do understand the cautious advice of scientists who wish to proceed slowly and safely. I also get it that people need to go back to work, and that businesses have to run and services must get back to some level of normality. Whichever road we travel is fraught with what ifs and doubts.
I am still optimistic that we can restructure the world to something immensely more livable for everyone. COVID-19 has opened everyone’s eyes.
Life always finds a way. I still believe this. We are on the cusp of change.
Last April 25, I got a call from Philippine Airlines asking me if I wanted to book a seat to Sydney. Airport activity in Manila had mostly ceased but the Australian embassy had commissioned PAL to allow flights for its citizens and permanent residents. The government wanted them to return to Australia ASAP.
Australia had already banned its citizens from leaving the country as a response to the pandemic. Except for its own people, no one was allowed to enter. And so I was very keen on PAL’s offer since I longed to join my wife and kids during this time of COVID-19. But upon arrival I would have to undergo a 14-day quarantine in a hotel before we could rejoin our families.
Almost two months earlier, I had sent Lydia to Sydney. She had just recovered from severe pneumonia last January after being hospitalised for five days. I thought that her being in Australia would be safer for her. She left hesitantly before the lockdown not knowing when we would be together again. It was uncertain how things would progress in the Philippines, and in the rest of the world. So when I told her about the call from PAL, she pleaded for me to take it.
I left at midnight on April 28, bound for Sydney. Every seat was taken. There was no social distancing. Thank God everyone was wearing masks. The crew on the flight wore something similar to hazmat suits, gloves, masks and see-through face covers.
We landed in Sydney on April 29 at 8:30 a.m. We were lined up and went through initial testing with thermo scanners, and after a brief interview we were brought to our quarantine residence for the next 14 days, the Park Royal Hotel in Darling Harbour.
We landed in Sydney on April 29, 8:30 a.m. Straight from the plane, we were lined up a meter and half apart in groups of 50 and went through initial testing with thermo scanners and a brief interview where we gave our names and seat numbers. Then we proceeded to immigration. After our passports were stamped, we picked up our luggage and boarded large buses that carried, at most, 10 people each to our destination.
We soon arrived at Park Royal hotel, a four-star facility near Darling Harbour. We were met by a police officer who entered the bus and told us to disembark one by one as instructed. When I got out I was asked to point out my luggage and a woman in military fatigue carried my bag inside the hotel.
Inside the lobby, police officers got our personal details and asked us to designate someone to call in case anything happened to us. After a lengthy interview, we were led to the elevators one person at a time. The woman soldier put my bag inside and pressed the 3rd floor button. When I got to my floor, I was met by another soldier who took my luggage and led me to Room 326. He had the key and opened the door. After I entered with my luggage, he closed it.
My room had two queen beds and a large window. This would be my world for the next 14 days. Definitely no visitors allowed. I was also prohibited from leaving my room. Meals outsourced from outside the hotel were brought in three times a day and left outside my door. We could not order from the hotel menu.
To be truthful, I was quite anxious about this forced isolation. I had already been in isolation in Manila for a few weeks and here I was at the start of another one in a smaller, more compact space compared to my house. I would not be breathing fresh air. I was afraid I would get claustrophobic soon.
Three times a day every day, nurses would call to ask if I noticed any symptoms like coughing, sniffles, fever, etc. I would always say no. But on the third day, I casually mentioned that I sneezed three times and ventured that it was due to aircon allergy. That triggered an alarm that got me tested for COVID-19. The very next morning, they swabbed my throat and probed deep inside my nostrils to get mucus samples. It did not hurt but it was uncomfortable. It was all done in about two minutes. They said it would take 24 hours for the results. Yes, I got a little anxious waiting. The next day, they informed me that I tested negative. Thank God.
Before the isolation, I made sure I had some definite routine and activities to do to fill up my days. I wanted to establish some sort of regularity, which I knew would help me. I vowed that I would not allow myself to fall into a depression. If you spend 14 days aimless, without any purpose or achievement, you can get very listless and depressed. I made sure I had a more or less predictable schedule to follow.
Exercising did me a lot of good. I would do four complete exercise routines every other day. On days without exercise, I would do some walking or would run in place. I actually made a path that traversed all across my tiny room; it took 100 steps to complete. In one five-day period, I was able to walk over 20,000 steps. I laughed when I saw the figure on my exercise gadget: I had walked so many kilometers without actually going anywhere!
In the mornings at 10 a.m. local time, I usually attended an online Mass by the Ateneo Jesuits. Sometime during the day, I would sign in online and join an international group of Zen meditators and do a 25-minute session sitting in lotus position. Those two activities were very helpful in maintaining my psycho-spiritual wellbeing.
All in all I had 40 meals throughout my stay. Breakfast was usually corn flakes, bread, yoghurt, a fruit and instant coffee in a paper bag. At noon, it was instant noodles, crispy sushi, salad and a huge sandwich. Dinner was steamed veggies, rice and beef cooked in a variety of Indian flavours, and some canned fruits for dessert. For variety, Lydia sent me some cheese, ham, biscuits, cookies, fruits, mixed nuts, etc. This augmented the nutritious but taste-challenged meals I was having daily. I am also thankful that my daughter Ala sent me two hot Asian meals via UberEats as a respite from the boringly predictable meals I was having.
I spent hours looking out my window. The view to my right was a very limited view of the picturesque Darling Harbour, mostly blocked by a fence. In front of me was a skinny tall building, and on the right of it was an ongoing construction of a building that looked like a humongous ship made of glass and steel. On the left were two identical buildings owned by the Commonwealth Bank, which was dark and empty during the day but lighted and bustling in the evenings.
The days moved on, sometimes quickly, sometimes very slowly. On certain days, I could feel loneliness and ennui creeping in. But I probably drove them away each time by generating feel-good endorphins through exercise.
My son Mio sent my guitar over. I was glad. I played it daily at whatever time I felt like. I was able to finish composing a song I had started in Manila and wrote an entirely new one.
On the 13th day, the morning before I left, the doctors and nurses went to my room to check on me one last time. My temperature was 36 degrees. Perfect. They then gave me my police and medical clearance and told me I could leave the next day. That afternoon, the hotel staff sent me a bottle of sparkling wine as a gift for finishing the isolation. I thought that was a wonderful, classy way to end my stay.
I am safe and warm in our Sydney home as I write this. I am grateful to God that I am over this 14-day isolation. I know it wasn’t anything close to a Survivor episode or anything physically challenging. It was mostly a mind game that I overcame and won. In short, I was able to maintain my sanity.
In 14 days, I consumed less than a bar of soap and one small hotel-sized tube of shampoo. I used up less than two rolls of toilet paper, less than half of a regular sized toothpaste tube. I had one change of bed sheets, used three towels and only had two changes of clothing. I washed them alternately. To get my fix of vitamin D, I would occasionally open the curtains in the afternoon and bask in the sun for three hours while running in place or lying in bed. Unbelievably, I watched a total of less than two hours of TV all that time. I spent about 350 minutes or 5.83 hours in meditation, and countless hours doing jumping jacks, sit-ups, push-ups, cardio and core strengthening exercises, walking, running, playing the guitar, singing and writing new stuff. I also slept a lot and chatted with my siblings and friends.
I have gone through almost 56 days of quarantine in two countries, which means I ate 168 meals all alone. I know that, by itself, this is not so dramatic. But I am proud to have won this little battle against the imperatives brought about by COVID-19. The war is still going on and nowhere near ending. But I triumphed in reuniting with most of my family. We are safe and sound and without physical distancing. Wonderful.