How do you measure time in the third world?

I grew up surrounded by the neon lights of Western hegemonic principles through radio, TV, and print. The 1990s were the heyday of the traditional ‘mass media’ in the Philippines. The radio stations, TV stations, and the printing presses constituted the nexus of linguistic and informational powers. The Internet was far too expensive, still, for the struggling masses. I remember watching a lot of colors growing up – red and whites, particularly, from Jollibee TV commercials, and a lot of brown and amber from San Miguel Beer commercials. These were produced by local magnates selling first-world consumerism just before the Asian Financial Crisis hit.

We measure time by waiting out crises and diseases.

There was a time when power outages stretched for days and weeks. I was called “batang brownout” (a child of power outages), because as a child they said that I didn’t mind the darkness anymore, since the lights went out so frequently. I have a vague memory of wandering through our house, guided only by the sparse illumination of moonlight streaming through the windows. Everyone was asleep, but I felt perfectly at home in the dark. Darkness had been normalized.

This is where it all began. When one’s neurological system begins to adapt to scarcity, third-world society breathes a little more comfortably in the thick smog. Yet, the smog remains. We are no healthier than before. We learned how to breathe in more smog. We continue to cling to flimsy strands of hope.  

“We Can DOH It!” This was the tagline of the Department of Health back when Sec. Juan Flavier was still around. My childhood’s highlights were frightening epidemics that were too complex to be understood even by your average adult Filipinos. All we knew back then was we were in danger. There was painful reliance on the scarce information sent through radio bulletins and newspaper clippings read aloud by radio broadcasters who were also deathly worried about their families. You almost wanted just to hold your breath and hide, because the images on TV scared the hell out of people. Malaria was particularly frightening. The costs of hospitalization sent the marginalized into a sweep of panic – if they were infected, how would they be treated? It was layer after layer of hopelessness that entangled the masses.

There wasn’t only malaria, but also cholera and then dengue hemorrhagic fever. At one point, tuberculosis also became a huge black dot on the X-ray of Philippine medical history. Tuberculosis, like HIV/AIDS, spread not because people were irresponsible or because they wanted it to spread. The disease is not anarchic. It has a beautiful logic to it, and unlike corrupted politics, it is measurable, and it responds to epidemiologic modeling. It will tell you how and why it spread. It will show you its cell walls, RNA, and, eventually, the entire genomic sequencing. A broken democracy cannot be subjected to such precise methodologies.

Like the African states that suffered from ballooning HIV/AIDS cases in the last decade, the proliferation of diseases like TB meant that the population was physically weak and impoverished. The mechanical association of disease and poverty is not enough to understand the scale of the problem, which did not end at the dawn of the new millennium. The Filipinos’ impoverishment is the result of an exploitative, semi-feudal economic system that ensures that much of the population teeters on the poverty line. Middle-class aspirations remained a running joke as internal migrations forced people from the regions to squeeze themselves in the National Capital Region, looking for a livelihood.

The mass exodus to the National Capital Region eventually saturated the cities and prompted a mass diaspora to other nations. During this time, the Bagong Bayani (New Heroes) campaigns began to ‘honor’ overseas workers for their ‘sacrifice.’ The government never addressed the grievances of the people. There was also little effort to bring back our overseas workers. Instead, they were made into living monuments by the state and passed on as our poster boys and girls to each succeeding regime. Messages of ‘selflessness’ or ‘self-sacrifice’ for ‘family and nation’ became so ingrained that my generation (those born in the tail end of the 1980s) thought it was normal for you to prepare your entire life for possible migration to another country, ‘in search for a better life.’

We measure time by fleeing demons and slavers.

2016 saw the rise of a demagogue in Philippine politics. A populist leader by any measure, Rodrigo Duterte began what was to be known as the Philippine Drug War. To date, the Drug War has taken more than 30,000 lives, many of the cases still unresolved. In the end, everyone is at risk. Men, women, children… There were barely any geographic constraints, especially during the first few years of this new regime that his supporters lauded as a ‘comeback’ for the masses. He seemed promising at first. Duterte even went as far as inviting progressive groups to the Malacañang Palace. Four years later, he admitted that he only did that to win the elections. What he’s doing now is far from what he promised before the elections – a chance for a just and lasting peace. Duterte disconnected the government from any possible peace talks with the New People’s Army and, instead, initiated a series of steps that would lead to the fast-tracking of the Anti-Terror Act of 2020. This was an ‘upgrade’ of the older Human Security Act, now with more fangs than ever. Political commentators, cultural workers, human rights workers, and writers fear the repercussions of such an expansive law that can tag anyone as a terrorist. 2020 is the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and also the year when poisonous political interests and geopolitical gambits shattered democracy’s scales.

We measure time by the number of dead or dying.

As of this writing, more than 330,000 have become infected with COVID-19 in the Philippines, and we don’t know how much worse it will get as the months continue to wear on. The Philippines is said to have the most extended and strictest lockdown in the world. The COVID-19 lockdown began on March 16, 2020. We live in the province of Pampanga, some two hours away from Metro Manila and the National Capital Region. Nothing could prepare us for the lockdown itself. The fear of running out food amplified mass hysteria. We spent up to five to six hours each time to get supplies from a supermarket nearest our residence. The national government abruptly suspended all forms of public transportation. This meant all buses, jeeps (diesel-powered transports that could carry up to 20 people at a time), and tricycles (gas-powered transports like Thailand’s auto-rickshaws) were swept off the streets in a matter of days. People across the Luzon island were forced to travel by foot, on bikes, and motorcycles. My partner had to walk ten kilometers to the city center, looking for rubbing alcohol. All the local pharmacies had their alcohol supplies depleted two days after the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) announcement.

The ECQ of Luzon brought out the worst in our circumstances as Filipinos. In our province, work in factories and offices was suspended as per orders of the national government. In the first two weeks, people lived off their savings. In the third week of quarantine, savings has already dried up, and people began to wonder when this prolonged suffering would end. Some renters who were fortunate enough to work in offices were provided some form of financial aid. Employers relied mainly on the pronouncements of the national government. The lockdown was extended, week by week, to stem the tide of dissent due to the lack of preparation of the national government for the said lockdown.

When the ECQ was finally lifted by the end of May, we found ourselves struggling with the fact that we faced an uncertain landscape plagued by COVID-19. Many people who were fired during the ECQ cannot find jobs anymore. Some were asked to return in September by their companies, as companies are now required to provide not only safety gear but also transportation and sometimes even lodgings to their employees. Work from home was hastily set up during the quarantine. The remaining employees now face an uncertain future as the previously outsourced jobs are being brought back to their home countries by corporations.

Stretching across this depressed swathe of Filipino life is the fact that we have always been on our own. And this is a story similar to those living in equally problematic states in Latin America. Everyone who belongs in the Global South is subject to the same fears, anxieties, and material scarcities that paint our everyday lives in strokes of palpable suffering.

This is as much a protest as a call to action. I am a person in the Global South. And fighting is all I have left.