Workers wearing protective suits pull a body bag near a furnace before cremation at the Baesa Crematorium in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines. May 5, 2020. Basilio Sepe/BenarNews
Deaths, meltdowns, valor
Ever since the coronavirus spread to the Philippines early last year, sparking prolonged and painful lockdowns, FOCAP journalists have scoured the treacherous front lines of the pandemic to chronicle its cataclysmic impact in the country—from the menacing rise in infections and deaths to the crippling economic downturn.
Wearing their N95 masks, face shields and, at times, hazmat suits, they filed grim dispatches and harrowing images from hospitals, quarantine centers, morgues and other COVID-19 hotspots.
They also told stories of valor and hope.
The Baesa Crematorium
By Barnaby Lo, CGTN
An idle crematorium is revived by the hideous exigencies of the pandemic and becomes a quiet witness to death and despair in the Philippines
It was July of 2020, four months into the COVID-19 pandemic in the Philippines. Metro Manila was under the looser general community quarantine, but calls were ripe for a return to a stricter lockdown.
With the government communicating mixed messages, it was difficult to gauge how bad, or how much better for that matter, the situation was. I was in the thick of putting together a half-hour program on COVID-19 deaths, and was not sure if it was the right time to do it.
One of our first filming locations was the Baesa Crematorium in Quezon City. It was, for all intents and purposes, an abandoned project, having been built without the proper permits. But necessity is the mother of invention as they say, or in this case, of building on idle construction.
I had read about the bodies being brought in the crematorium hour after hour, but could those days be over?
The crematorium itself was uneventful when my crew and I arrived at the cemetery where it’s located, but there were a handful of visibly distressed women milling around.
I had sensed death in the family, but it was a struggle deciding whether to approach them or not. It’s not that it would be the first time for me to witness death; from natural disasters to extrajudicial killings, I’ve seen one too many deaths.
But it’s grief over the death of a loved one that I’ve always found touchy.. How, in the lowest moment of someone’s life, can we invade his or her privacy? Why would anyone want to share his or her grief with the world?
My instinct has always been to respect the wishes, spoken or not, of the mourning family. And at that moment, I felt the group of women were not in the mood to talk to anyone else, much less a journalist. It was only after a funeral van had arrived with the body of an infant that I found out why.
From that point on, they came one after another. I saw the opportunity to talk to someone when Nady Atangan, Jr. sat down, alone, staring into space.
He was the picture of a man who had the weight of the world on his shoulders, and looked like he could use some unloading of the burden. It turned out his wife, who had just given birth, was still recovering from COVID-19 in the hospital.
His infant twins were third in line for cremation.
“Ang sabi kasi sa akin ng doctor iyon mga baby na-expose sa COVID, kasi nga iyon misis ko nasa COVID ward,” Mr. Atangan said.
“So ang naisip ko, patay na nga iyon mga baby ko, nag-positive pa. Parang ang hirap tanggapin.”
(“The doctors told me the babies were exposed to COVID, because my wife was in the COVID ward,” Mr. Atangan said. “So I thought, my babies were dead, they tested positive. It was so hard to accept.)
And because they were COVID-19 patients, Mr. Atangan never had the chance to see or hold them. Today would be the first time he would hold them – not in the flesh, but as ashes in a box.
All he wanted then was to be able to grieve in peace, but he couldn’t. He knew he and his four other children had also been exposed to the virus, yet help did not seem forthcoming.
“Ang sabi po kasi sa akin ng doktor, makipag-coordinate sa barangay. Pero lumipas na po ang isang linggo na wala pang nangyayaring test,” he said.
(“The doctor told me to coordinate with the village officials. But one week had passed and we still haven’t beed tested,” he said)
Mr. Atangan’s case was symptomatic of how the Philippine government was contact tracing and testing at the time – slow, disjointed, every man for himself.
It also meant one undiagnosed COVID-19 patient could harm any one of us, so if Mr. Atangan was not getting help from his local officials, I had to, I thought. I gave him some money, and referred him to the Lung Center of the Philippines for testing.
Several days later, Mr. Atangan happily shared with me that he and his four children had all tested negative. My crew and I did as well.
But by the time we were wrapping up production, it had become clear that the Philippines’ coronavirus outbreak was accelerating again.
“Seven intubated patients now uncertain if they will make it to the critical beds as we have reached full capacity for COVID since yesterday,” read a text message by The Lung Center’s Dr. Norberto Francisco.
One of those seven patients, or two, or all of them, could die. And they will die without their loved ones being able to hold their hand.
Ms. Bibeth Orteza, an actress who lost her brother, Dr. Neal Orteza to COVID-19 early on in the pandemic, sums up the pain of losing someone with aching accuracy.
“You know, when I look at charts, let’s say 1206 died, I read that as 1205,” Ms. Orteza said.
“Because I didn’t see him go. The pain comes from the lack of closure, not being there, to give your loved one a final kiss.”
I’ve seen one too many deaths, but few are more heartbreaking than those caused by COVID-19.