By Mark Cristino
“Here come the astronauts! COVID, COVID!” joke the locals as a group of volunteer health workers, dressed from head to toe in protective medical gear, walk down the winding alleys and passages of a densely populated working class Manila neighborhood to check on positive and suspected cases of Covid-19.
Mercelina Villacampa, Vannessa Morales, Fe Bacunawa and Richell Arsenio have been conducting home visits twice a day since mid-March, when the capital city and the rest of the northern Philippine island of Luzon – the archipelago’s largest and most populous – was put under lockdown in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
“At first, I was really scared, but then I got used to it,” says Vannessa, who has five children at home.
Her husband Nelson, who drives a jeepney (a type of popular Filipino buses known for their colorful and kitschy decorations), stays at home, because public transportation is still banned under the lockdown. He helps tend to their children, cooks and takes care of domestic chores.
“I’m getting bored,” Nelson says as he smokes a cigarette. “I hope we see the end to this so everything goes back to normal.”
Mercelina, the most experienced among the group, has known about the virus since early January. She mentors her colleagues, especially when it comes to handling positive Covid-19 cases. Wearing their protective equipment, the group conducts home visits to at least 19 people between 8 am and 7 pm every day.
“Hospital nurses wear PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment) but still get infected. What about us? We have to be really very careful,” she tells them before heading out.
They are accompanied by either Ian Arcilla or Ruel Torres, who are part of the disinfecting unit.
Mercelina says that they have to start very early in the morning to assist suspected cases during rapid testing.
“It is a nightmare, you have to be there by 3 am. There’s a long queue and only 250 people a day are tested. Once it starts going though, it’s pretty fast, and we finish around lunchtime,” she explains. A certificate of clearance is given after three days for those who yield negative results.
The group says they have faced discrimination because of their exposure to potential Covid-19 cases. To assuage the fears of their families and neighbors, all four volunteers have undergone rapid testing, which were all negative.
“Some of our neighbors are scared because of our daily visits to patients. When rapid test kits were made available, we had ourselves tested. I’ll show them the certificate if they make a fuss,” Vannessa says.
The volunteers observe proper disinfection practices and rest at the town hall before going home, as they all have families to care for.
“It is very scary. After doing rounds, we usually have snacks or dinner here at the town hall and then we go straight to bathe once we get home,” says Richell.
With the availability of rapid test kits as tools for mass testing, some individuals have been removed from the list of suspected cases and are just being monitored.
“There are those who get cleared but some new cases are added because people refuse to stay at home and still go outside. It is a pain in the head,” says Mercelina.
Home to 14,000 people, village 75, Zone 84 has just eight confirmed positive cases. The Philippines, with around 107 million inhabitants, has 19,000 Covid-19 cases nationwide, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The low rates of infection in such a densely populated neighborhood proves the effectiveness of the outreach program.
“It’s funny; we used to get irked when they called us names, but now we’re used to it. ‘Astronaut’ is their favorite,” quips Mercelina.