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  • A Philippine Asphyxia
  • Kathleen Cruz Gutierrez (bio)

My eighty-seven-year-old father cuts holes in his masks. He says he can’t breathe otherwise. The fabric—whether stretchy, cotton, or woven—keeps him from taking full breaths, he protests. When we’re out, he pulls his mask below his nose, irreverent about public health guidance. His breathing, iyan ang kailangan (that’s what’s needed), COVID-19 be damned.

He was in Quezon City, Philippines, at the time of the first round of global coronavirus lockdowns. The numbers did not abate with the summer heat, and neither did the extrajudicial killings the presentday Philippine president rains on the populace. My father lived alone and preferred it that way. Until he couldn’t. The people he saw regularly—the buko (coconut) vendor, the titinda ng saging (banana salesperson), the labandera (laundrywoman) who helped with his weekly washing—retreated indoors to avoid the contagion. Local officials delivered cans of sardines to his apartment door. A service for the elderly, they recited.

But the loneliness crawled insidiously. The man I had known to be a good-humored storyteller, the man who knew his body organ by organ, withered. The weeks in quarantine took his mind, his sense of [End Page 219] time, and his safety. He suspected that others entered his room to move his papers, to steal his wall calendar, to hide his glasses, and to dirty his masks. “This is like martial law,” he’d repeat to me through the phone. “But before, I could be at a beer garden during the curfew of Marcos,” he’d add. My dad lived through the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship and stayed at bars to enjoy the “curfew special” if he didn’t make it home in time. But during the Marcos era authorities also quietly entered my dad’s home, confiscating books he had acquired in the People’s Republic of China during a medical botany research trip. Nothing was upturned, my dad recalled. The air was only made strange by the presence of unknown parties.

Decades later the strange air loomed again. He couldn’t breathe indoors—his apartment felt too stuffy, without oxygen, fatiguing. But he couldn’t escape for relief, either. “They come in when I leave,” he swore after changing the locks for a third time. Manila public health policies were especially “protective of” senior citizens, “for their own good,” authorities would recite. Yet the curfew mandate emerged as a haunting reminder of martial law—and the real threat of President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaring it.

I traveled from California to the Philippines because my father begged for reprieve. “Please, take me from here, anak (child),” he wept through the phone. I came to him because he needed rescue from the suffocation of quarantine, of scattered memory. To write that the Philippine lockdown had left a shell of a man is to understate his condition. He was sunken flesh, the sardines untouched. The wall calendar beneath his mattress, his glasses stored in a hidden pocket, his cash in crevices he wanted others to find to fund his cremation.

Our story isn’t uncommon. Colleagues have moved aging kin into their homes, rushed them to hospitals, facilitated their transition to better-equipped facilities that could help them breathe easier. They console relatives, whose memories of war, crisis, and dictatorship have been agitated. So I weigh risks daily: What will bring peace to my father’s hours, ease the distressing recollections? What will inflict the least negative public health impact but also slow his dementia? What will return his sense of self—his dignity—even if he is “high risk”? [End Page 220]

My father now lives with me in Oakland. He cuts holes in his masks, COVID-19 be damned. The blood has returned to his skin. He doesn’t speak cyclically of curfews. He sits in the sun, he eats, he weaves tales. He breathes, fearless. [End Page 221]

Kathleen Cruz Gutierrez

kathleen cruz gutierrez is assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She specializes in the history of the plant sciences in the Philippines and modern Southeast Asian studies. In 2021...


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