The Astronauts

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The Astronauts

Photographer: Mark R. Cristino


'Here come the astronauts! COVID, COVID!'

Bystanders joke around while covering their mouths as a group of volunteer health workers enter an alley in Village 775, Zone 84 of Manila to check on positive and suspected cases of COVID-19.

'It's funny; we used to get irked when we were called names, but now we’re used to it. 'Astronaut' is their favorite,' quips one of the volunteers.

Mercelina Villacampa, Vannessa Morales, Fe Bacunawa and Richell Arsenio have been conducting home visits twice a day since mid-March, when 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 kids at home.

Vannessa's husband Nelson, who works as a jeepney (a type of popular Filipino buses known for their colorful and kitschy decorations) driver, stays at home, since public transportation is still not allowed. He helps tend to their children, cook and take care of domestic chores.

'I'm getting bored. I hope we see the end to this so everything goes back to normal,' Nelson says as he smokes a cigarette.

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 at 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 going out.

They are accompanied by either Ian Arcilla or Ruel Torres, who are part of the disinfecting unit.

'These PPEs are very hot. I have actually lost weight from wearing them but we really need to do it,' says Vannessa.

Mercelina says that they have to start very early 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, it’s pretty fast, though, and we finish around lunchtime,' she explains. A certificate of clearance is given after three days for those who yield negative results.

The group shares that they also experience discrimination because of their constant exposure to patients. To assuage the fears of their families and neighbors, all four volunteers have undergone rapid testing, which luckily produced negative results.

'Some of our neighbors are scared because of our everyday visit 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 group observes proper disinfection practices and rests at the town hall before going home, as they all have families. '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.

Village 75, Zone 84 has a population of 14,000 with eight confirmed positive cases, while the Philippines, with around 107 million inhabitants, had more than 15,000 COVID-19 cases nationwide as of 27 May 2020.

Some medical groups have opposed the use of rapid tests, as they are liable to sometimes generate false negatives, and have instead recommended the use of real-time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests as the standard for detecting infections.

Rapid testing has nonetheless been welcomed by the general public because it is more accessible, convenient, and quick. People view being tested with a rapid test kit as being far better than not being tested at all. Testing negative gives them the comforting perception of not having the virus.

Despite the name-calling, the group feels the community’s gratitude as they leave with warm thank-yous from the dark alleys of Village 775, Zone 84.