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Figuring my way out of confinement

By OLEEN FLORENDO, The Philippine Star Published Jan 07, 2021 4:00 pm

Is it wrong to feel stuck when others have already gotten their old lives back?

Around the third week of November with holidays rushing in, the number of people taking their first venture in the “great outdoors” doubled as COVID restrictions further loosened up. 

Online, here are people on the beach lounging without masks on, but with fewer people in sight. Date nights are a thing again, albeit with acrylic screens to divide the intimate spaces. In my own neighborhood, I can see party gatherings from apartments nearby with unfamiliar cars outside. Employees are being called to report back to their offices as weeks pass by, the others out of necessity for their line of work, while some probably just want to maximize their leases. 

As people find the pandemic less alarming, I’ve also just learned that a sister of a friend contracted the virus and has been moving from one hospital to another with her bills piling up. News still reports overwhelmed hospitals and the fear of medical professionals for another surge in cases. It’s difficult to grasp these two realities simultaneously existing when just a few months ago, we were collectively trying to rack our minds for an effective routine while in isolation.

Right when life seems like it’s going back to normal, when a vaccine is already on the horizon, it sometimes feels ridiculous to be stuck. The stark differences in living conditions at this point in time have brought even more confusion and powerlessness.

I think of a person’s decision to leave their homes based on how the pandemic has treated their families during this time, on where they are in their life financially, and the headspace they are in at the moment. This last year confronted each of us differently despite positioning us into the same circumstance. The effects of this pandemic are more tangible for others who see its horrors daily and feel grief in the absence of a loved one.

So for some, even with a world outside starting to spin again, they continue to find comfort by looking in from the inside. They cling to the safety it promises, while the recalibration of our lives opened them to new pockets of time and therapeutic habits indoors.

Seeing what the new normal is now doesn’t look so different, but feels more like a resumption of the lives we weren’t able to live out this past year, only with masks and more health requirements. Maybe that’s really how it is. I’m not sure what my expectations were once the pandemic scare died down, but attempts to process any sense of normalcy have lost any meaning for me.

I can’t blame people for wanting to leave for leisure and see faces outside virtual meetings, and for refusing to be tied down by this virus — but it also makes me uncomfortable in a sense. In the same way that I also feel uneasy when I’m the one who’s out and about.

When I started to leave the house again, at some point I felt like someone who just hit her early teenage years trying out my newfound independence: first time to eat out again, first time to leave our city again, first time alone in the cafe again. But every time with a lingering thought: Am I supposed to be out? 

Art by Gio Abcede

There’s an odd feeling as if I am living in a middle ground. I can’t fully move forward because the pandemic is still out there and continues to take lives, but I no longer want to feel held down by what has already taken a large part of our last year, yet I know it’s selfish to think this way.

Perhaps it’s the lack of certainty about when all of this will end that has forced people to do things to appease themselves. Maybe it’s the fact that other countries have already kept the virus under control, while ours is still left behind. Or maybe it’s the considerable failure of those in power to do things to end the rising cases and how they, just now, realized the gravity of mass testing.

The infamous caution fatigue didn’t make it any easier. I used to actively check this Telegram channel that regularly sends the numbers of COVID cases per day, until it just became a mere report of statistics to me, and even their updates have dwindled over time. 

Our economy has been struggling endlessly. There are provinces whose main source of income relies on tourism, so I am, again, conflicted at the sight of more people going out for vacations. This mirrors that time when dine-in options had been allowed again and one side was screaming for people to stay in, while the other would explain how it actually helps struggling businesses. There’s no right choice, I suppose.

In a year that left all of us in limbo, I’ve started to see more people in my timeline missing the early part of the quarantine and asking to take them back to “simpler times.” For a time wrapped in uncertainty, it’s strange to feel a longing towards it. And it’s even particularly vivid for some: frothy Dalgona coffees, TikTok music defining the summer, a long marathon of K-dramas, a newfound baking or cooking skill, baked sushis and ube cheese pandesals, and just a multitude of coping mechanisms.

Right when life seems like it’s going back to normal, when a vaccine is already on the horizon, it sometimes feels ridiculous to be stuck. The stark differences in living conditions at this point in time have brought even more confusion and powerlessness. It’s clear that not everyone is on the same page anymore. Any form of structure is constantly being disrupted, and there’s no formal ceremony to let you know it’s high time for you to move forward. It’s up to us, finally, to decide if we want to be unstuck.

In my mind, I can argue this is a transitional phase, similar to the one when we were still programming ourselves to what it’s like to be quarantined. But the feeling remains. It’s either I feel guilty for leaving my home for small pockets of time for myself despite following protocols, or I feel bothered and upset that despite the threat of a raging pandemic, people have found their way back to their old lives.

There’ve been too many battles this past year, letdowns from what we'd hoped our year would be like, but also a break from the routines, and a chance to slow down for the lucky and privileged. I no longer want to see it as a race to a life of normality, not until our situation has actually improved. For now, I’ll be here in the middle ground just trying to take each day as it comes. This may be an attempt to make sense of the culmination of the longest and most disorienting year and to remind myself that nothing in this world is fair. Not everyone has the same pace, or resources at hand, and it’s useless to feel the need to catch up in a life that won’t stop spinning for you.