Filipinos toasted 2022 with family and friends they hadn't seen or touched over two years, hopeful that the pandemic is coming to an end, until news broke of a certain Gwyneth Chua, who escaped her hotel quarantine to party and would later test positive for COVID-19.
Nicknamed "Poblacion Girl" after the hip Makati district where she couldn't resist having a drink with friends, Chua went viral at a time when the internet is trained to highlight the rich-poor divide. While the entire planet suffers as one, her antics showed that she wasn't on the same boat as the rest.
Chua's case highlighted how the rich and powerful, under the current administration, have long been skirting rules, while everyday Filipinos are being threatened jail time for merely refusing to get jabbed. More than an individual's failure, this was a symptom of the much-larger culture of impunity that is deeply entrenched in this country.
"Rules become clear when someone breaks them. They serve as check and balance as to whether institutions in society function well," sociologist Janice Zamora-Morales told reportr, noting how the so-called "padrino" system that favors the privileged few is thriving in the Philippines, especially during a pandemic that has only widened the gap between the rich and the poor.
The problem is more than one privileged family
The padrino system and "distorted family values" enabled the Chua caper, said Zamora-Morales. In situations like this, the culture of pakikisama or pakiusap "works negatively" as it allowed privileged individuals to break the law.
"Probably people may interpret this as the parent’s love but in situations that may jeopardize the health of the majority, it is our responsibility as citizen to obey the rules. The behavior of Ms. Chua and her family are reflective of how Filipinos at times choose to be a family member than being a citizen," she said, noting that such culture "impedes us to be one as a nation".
"Her status heightened people’s disgust for it reflects injustice brought by inequality in terms of privilege," she added.
On Tuesday, Chua, her parents, and several personnel of Berjaya Hotel were charged with a criminal complaint that has a maximum penalty of jail time. But are they the only ones at fault, when prior to this, failure of government itself to hold its own officials accountable for similar offenses had set a dangerous precedent?
In May 2020, at the onset of the pandemic, former PNP Chief Gen. Debold Sinas broke the rule prohibiting large gatherings during ECQ or the strictest lockdown, just so he could celebrate his 55th birthday with fellow policemen. His justification that it was a mañanita or a dawn celebration later backfired.
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Public health is a responsibility everyone shares
Filipinos were enraged by how Chua skirted rules as it added to worries over a looming surge due to the more transmissible Omicron variant. But there is caution to be made against crucifying one individual for something she has been inculturated into, as well as the blame game that has been happening even as science has yet to provide clarity on her case.
“We still don't know if it is Omicron because hindi pa, wala pang result yung genome sequencing niya,’’ Interior Sec. Eduardo Año had said, emphasizing that Chua for now is only at fault for one thing: violating government protocols.
Given the timeline of events, it is even possible that Chua may have contracted the virus in the places she went to while out of quarantine, instead of being the singular source of infection as many on social media have concluded.
"The current surge is almost certainly not just because of one single person breaking quarantine restrictions. It just doesn’t work that way. For one, many of the cases coming out now will have been from even before she violated her quarantine recklessly," said Josh Danac, a UP senior science research specialist who has been observing pandemic science.
The lack of "good contact tracing" makes it hard to trace transmission clusters, unlike in other countries, Danac said.
"But here, we can't do that because our very limited sequencing capacity is already super stretched doing variant surveillance," he said, refering to the process that determines the virus variant that sickened a patient.
This then points to another matter the government should be acting on apart from holding rule-breakers into account.
"While current policies place a lot of emphasis on travel restrictions, mobility restrictions etc. which all entail individual modifications in behavior, placing the responsibility on the individual, there also has to be the counterpart in containment measures that only the state really has the capacity to carry out: mass testing, efficient contact tracing, rapid vaccination, etc., for which we have all fallen behind," he said, echoing what's been said by countless of health experts in the last two years.
In the end, what the public should understand is that rich or poor, privileged or not, no one is immune from this virus, Zamora-Morales, the sociologist said.
"Only when we see ourselves not just as family members or a member of a region or group but as a Filipino citizen and/or a global citizen can we understand that collective responsibility is necessary to obey health protocols that will save us from this pandemic," she said.