Annus horribilis

"1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure," Elizabeth II said during a speech marking her Ruby Jubilee that year. "In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis."

That year was marked by a series of scandals and upheavals surrounding the British royal family: separations, divorces, intriguing revelations, and a fire at one of the Queens homes. A few weeks later, it would be announced that her son Charles would separate from his wife, Diana.

I don't really follow British royal affairs, despite the proximity of the monarchy to many aspects of British pop culture that I do follow. (No, I haven't been watching The Crown, either.) I have had to do a little reading to understand the context of that quote - that term, annus horribilis - just to be particularly sure that it suits the past year, even if it's very likely that people have tossed that term around to describe 2020.

There is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 81 million people have been infected around the world. 1.7 million people have died, but the rest have yet to see the full impact of the disease on them. In the Philippines, as I write this - I'm pre-writing my yearender essays; it's the 29th - there are over 471,000 cases, with just over 9,000 deaths. But considering the slow process of tabulating and verifying cases, as well as the Filipino's tendency to cover things up rather than be judged by his peers, there's always the sense that we have more cases than is reported.

Numbers aside, the impact of the pandemic has been wide. It has been everywhere around the world, of course. Movement was restricted and activities were wound down; plans were disrupted, or cancelled altogether. Here in Manila, we have been under one form of community quarantine or another since the middle of March, which has disrupted my work - we do industry events, although I'm not technically in events management - and pretty much put a question mark on the livelihood of many others. And it's set to continue for at least one more month. But knowing how things have gone before - plus the new, more transmissible COVID-19 strain making the rounds these past few weeks - who's to say it won't last longer? A few more months? All of 2021? Forever?

There has always been the sense that our leaders are still not taking this pandemic seriously. They certainly did little when the pandemic was emerging, perhaps buoyed by the president's gung-ho attitude over the whole thing. When the first community quarantines was announced, it was seemingly without thinking about its impact on everything else, their hand forced by the anxiety of many. (How do you expect everybody to go to work while cutting the capacity of all public transport in half overnight?) The first guidelines were released a few days after the lockdowns first took effect - remember when the government didn't initially want to call a lockdown, perhaps in a bid to make it sound more normal?

Ten months in, there are too many of them, to the point that we're not really sure what takes precedence. Wear face masks everywhere. Wear face shields in certain establishments. No, wear face shields everywhere. Wear face shields in the office. Wear face shields even if you're alone. Why not wear face shields in your own home? (Isn't it obvious how I fucking hate those fucking face shields?) You need a quarantine pass to buy essential items. And to cross borders. Or, not anymore. But minors still can't go to malls. But I saw at least four kids in the weekend before Christmas, accompanied by their parents, doing some last-minute shopping. But you can't really police that, can't you? All these rules, so hard to keep track of. (I should know. For the first seven months or so I did, for work, a table summarizing those guidelines. It was barely a summary; it ran for fourteen pages.) And yet you have to keep track of them, because they said beating this pandemic is all really up to you following the rules.

It's also all up to you to make sure we get past the worst of this pandemic and emerge as a stronger society. That means embracing this so-called "new normal", this new set of behaviors and realities we have to take to heart just because, well, we have to. Now, of course, this is tricky. The world has indeed changed, and we can't do everything the way we did this time last year. Say, we really have to wear masks now whenever we're feeling sick. Or, we'll buy a lot more things online moving forward. Or, we'll have to say goodbye to any semblance of work-life balance, because everyone will demand to have a meeting with us because everything's done online anyway. Not all of it is for the better, but we'll have to figure our way around nonetheless, which inevitably means making some mistakes along the way.

But, well, if you do get it wrong, our leaders seem to suggest, it's because we're not disciplined. And isn't the one reason why we're not a great nation is because we're just not disciplined? All of this is really our fault, because we're not disciplined, perhaps as disciplined as our soldiers. Intense love of country, intense loyalty, just following orders, not questioning the wisdom of their superiors. Everything is for your good anyway. We all have to embrace this "new normal", even if it means railroading unpopular measures, even if it means disenfranchising those who have less of a say in the whole thing, even if it means putting together something that doesn't work for everyone just so they can claim a victory in a battle nobody is really willing to fight. (Take the EDSA Busway. Good idea, but it barely replicates the reach of the admittedly chaotic bus system that came before. My flat is twenty minutes by foot, either side, from the two nearest bus stops. EDSA is barely walkable. Somehow this is the best we can do.) These things usually takes a bit more feedback in from people - experts, stakeholders, end users - but I guess they can't risk a dissenting opinion holding things up. I'm not saying everyone in government is like this, but the leaders up top do set the pace.

And just to make sure that no one holds things up, why not clamp down on freedom of speech? Why not shut down the biggest broadcaster in the country because they supposedly didn't air your political ads? Why not sustain an attack on politicians of a more consistent ideology than you - sorry, of a different ideology than you? Why not constantly gaslight a population into thinking everything is under control - and if it isn't, it's their fault - by spending more time on managing the message (miserably) rather than actually tackling the pandemic? Like, I don't know, properly coordinated contact tracing? Mass testing? Proper quarantine facilities? Real-time exchange of data and information? Proper procurement of a vaccine? Of course, ten months in, we're really long past that, and it seems we're doomed to be left behind and lose ten years of potential because of a few months of mismanagement, to put it charitably. I mean, some will always think all this is because the president just loves China too much. Or profits from it, maybe.

And then we're told that we're doing a good job at being resilient, when we never were resilient to begin with. Resilience is not an innate quality, but something you develop through time. It is unfair to blame all this on the current government - it's not like our past leaders have been stellar - but then, our leaders at the moment keep talking about how everything is better now and how everything will be even better in the future, and also, fuck you for not believing otherwise, all while dropping the ball on the Taal volcano erupting, and massive flooding in several parts of the country due to a typhoon season that seemed to just pass us by, and heaven knows how many other disasters we've missed because we're stuck in our homes.

There have always been many reasons to be angry, more so in the past twelve months. Instead of doing a proper job managing a pandemic, our leaders have seemingly instead chosen to take the opportunity to consolidate power, claim hollow victories for the sake of sticking to an admittedly compelling message, and quietly being first in line for the benefits. (Secret, unapproved vaccines, anyone? They're not even trying to explain their way out of it.) But then, this is barely the first time we as a nation have been confronted with such things. The difference is, there just doesn't seem to be an urgency to express that anger, at the very least.

I don't think it's the lockdowns, although you can argue restrictions in gatherings are in place in part to stop protests. (Not that it stopped those progressive groups a few months back.) If anything, the anger is more pent up, what with people not able to do the things they used to do to chill out and take a breather, plus all the uncertainty. I don't know. We don't talk about what's going on anymore. We have our own set of facts and our own echo chambers - and critics of the president are just as guilty of this - and we surround ourselves only with people who agree with us and affirm our beliefs, all for the sake of banishing negativity and propagating self-care. And any battles that are indeed fought are waged online, in status messages that only appear to one's immediate networks, decrying the fact that anyone who still isn't angry is stupid and just needs to wake the fuck up. Unlike them, of course.

All this, while our leaders are getting away with stealing fifteen billion pesos of our hard-earned money - money we could have otherwise used to make sure we can go to hospitals with peace of mind, especially now with a pandemic - and charging us even more to add to that pot.

Is 2020 an annus horribilis for the Philippines? Yes, for many reasons. But the biggest one is that, contrary to one school of belief, this isn't going away by voting for someone else in 2022. We got here because we refuse to engage with the problems, choosing instead to wave placards and show off our awareness, as if that makes us an infinitely better person, as if that itself is the badge worth winning. Every six years we delude ourselves that things will change because our leaders have changed, all while turning a blind eye on the deeper issues that render one's good intentions moot - because we don't want to be proven wrong and look stupid in front of the public, right? More so now that everyone can judge you online.

This time around, we have a coterie of selfish leaders and incompetent enablers who want to make the most of the circumstances, all while having our lives more directly in their hands. It highlights everything that's not right with the society we live in, and to make it worse, they're getting away with it. They're putting in place one set of rules for them and another set for us, one standard of behavior for them and another for us. They're disciplined, and we aren't. We know this isn't entirely true, and we're angry about it, and yet we've resigned ourselves to believe that it just is. There's nothing else we can do. They have the numbers, the microphones, all the cards, all the distractions they can spring to convince us something else is the problem - and all we do, supposedly, is whine and root for the idiots who will definitely plunge our country into the deepest depths, or at least deny us a couple of elevated highways and fancy airports.

All we can do is look at what other countries do and wish we could just be like them, even if we know all too well it will never, never, never happen. Not with our current leaders, and as much as we hate to admit it, not with our future ones either, whoever they may be. And so we make another set of rules for ourselves, different from what everybody else has to abide by. Live your life on your own terms. Banish negativity. You know the drill. What, if you've always had the means, why not?

And your responses...

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