Coronavirus Chronicles 5: In the Philippines – stories from the frontlines

‘Proud ako’ says janitor Rowel Togo of his job making sure the rooms, hallways, etc. is scrubbed clean everyday. (Drawing by Geloy Concepcion)


A story from the frontlines of the coronavirus outbreak



Published 10:51 AM, April 02, 2020

Updated 2:17 PM, April 03, 2020

MANILA, Philippines – The community clinic closes at five in the afternoon.

It sits along the main road of the village of Mambog I in Bacoor, Cavite. When the patients leave, the nurses stay. They draw up the schedule, line up the appointments, and decide who comes in first the next morning. Mass transportation is suspended, so one nurse from Kawit bought a bicycle. Two others ride motorcycles.

By six in the evening, all but one staff member of the Health Index Multispecialty Clinic has left for home.

The man who stays behind is a 28-year-old janitor named Rowel Togo. He begins work in the doctor’s office. He wipes down her table, sanitizes her chair, decontaminates every surface. He sweeps. He mops. He begins the long, complicated process of what he calls “walling.” He sprays each wall with disinfectant, then rubs them down, three times, each time with a different rag. The first rag is wet, the second damp, the third dry. It is a technique he learned when he worked at a local Chowking: spray, wipe, wet, damp, dry.

He goes room by room. Pediatrics. ER. Obstetrics. Ultrasound. X-ray. Pantry. Internal Medicine. General Medicine. Admin. He closes the doors to let the disinfectant do its job. He sanitizes the reception area next, where the long bench that used to fit six patients is now limited to three.

The hallway comes after. He sweeps. He mops. He sprays and wipes and repeats, sometimes mounting a small stool whenever his five-foot-six-and-a-half inches aren’t enough.

He takes a break after the hallway. The doctor, he says, isn’t terribly strict about time, so long as Rowel gets the job done. He steps out to smoke one of three cigarettes another staff member shared that day.

It is quiet on the streets. There are no passersby or rattling tricycles, only the occasional cop with a loudspeaker reminding residents to go home. Rowel chats with the security guard outside the front door. He scrolls down his timeline. Then he goes back inside, to scour the tile of the restroom walls.

He locks up at ten in the evening, five hours, nine rooms, and thirty-nine walls since he started. He gets on his bike and pedals the half hour home to Mambog III. He carries with him the two cans of sardines he picked up on the way.

To stay updated on news, advisories, and explainers, check out our special coverage page, “Novel Coronavirus Outbreak.”

There is a bucket of water in the yard outside his house. His wife has left a folded towel, a bar of soap, a pair of shorts, a shirt, and the gallon of 70-percent alcohol he bought with the clinic’s other supplies. He takes a bath. He rubs down with alcohol, every inch. He gets dressed, opens the door, calls out a greeting, then waits for the screaming joy of two small boys who leap into his arms.


‘Proud ako’

Cavite’s population of more than 3.6 million lives just south of Metro Manila, the teeming center of the country’s coronavirus outbreak. The governor’s March 16 announcement of a state of calamity closes down malls, cancels parades and sends sidewalk vendors home. A curfew is imposed, along with a community quarantine.

All of this means a number of things for Rowel Togo. It means the clinic shifts from 24-hour operations to a nine-hour workday, eight to five, four days a week, with breaks for decontamination. It means Rowel mans the door in the daytime, letting only one masked patient at a time – “We have to do social distancing, ma’am.”

It means, finally, that at past five in the afternoon in the beginning of the lockdown, Rowel is left to work alone for the first time in the four years since he was employed as a janitor. There is no night shift doctor, no more patients in reception. It is a change for Rowel, who likes his job because he likes the people. Every employee is a friend. He laughs with them, tells them stories, asks nurses about his father who had a stroke in September, sometimes records TikTok videos with his fellow janitor Mack.

On the first night, at a little past nine, Rowel takes pictures of himself inside the empty clinic. The white floors gleam in the fluorescent lights. A fabric mask covers half of Rowel’s face, and what little is visible can pass for a teenager on a day off from school.

He posts the photos online. “I am a Health Worker and I am proud of it,” the caption reads.

He does it again two days later, inspired by another janitor from another hospital. The caption over the photo is short.

I am not a doctor, Rowel writes. I am not a nurse. I am maintenance, utilities, a janitor. I am proud to be one of the frontliners.

The Philippine government’s most recent count, as of Wednesday, April 1, puts confirmed COVID-19 cases at 2,311, although the numbers are likely underreported with limited testing available. There have been at least 96 recorded deaths, at least six of them from Cavite. The province, where the clinic is, has racked up 28 confirmed COVID-19 individuals – including one mayor.

Experts have pleaded with the public to consider hospitals as only one of many fronts in the response to COVID-19. Containment, they say, requires concerted action from the community level.

In the photo he posts online, Rowel holds up a sheet of A4 paper, where, written out in black marker, is the same sign he had seen posted by doctors all over social media: “I stayed at work for you. Please stay at home for us.”


‘Laban lang po’

Her name is Ma. Rosela Vergara-Vivero. She was born in Capiz, the youngest of seven. Her twin sister died at birth, so Rosela’s grandmother called her Twinee, to make sure she never forgot that she came from a matched set of two.

Twinee remembers wanting to be a nurse in kindergarten. She left home for Las Piñas to study, went to nursing school, but never passed the boards. There was no money for the nursing board reviews. She was twenty years old and sitting in a bus when a young man turned around to ask for her phone number. She saw he was with a pair of varsity players she knew. She thought he was cute. She handed over her number before she found out he wasn’t from her school at all but was instead a seaman out from Bacolod on a trip to Manila. They were dating two weeks later and married four years after that.

At 31, Twinee has spent most of the last ten years working at Health Index. She is a medical assistant at the clinic, a private outpatient facility that serves the cities of Bacoor and Imus. Her husband gave up seafaring to take care of the baby. Twinee couldn’t imagine leaving the clinic, so it was her husband who stayed home. He prepared meals. He watched over their son. Her husband was her rock and support, all the way to the day in February when they began to hear of a virulent new coronavirus.

Other Stories

[OPINION | Dash of SAS] How do you stay at home when home is a dangerous place?

Several studies have shown that domestic and family violence increases during times of disaster and national emergencies

Cured patients cheered at Spain’s largest COVID-19 field hospital

3 patients wearing face masks wait while sitting on chairs. They have been declared cured. Applause rings out when they get up to leave.

PH coronavirus watch: Confirmed cases per hospital, as of April 4, 2020

Based on the Department of Health’s monitoring as of April 4, 2020

The doctor had warned them all of COVID-19. Twinee thought at first it wasn’t serious – that it was just another flu, easily cured, quickly solved. It was only in early March, watching the news from Italy and China, that she began to worry.

Twinee has not considered filing for leave. Patient care is what Twinee trained for. It is a purpose she believes in, and Twinee believes in having a purpose. She will go to work for as long as she is needed.

She drives home every night after her shift. Her husband leaves a pail of hot water in the terrace outside their townhouse. Twinee strips down to bathe, wraps herself in a towel when she is done, and heads straight to the bathroom to soap down again. She shampoos her hair a second time. She rubs down her hands with a layer of alcohol. Upstairs, her husband keeps their son entertained to prevent the five-year-old from running to find Mommy.

Sometimes she cries. She is afraid of getting sick, and the necessary separation from her family it will mean. Her husband holds her. He tells her she can do it. He tells her she is strong enough and tough enough to fight. He has never told her to stay home.

His purpose is clear too: to brace her every night, so she can go back out the next day.