Sunday Essay: Paying attention

(Sunday Essay Cartoon by John Gilbert Manantan)

YESTERDAY, leaders of the country’s medical community asked for attention, and they got it. That is a good thing.

Representatives from the largest medical societies held a press conference where they asked the government to place Mega Manila under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) again at least until Aug. 15. “Health care workers are united in sounding off a distress signal to the nation,” their message began. “Our health care system has been overwhelmed.”

Within hours, President Duterte reportedly asked the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases “to act immediately” on the medical community’s appeal. As of 6 p.m. it was not yet known whether the IATF agreed with the recommended return to ECQ.

The attention our medical frontliners got was just the spark. Whether or not it lights a fire under the IATF is another matter.

Before nightfall, the health department confirmed that 4,963 more persons were confirmed infected with Covid-19. It was a new record for the highest number of confirmed cases in a day, and it brought the total to 98,232 so far.

(It’s OK to pause and take a few deep, steadying breaths when we see numbers like these.)

At least, for that day, attention went to a group that so clearly deserves yet doesn’t always receive it. It makes sense to pay attention when the people who know the most about saving lives make their recommendations for finding those infected, locating anyone they may have come in contact with, and making public transportation and workplaces safer.

It certainly makes more sense to listen to our doctors and nurses than to the unproven and dangerous “advice” to disinfect one’s masks with gasoline.

Remember, your attention — the time, notice, and concentration that you give someone or something — is a finite and precious resource. Check if the person who’s bidding for your attention knows whereof he or she speaks.

Kind reader, I have learned this lesson the hard way in the last four weeks. I was sick and tired of not having a day where the words “pandemic” or “quarantine” or “unprecedented” and “uncertainty” did not come up. So, I tried to escape. Not literally, as you’d have to be a public official to get a quarantine pass that allows that much freedom. Instead I binge-watched a Netflix series about two women in their 70s who suddenly find out that their husbands had been having an affair for the last 20 or so years. Across six seasons, they start a new business, help each other through the indignities of aging, fall in love, and find themselves all over again. It was good fun.

It did not teach me anything useful. It didn’t gift me with a new and employable skill. And as much as I enjoyed cackling at some of their one-liners, there was always a little guilt humming in the background. I knew there were more productive uses of my attention than watching a sitcom on my phone screen — some 20 or so years since I believed phones would never really upend television because people wouldn’t like to binge-watch anything on a smaller screen. (Hah!)

But I did get the break I needed. No plant died and no dish was hopelessly mangled in this version of escape. In those 30-minute episodes, I could forget about uncertainty (that word again) and insulate against such burdens as productivity guilt and toxic positivity. And now I can read blissfully again for long stretches and resume making plans for the months ahead.

I may even learn to pay attention rather than seek it.

Please forgive me for looking away and abandoning this space in the last four weeks.


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