Manitoba·Point of View

Seeking calm in the coronavirus storm: How one Winnipegger copes while aging family stuck in Philippines

In a world that changes by the minute, one Winnipegger is counting the seconds, hoping his loved ones make it home to Canada in the middle of a pandemic.

Winnipeg filmmaker Jim Agapito navigates fear and anxiety with family stuck 12,000 kilometres away

Epifania Bulaong, 96, with her grandson Jim Agapito in Winnipeg. Bulaong has been in the Philippines since December and doesn't know when she will be able to return home to Winnipeg. (Submitted by Jim Agapito)

Like most of us in North America, I don't think I understood the seriousness of the coronavirus until last week.

Before that I used the humour of American late-night television to "inform" me. At that time, people were comically conflating the pandemic with the Mexican pale lager and irrationally boycotting the brand. Comedic relief was the salve for uncertainty. I wanted to believe that everything was fine. 

Then, a week ago on Wednesday evening, the NBA postponed its season due to coronavirus fears. By Thursday the NHL and touring concerts followed suit and by Friday, schools and universities were preparing to suspend classes. 

I told myself, "OK, there's no need to panic. There's no need for me to contribute to the anxiety surrounding me."

Then a very personal bomb dropped. On March 15, the president of the Philippines quarantined Metro Manila. 

My entire family is in the Philippines. 

My mom, 68, my dad, 73, my brother, 43, and my 96-year-old grandmother are in Jaen, a town about a two-and-a-half-hour-drive north of Manila. My family went back home in December on a planned, three-and-a-half month holiday to visit extended family. My brother, meanwhile, was there on business.

That quarantine announcement for Manila flipped a switch inside me. In an instant I went from calm and reasoned to nervous and distraught. My anxiety also spiked, knowing I am supposed to self-isolate and social distance from my very supportive network of friends. 

Yolanda Agapito with her son Jim in Winnipeg. Yolanda, who was on a family holiday, must now remain in the Philippines with her husband, Simeon, while the country is shut down and international flights are grounded. (Submitted by Jim Agapito)

My knee-jerk reaction was to immediately Facebook message my parents. For all the times I cursed at my parents for attempting to video chat me at 2:30 am because of the time difference, I desperately hoped for a quick response, any hour of the day or night. 

Hours later, on Saturday, my mother responded. "Hopefully our flight is still on." she wrote. "Lots of flights have been cancelled because of COVID-19. [Your brother] is still here too [since his flight was cancelled]. How are you? Miss you."

This was followed by four kissy-face emoticons.

On Sunday she messaged again. "We don't know about our flights, we are still waiting on our travel agent."

And for me, she offered this: "Just don't mingle in crowds. Drink lots of vitamin C and warm liquid." Her mom advice made me miss her even more.

By last Sunday, like so many others, I'd become an "expert" on the coronavirus. I had watched almost every expert talk about the pandemic and managed to completely freak myself out. 

Later that day, I got another message from my mom. "Me and Lola ["grandma" in Tagalog] are flying on March 23rd. Your dad is flying on the 24th."

Relief was mixed with panic. My grandma is 96, my mother is 68 and my father is 73. All the stories I have read about the coronavirus say the elderly are hardest hit. Having my family inside a confined airplane, for a lengthy international flight, loaded with strangers, many of who could possibly be carrying the virus, terrified me. 

But somehow, they had procured N95 masks, and would wear surgical gloves and carry enough hand-sanitizer, they felt, to kill any microbe within a 10-metre radius, they told me. All they wanted was to be home in Canada, they said. And that's what I desperately wanted too. 

Epifania Bulaong, 96, with Jim Agapito in Winnipeg. Uncertainty surrounding the coronovirus and a lockdown in the Philippines has marooned her family overseas. (Submitted by Jim Agapito)

My brother, who has subsequently managed to leave the Philippines with a hastily acquired plane ticket, told me that the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila was safe when he went through. Officials were taking the temperature of people entering the building, sanitizing everything hourly and controlling the passengers boarding the airplane. I was calmed by his first-hand information.

But on Monday another bomb dropped. That day, President Rodrigo Duterte announced an "enhanced community quarantine." That meant the island of Luzon — the country's largest and most populous island in the country — was going into lockdown. 

But there was also a new reality.

'They are stuck'

There will be no flights in or out of the country by Friday, March 20 at midnight. They had been trying to get out and are still trying. 

(Even as I write this, information changes, seemingly, hour to hour. Flights may be getting out but some have been cancelled too, we have heard. We just don't know.) 

So my parents and grandma may be marooned in the Philippines indefinitely.

Prime Minister Trudeau says all Canadians need to come home. My parents can't. They are stuck. 

And I am a little stuck too. I have thought, many times, about how I never had the chance to see them off at the airport in December. I am desperately afraid I may never see my grandma again. She is 96. I am worried, I'll never again hear her pester me about not eating enough. I am worried that I will never get those random phone calls from my mom to talk about nothing in particular. I am worried my dad won't ever ask me to bring over coffee on the fly. 

I'm terrified I will never see any of them again. 

Simeon Agapito, a Winnipegger, is currently locked down, under government orders in the Phillippines. He and his wife hope to return to Winnipeg in April. (Submitted by Jim Agapito)

I feel helpless and so, so far away. I know I am not alone. There are many other families around the world separated like ours. 

My experience isn't unique. Every day brings new information, new fears, and intermittent relief. I have been up, and I have been down. 

Then, on Tuesday I was up again. I received a video call from my parents. We talked. And they do the most parent thing ever: they made me, their 39-year-old adult son, feel better. They told me everything will be fine. Their travel agent will try to book a flight for them in mid-April, after the travel ban is lifted. 

My father told me not to worry. 

Although he's under quarantine and can't leave the property, he's said he is going to sit by the mango tree, drink a beer and barbecue for the family. My mother reminded me that their home is miles away from Manila. And then she managed to say the most reassuring thing about Grandma.

"Your grandma is tough. When she was 18, she was hiding from the Japanese while your grandfather was fighting for the U.S. You have nothing to worry about, she's a survivor," my mom told me.

That statement put everything in perspective. They are all survivors. They left their dreams, homeland and careers to start fresh in Canada. They've made the right life choices so far. I am hanging on to that. 

And while the world all waits in uncertainty, I try to remember what Walt Whitman once said: "Keep your face always toward the sunshine — and shadows will fall behind you."

And despite my family being nearly 12,000 kilometres away, I shouldn't panic. 

They, like the rest of us, will make it through, if we just focus on the light.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Jim Agapito is a Filipino filmmaker from Winnipeg. Jim writes, boxes, takes photos and sings in a punk band.