When this Filipino-Canadian shared news of her husband's COVID-19 plight, the whole world listened
Manitoba Filipino community suffered disproportionately with COVID-19: advocate
Nine days after Lester Quives went into a coma and was put on a ventilator with COVID-19, his wife Christie-Mae got the moment she'd been waiting for.
As a nurse held up a video call up to his hospital beside, Lester unexpectedly opened his eyes.
"It was overwhelming. I [kept] shouting 'Oh my love, my love,'" said Christie-Mae, who works in the lab department in the Bethesda Regional Health Centre in Steinbach, Man.
"He opened his eyes and I thought to myself, 'Oh my gosh, he's back, he's back," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.
But she got another surprise when she posted a quick video online to alert friends and family of the good news — an outpouring of supportive comments on her video, from people around the world.
"Almost the entire world actually texting you — from U.S., from Asian countries, and everywhere in the world. I was so happy and I'm very thankful until now for their prayers," she said.
The couple are originally from the Phillipines and live in Steinbach with their two daughters, 11-year-old Chrysshell, and 6-year-old Chloelynn. As COVID-19 cases spiked in the province in the fall — reaching a 40 per cent test positivity rate — the entire family became infected.
Christie-Mae and the girls experienced mild symptoms, but Lester began to have trouble breathing. When his oxygen levels dropped so low that his fingers turned purple, he was brought to a Winnipeg hospital on Nov. 9, where he was intubated and remained unconscious until he work up on Nov. 18.
Left at home to isolate with the kids, Christie-Mae said the support of her local community, including family, friends and co-workers, got her through.
Lester works as a health-care aide at the hospital and also at a long-term care home. When he returned home on Nov. 23, he was surprised by the messages online.
"Of course, I'm expecting it from family and friends, from the community as well. But people from other parts of the world who prayed for me, oh my God, that's huge," he said.
Not to be outdone, the local community organized a drive-by parade at the family home, honking to show their support. The event was a surprise, so when Lester rushed outside to wave, he was wearing shorts — in the Manitoba winter.
"I don't feel the coldness because the warmth of welcoming me, the warmth of telling me that, hey, good job, you did it, you did it," he said.
"It's just very overwhelming."
Lester's case 'a reality check': advocate
Steinbach became a COVID-19 hotspot around the time Lester got sick, with health-care workers reporting that they were "overwhelmed" with cases, and Manitoba recording the highest per-capita rates in Canada.
Kris Ontong, a Filipino community advocate in Steinbach, said that Lester's case may have been "a reality check" for his community.
"Up to that point … we were just hearing it in the news that somebody got sick, and this is what they're going through," said Ontong, a former president of the Southeast Manitoba Filipino Association, who hosts a video podcast called Barangay Canada.
But Lester is so well known, with so many friends, that people were shocked by how ill he got.
"When that happened, a lot of people, you know, their minds are blown and then it just hit home that this can happen to them as well."
A report from Manitoba's provincial government, released Monday, found that Filipino people experienced the most disproportionate burden due to COVID-19.
While the group accounts for seven per cent of the province's population, it had 12 per cent of cases. The 2016 census records Steinbach's Filipino population as roughly 1,000 of the city's 15,829 residents, a similar proportion to the wider province.
Overall, BIPOC Manitobans account for 35 per cent of the population, but 51 per cent of COVID-19 cases, the report said. White Manitobans make up 64 per cent of the population, but accounted for 48 per cent of confirmed infections.
Manitoba's Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said that BIPOC communities are more likely to be employed in low-wage and higher-risk occupations where distancing measures are not possible, and to live in multigenerational households with increased risk of transmission.
Ontong said that a large chunk of the Filipino immigrant population work in health care, "and the rest are distributed amongst the different factories and farms and barns."
Those roles come with greater risk of exposure to the virus, with Ontong noting that "we're all in the same storm, but in different boats."
"What separates us from the others is a unique culture," he said.
Community adjusted to pandemic: Ontong
Ontong thinks that unique culture has helped with the mental health toll of the pandemic, and has even given the Filipino community what he called "an unfair advantage."
Many members of the community were still living in the Philippines when the SARs outbreak happened in the early 2000s, he explained. While the country only recorded 14 cases, it was surrounded by areas with thousands more.
That means some Filipino-Canadians were already familiar with mask-wearing and following other public health orders, Ontong said.
"We didn't have a problem adjusting to all those new health orders that we have to comply with," he said.
"And as far as the physical disconnection is concerned, well, we're immigrants. We're used to being physically disconnected from our loved ones because we're so far away here in Canada," he added.
That means the community is used to using technology and social media to stay in touch with loved ones at a distance, he said.
He said that organizations like the Southeast Manitoba Filipino Association have also helped to form strong support networks for immigrants. And people who come to Canada often help other friends and family members move to join them as the years go by.
"It's really been a huge factor in supporting people get settled and integrate with the local community," Ontong said.
For Lester, that support has been crucial as he recuperates and gets back on his feet.
"I have the support from family, from friends, from the community and definitely from my co-workers and even from the management, from the hospital where I worked and in the care home, they're very supportive," he said.
He and Christie-Mae have come out of their COVID experience wanting to spend more time with their girls.
"I realized that we need to have time for the kids, not just work, work, work and work," said Christie-Mae.
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Alison Masemann.
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This story is the part of Canada's Road Ahead, The Current's series talking to Canadians about how the pandemic has changed their lives, and what comes next. Read more of those stories below.