The ruin and emotional toll of COVID-19

A chronicle of empty streets, frustration, despair and hope through the lens of The Philippine STAR’s photojournalists

The Philippine STAR’s photojournalists have seen and covered it all — the drug war that has killed more than 27,000 people, including children, typhoons and volcanic eruptions that wiped out entire towns, earthquakes that swallowed entire villages, massacres, hostage situations, floods and fires, labor strikes — and revolutions.

But not a single one of our photographers in the field was prepared to see the kind of ruin that emptied the streets of Metro Manila and the rest of the country due to COVID-19.

On particularly crazy-traffic days on EDSA or Roxas Boulevard, STAR’s front page would run above-the-fold photos of kilometers-long gridlocks. During the ECQ, our photographers were sending the news desk drone photos of an empty EDSA, Roxas Boulevard and SLEX.

It was, to put it mildly, a surreal picture — even to photographers that had seen it all.

As the newsroom continued functioning on a skeleton editorial staff, our news photographers were deployed to chronicle the lockdown in various cities. They witnessed borders in chaos as people tried to leave or enter Metro Manila, and overwhelmed hospitals as they struggled to take care of infected patients.

While the empty malls and business districts were the images of a devastated economy, it was the faces of people, etched with despair and frustration, that represented the human toll of the coronavirus. They saw heart-wrenching scenes of the prolonged emotional traumas people were — and still are — undergoing: Aetas walking the length of NLEX, chairs put outside shanties with residents waiting to receive relief goods that sometimes did not arrive, frontliners in emergency rooms, military personnel manning checkpoints under the summer heat, and bursts of violence between the authorities and people violating ECQ rules.

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The price of COVID-19 was, more than the economy, on individuals. Photographer Edd Gumban, whose regular beat is the Manila Police District, wears a PPE when he goes to the hospitals. He experienced his moment of hope when a 74-year-old recovered and was sent home after 44 days in the hospital, and his moment of distress was seeing through the glass barrier a patient being intubated.

“It’s scary for us to be covering hospitals even though we wear PPEs while waiting for patients to be discharged. After coverage, I’d remove all the gear and head to MPD to take a shower before starting to edit photos.”

There was a silver lining for photographers on the graveyard shift. Miguel Antonio de Guzman says, “I didn’t get to take photos of frontliners because my duty is from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., but roving the cities I did see the widespread effects of COVID-19.” Before the pandemic, Miguel’s routine was covering armed encounters with suspected criminals and “the Digong-inspired police busts of illegal drug operations,” accidents and raging fires.

“Everything toned down when the government implemented ECQ. Human and vehicular traffic was so low until the streets were totally abandoned. There were hardly illegal drug operations because police efforts were shifted to manning COVID-19 control points in inter-city and provincial checkpoints. In other words, the nights became quieter during my shift.”

One of his photos shows a white coffin on a street barricaded by barangay officials. Written on a cardboard is an ominous warning, “Please stay home… or stay inside this coffin.”

From L-R: (Top) Walter Bollozos, Kriz-John Rosales, Ernie Penaredondo, (Center) Russell Palma, Andy Zapata, Edd Gumban, (Bottom) Michael Varcas, Geremy Pintolo, Miguel de Guzman

Kriz-John Rosales filed photos of shanties on the Pasig River, stranded people under flyovers waiting for days; Geremy Pintolo of construction workers trying to hitch a ride on SLEX, frontliners struggling with their PPEs; Fernando Zapata of Muslims praying in a makeshift mosque. In April, what would have been lively photos of Holy Week — in crowded beaches and airports, of churchgoers doing the traditional stations of the cross and Pampanga’s sinakulo — that the news desk would have had to choose from became another sobering reminder that the times had, indeed, changed.

For the most part, there were no crowds, the airports were shuttered, and only one or two neighborhoods held their usual religious processions — and were shamed for it on social media.

Walter Bollozos sent the newsroom a photo of a wooden cross impaled to the ground with only four children around it, the clouds at their eye level, taken on a mountain in Paete, Laguna overlooking Rizal.

Michael Varcas filed photos of children flying kites in Pampanga. Silhouetted against the dying but raging orange light of yet another COVID day, it seemed as if they were unbothered by it all, untethered like their kites. You could almost hear their laughter, you could almost feel the wind in their faces.

As if everything was all right in the world.