COVID19 through the eyes of an intern
As a MCP science intern, I thought I knew what to expect – diving each day in one of the most biodiverse areas of the world, working hard within the monitoring team to help with surveying and training volunteers, and to prepare for the busiest six months of my life. But, believe it or not, I wasn’t prepared to undergo life here amid a worldwide pandemic.
How everything unravelled
The Philippines was the first country to have a reported case of COVID-19 outside of China. At the beginning of the outbreak in February, which now feels like so long ago, the staff at MCP were as dismayed as everyone else and took safety precautions early on. We reduced our interaction with the outside community – a decision that was easy to implement considering we already live in a commune. Then, after a couple of weeks, all new information about the Corona Virus in the Philippines dried up; there were no newly reported cases and certainly no fear that this would become a serious threat. At the back of our minds, we maybe had our suspicions that this seemed too-good-to-be-true but did our best to continue running MCP as normal, with one eye focused on conservation work and the other constantly checking for any breaking headlines.
And then suddenly the world exploded! We watched aghast from our camp as the number of COVID-19 cases grew in so many countries. European countries were considering lockdowns and starting to call back residents to home, many of whom were currently volunteering at MCP. Even the Filipino press ended their silence. The number of infected people in the Philippines jumped from three and within a few days it was over a hundred.
The next Friday morning, the Head of Operations at MCP gave an announcement that would change everything. Soren stood with tears in his eyes to tell us that the President of the Philippines had given a speech describing plans to lock down the capital between 14 March and 13 April. During this time any incoming domestic travel from other islands would be cancelled so this would affect anyone wishing to go home. There was also a huge possibility, Soren said, that this would start a ripple affect across the Philippine archipelagos and this lockdown could be the first of many. It was at this point it really hit me; that we’d have to say goodbye to our amazing volunteers and pause the dream that is living and working at MCP.
Get those volunteers home!
We said some early goodbyes to some of our lovely volunteers, who made the difficult decision to cut their experience short the next day in order to get home to their families. Others decided to hold on and await new information. And that new information did come in a flood on Sunday.
I wanted to add here that over that weekend I watched the staff struggle to make fast and difficult decisions with limited information, but always with the safety of the volunteers at the forefront of their minds. At base we were trying to string together pieces of information from the local media and staff connections with Local Government Units, but frustratingly we always seemed one step behind of the rush.
On Sunday we awoke to news that Dumaguete airport had closed with no warning. As well as this, all ferry ports in Negros would be closed apart from one, with the last boat would be leaving the island at 9pm that same day. Basically, if the volunteers wanted to leave, they would need to leave right that instant. Base turned into a packing frenzy, and we had almost finalised a plan before Soren’s phone buzzed. New information! Don’t take the ferry! The local government are organising flights for tourists now being described as ‘stranded internationals’, we need only to send a list of names and wait. We didn’t hear anything more until the next morning at 8.30am: Then a panicked phonecall. There’s a coastguard boat leaving in 1hr 30mins! Last boat and last chance to get to Cebu. The only requirements are a medical check before boarding. Just to put this into perspective, MCP is about an hour drive from Dumaguete port and along with visiting the hospital there was little chance we’d make it in time. But our only option was to try, and as we loaded trucks with volunteers for the hospital, I joined two staff members to head straight to the port to try and delay the boat.
We were hopeful, but the medical checks just took too long, and the coastguard were not willing to wait. But it really was eye opening to see how many other foreign nationals were arriving to also desperately try and make their way out. Once all their names were collected and combined with our volunteers it reached over 100 people stranded.
The DoT (Department of Trade and Tourism) assured us that there would be a second boat coming, but the time and date were uncertain. Either we could all drive back to base and go back to square one; hovering around limited internet to wait for last minute instructions, or the volunteers could stay in Dumaguete and be mere minutes away when they get called again. It was frustrating that this would be the end of the journey and we couldn’t get them off the island as yet, but I still think that we all made the right choice.
I waved from the truck as it pulled away, looking at the teary faces and morose that it was all over. The volunteer booked a hotel for a night that turned into a few, before they finally made it across to Cebu. Since that day, all the volunteers have made it home safely and I’m sure they have amazing stories of hardship and perseverance to tell their families and friends.
And what now?
Currently there are fifteen of us still living at base, a huge adjustment from the usual forty. Despite this, we’re trying to keep positive as there’s still plenty of conservation work that the MCP staff can get their hands on. Instead of diving, we’re getting resourceful and spending time on dry projects previously left behind due to lack of time. There’s also plans for base to get some much-needed TLC, or at least a lick of paint.
Trying to stay positive also means ignoring the elephant in the room – we’re all locked in on the island of Negros. I made the decision to stay at MCP because this is my home more than anywhere else, but I worry about loved ones that I won’t be able to see for a long time. I’ve taken freedom of movement for granted my whole life and now this privilege has gone it leaves me shaky and unsure of my future.
We’ve separated out our working spaces, have our own cutlery and plates and place at separate dinner tables. We each have our own huts too, all in a bid to self-isolate as much as possible. The nearest village, Lutoban, is home to many elderly and vulnerable people. If any of us get COVID-19, we are fairly young and odds are in our favor. Its pretty safe to assume that we’ll be OK, but the thought of passing it onto someone who would die from this is terrifying.
I have a lot of free time now to reflect; to be sorry about how humanity is struggling and to be thankful for wonderful friends that I’ve met and made here. We’re thinking of you all at this crazy time.
– Emma Levy