Two weeks after President Marcos issued Proclamation No. 297 declaring the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency, I caught the virus. Like a sick joke (pun intended) played on someone who felt triumphant at having evaded this deadly pathogen, the infection came almost stealthily, after a restful afternoon nap.
“No, it can’t be,” I muttered to myself, as I focused on the dull aching at the right corner of my throat. I had hoped it was just the usual patch of dryness that sometimes forms when the mouth is slightly ajar during sleep. But the soreness persisted even after repeated gargling with salted warm water. I began to visualize the coronavirus with its crown of spikes gleefully devouring every cell in my respiratory system.
At once, I took a rapid antigen test to confirm its presence. The result was inconclusive: Only the faintest thread formed on the test cassette window. But I could sense that the virus was already there quietly replicating itself. Whatever confirmation I needed, I immediately got it when I found out that my daughter Kara, who was supposed to speak at a graduation ceremony that same day, had stayed home instead, feeling sick. She was positive. We had dinner a few days earlier to celebrate the birthday of Jika, the youngest of my daughters, who was going back to Singapore after a two-week work-related visit. She, too, got it.
It was most likely the garden variety Omicron that hit us. Mild but highly contagious, it soon infected two other members of our household. All of us have complete shots, including two boosters. All, except me, have also had COVID before. Their symptoms were milder and lasted no more than four days. But mine lingered over a two-week period, as though the virus would not rest until it located every virgin cell it could latch on to.
What started out as a mild scratch in the throat progressed into a full-blown inflamed throat the following day. My lymph nodes were swollen, which I took to mean that my immune system was valiantly fighting back. I had a mild fever for about four days, which I tried to overcome with copious amounts of fresh ginger brew. My main problem—and this happens whenever I’m sick—is lack of sleep; I’d wake up in the middle of the night soaked in sweat and gripped by a vague sensation of shortness of breath.
A couple of times, I reached out for the pulse oximeter by my bedside to check the oxygen saturation in my blood. My principal worry was the virus getting into my lungs. The lowest number I got was 92; my normal is 97-98. I resolved to check into a hospital if it should ever fall below 90. My brother Dante caught the deadly Delta variant in October 2021, and died from it after his lungs were swamped by the dreaded cytokine storm generated by his own body’s immune system. As soon as he was prepared for intubation, he knew he had lost the battle.
He was the first in the family to get fully vaccinated, but like almost all of us, his siblings, he suffered from chronic asthma, a condition we inherited from our father’s side of the family. I had to listen to what my body was telling me as the coronavirus worked its way into my system. When you do this at the peak of your illness in the solitude of your room, the experience can induce panic instead of calm. I thought of Karina, who died from heart failure just a few months before the start of the pandemic, and imagined her gently rubbing my back as I coughed, to help me get through the night.
For an entire week, I began each day doing a rapid antigen test, and feeling more despondent when the test yielded a positive result. Realizing that I must allow the disease to follow its course, I gave up testing after consuming a box of five antigen kits. I lost my sense of smell on the fourth day, but, surprisingly, not my sense of taste or appetite.
Then, on the 10th day, after having decided that I had little choice but to befriend the virus, I woke up feeling as though a thick fog had suddenly lifted from where I lay. The air around me felt lighter, and I was no longer feeling nauseous. I did another rapid antigen test, expecting to be disappointed. The result was negative. I repeated the process, swabbing more methodically to obtain a more reliable sample, and the confirmation came back—I was finally free of COVID!
All of us applauded when Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organization declared that COVID-19 was no longer a public health emergency. But in the din of that collective applause, we failed to hear the rest of what he said: That this does not mean that COVID is no longer something to worry about. The pressure on health systems may be over, he said, but “uncertainties remain around the potential evolution of the virus.”
This could be a lull. We cannot be complacent; we must build on the capabilities that we painstakingly developed at the height of the pandemic, instead of throwing them away like the detritus of a bad dream.