Women in the sequel: How young Pinays go 'heroic' in the time of a pandemic

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As the Philippines marks National Heroes’ Day this August 31, we take a glimpse into how three young Filipinas help fellow countrymen through seemingly ordinary things done extraordinarily well. (IN PHOTO, FROM L-R: Fatima Tresvalles, Zea Awatin, Agatha Wong)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 30) – “Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now.”

This is part of Angelica Schuyler’s line in the “The Schuyler Sisters”, one of the most notable songs from the hit Broadway musical Hamilton.

The global coronavirus pandemic indeed proved how lucky many of us have been in either living through hard times, or surviving either the virus itself or the emotional and financial repercussions.

To commemorate National Heroes’ Day on August 31, I talked to three young women who all made a difference by either risking life and limb, using the power of technology, and made Filipinos proud during these uncertain times: medical technologist and swabber Fatima Tresvalles, Zea Awatin, who did workouts for a cause, and SEA Games gold medalist Agatha Wong who was able to raise funds for frontliners and coronavirus patients.

Fatima: Medtech, swabber, contact tracer, COVID-19 survivor

Fatima (second from left) with her fellow medical frontliners, taking a break from duty. (Photo from Theresa Santos)

Fatima Tresvalles has been a registered medical technologist for three years now. Before the pandemic, she used to work in a barangay clinic in Pasay City.

Her job as a medical technologist seemed to be ordinary at the time: taking blood samples or testing stool and urine samples to detect various kinds of diseases.

But she lost her job when the pandemic hit and was forced to find other ways to earn a living.

She found another job as a swabber, but this time, she would have the first contact with patients getting tested for coronavirus.

“Nakakatakot, kasi exposed ka sa pasyente,” Fatima said. “Face-to-face talaga, kaharap mo yung bibig nila, yung ilong nila. Yun kasi yung kukuhanan mo ng specimen,” she added, describing the risks of getting infected through respiratory droplets – the primary source of coronavirus infections.

[Translation: It’s terrifying because you’re exposed to the patient, face-to-face. You’re in front of their nose and mouth. That’s where you need to get the specimen (for coronavirus swab testing.)]

A testament to these risks: Fatima had to get herself swabbed sometime in July. In this case, she got the results ten days after taking her swab test.

“Sis, may isa-swab tayong barangay, baka pwede mo naman maisingit,” Fatima said, recalling how that ordinary 29th day of July this year started with a call to get to work in one of Parañaque City’s barangays.

“Sige, antayin mo lang yung resulta ko, babalik na ako sa trabaho,” she said, eager to return to duty after being quarantined for days.

“And then, bam. The result hit me in the face. Okay, positive ka, so hindi ka makakapagtrabaho agad,” she resigned, without knowing that it would be the start of what would soon turn out to be almost a month in isolation.

[Translation: We have a barangay to swab, maybe you can make time for it? Sure, just wait for my results, I’ll get back to work. And then, bam, okay, you tested positive (for COVID-19), so you won’t be able to work.]

“It was frustrating and scary for me,” she says. “Nakakatakot siya kasi, what if yung family ko, nahawa ko. Sila talaga yung unang-una kong iisipin dahil sila yung exposed sakin dahil hinahatid nila ako everyday sa work,” she adds, telling how she feared for the safety of her mother and father, who eventually tested negative for the disease.

She would eventually test positive once more after getting re-swabbed in early August, before finally getting the all-clear two weeks after.

But she always thought about three things that made her go back to the frontlines: her sworn duty as a health worker, colleagues that may experience fatigue, and the appreciation that patients give her and her team after getting swabbed.

Fatima’s now back to work, now with another important task: contact tracing. She spends half a day swabbing, and then spends another part of the day calling up close contacts of those who got the virus.

“What’s difficult in contact tracing is, what if the patient is not telling the truth?” Fatima says, describing that the chore is a struggle every time she has to do the other half of her current work. “Lalo na pag nakikita mo yung resulta ng pasyente, tapos wala siyang contact number. So, saan ka mag-uumpisa?”

[Translation: …especially when you see the patient’s results and they don’t have a contact number. Where would you start?]

Other problems she says, are encountered in contact tracing are the possible wide number of contacts, patients lying about their conditions, and if patients are unruly or drive them away whenever they go to possible COVID-19 hotspots.

Zea: Burning calories, feeding (young) hearts

One of Zea’s life beliefs is, “God doesn't bless the world alone, but blessed the world through you.” (Photo from Zea Awatin)

Part of Zea Awatin’s normal life is a heart to serve those in need, especially children.

In college, she was involved in relief drives as an active member of the student body. Later in her professional life, she joined the Rotary Club.

When the pandemic came, she found a way to celebrate her birthday and help others at the same time while doing her day job as a marketing officer from home, and juggling it with online classes as a Masters student.

She called up a close college friend, Zildjian Pigao, and the two started brainstorming. The answer came in the form of Zea’s new passion: working out, after she joined a group of fitness-oriented people called Strong South PH.

Zea turned to Instagram to launch a “workout for a cause” campaign, in partnership with Project Pearls, a non-governmental organization which helps children.

Participants paid Php200 each for a single workout session – with the proceeds being given to Project Pearls’ beneficiaries in Manila and Bulacan.

Zea and her team managed to collect P100,400, enough to feed 502 children with 4 meals as their program was extended until early August.

“Madami kasing taong nagsabi sa amin na they would like to donate pa, they were waiting for either money or certain time to prepare, so I extended it,” she said.

[Translation: Many people told us they wanted to donate even more.]

“Instead of complaining, instead of checking wrongdoings or shortcomings of government, why not do your part if you have the means naman, di ba?” Zea told me as I asked her a question as to what she thinks about how social media is used by many to simply rant during the pandemic.

“I want to help a lot of people through whatever talents or blessings that I have. We should use our influence for your people to actually aim that someday, they can do whatever you are doing,” said Zea.

Agatha: Athlete, role model, going for gold (and good) for the nation

The two star athletes joined forces for an online series about their lives as athletes. (Photo from Agatha Wong and Jamie Lim)

Carrying the flag is a feat Agatha Wong is known for – both as an athlete, and in the middle of a pandemic.

Wong teamed up with a fellow national athlete, SEA Games Gold Medalist and karate star Jamie Lim to raise funds for frontliners and coronavirus patients.

Their 5-episode Instagram live series titled Puso (Heart): the Battle Against COVID-19, raised over P340,000 in donations, allowing them to buy supplies, water, personal protective equipment, and even TV sets and board games for frontliners and coronavirus patients in four different hospitals in Metro Manila.

“I was trying to think of ways to help in this pandemic. Yung mga iba kong kakilala na national athletes, they were going out, serving as part of the military,” Agatha said. “That’s when Jamie contacted me. She told me na she was from QC, I’m from QC as well – same district kami,” she adds, detailing how the plans and preparations for Puso started.

Like Zea, Agatha and Jamie turned to Instagram to air their fundraiser. At the time of this posting, Agatha has over 30,000 Instagram followers, while Jamie has over 4,300.

Agatha said, what also motivated her to use technology for a good cause is how complaints and negativity happened during the months-long lockdown in various parts of the country.

“I do understand that most of us are suffering from anxiety and depression, kasi when we stay inside tapos we maintain social distancing, and just living with our family, a roommate, or even a friend, it can really cause a negative impact on our mental health.

And true to form, her series – which also was Agatha and Jamie’s first shot at organizing a fundraiser from scratch – made people feel better.

Puso’s episodes ranged from personal question and answer portions, training and exercise sessions, and meal preparations which lasted 30 minutes to an hour.

“We got overwhelming support. A lot of people were replying, “we can’t wait for the next episode!” Agatha says. “It means that people really want us to share our experiences just as athletes, and also as female athletes who won in their respective sports.

Agatha says, she and Jamie are cooking up plans for a follow-up to Puso, which may be out in the coming months.

What does heroism mean for the three of them?

Fatima, Zea, and Agatha all believe that frontline workers can be considered heroes with what they have contributed during this time of the pandemic. And they should also be honored as we celebrate National Heroes Day.

These three women, however, have different points of view on heroism in these uncertain times.

For Fatima, it is observing health protocols “in so many levels. “Yung tamang pagsusuot lang ng mask na hindi nakababa sa ilong, tamang pagsuot ng faceshield, and social distancing, malaking tulong na yun.”

It’s also all about cheering people who are suffering from the virus, being a COVID-19 survivor herself. “Yung mga nagche-cheer sa iyo sa social media, nakakagaan ng bigat.”

[Translation: The correct way of wearing face masks without exposing the nose, the correct wearing of face shields, as well as social distancing, is a big help. Those cheering for you on social media helps ease the burden, too.]

For Zea, it’s having the courage to care for one’s country. “If you have genuine intentions to actually create change for your community, or for your nation, and you do something about it, I can call you a hero. Any one of us can be a hero,” she says.

And for Agatha, it’s about doing things for the greater good with the purest of intentions. She says, “I think, yung pinaka-importante sakin in being a hero is that we don’t have to have all this attention to us. I’m just grateful that when the spotlight is on me, I can also like share my spotlight with other people.”