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Our Ship of Fools

On March 12, 2020, I took the Bus of Fools on my way back to Naga.

The great city of Manila was going on a lockdown. The primal urge in me was to go home. Manila was work; Naga was home.

No one knew what lockdowns or quarantines would bring. Will I be allowed to go out and bring my laundry some two-hundred meters from our gate? Will there will be people outside that gate with whom I could talk about traffic and weather?

As we were moving away from the city, somewhere in another city of Bikol, in Legazpi, a party was going on. In that gathering, a musician would be getting sick. In what was supposed to be an announcement from the family, we learned the man died some days later in Manila. He was infected with the Covid-19 virus.

Our bus arrived early in the morning. From my family, I got the advice to go on self-quarantine. This I followed. I checked in a hotel. Online, the city government had posted already the rule that those from Manila should report their whereabouts and declare certain data the authorities needed. Where were you in Manila? Do you have symptoms?

As the government began imposing the rules, the social media was battering the arrival of the “infected.” We from outside were the source of the virus. The most violent question was asked: Why announce the lockdown two days before it would be in effect? The analysis pointed to the lockdown as the cause of the sudden spike in the number of infection was caused by this lockdown.

The buses continued to arrive. The afflictions were continuing to arrive, too.

In a few days, the case of the infection in Albay became part of the breaking news. There was confusion. When did the man go to Legazpi? Was he really there? No, he wasn’t; he was too sick to travel. Yes, he was there. He did not perform in the concert but he attended a birthday party. Who were in the party? The search started for the whereabouts and identities of those who were in contact with the man. More data trickled in: the caterer was from Naga? Did he bring staff from that city? The net was widened to include the so-called staff who were part of the catering team. More conflicting information came in.

For all the treasure trove of information online, no one ever shared the realization that, at a certain point in time, the virus was already in the city or in the region even before the Buses of Infected Bodies began crowding the boundaries to the peninsula.

I was wrong: the Bus or Ship of Fools need not come from outside. The Ship, as in the stories of yore, sails from within.

In the Medieval period, it was written that lepers and madmen were sent out on Ships of Fools. For some it was a metaphor for the traditions of exclusion or banishment that societies ignorant of diseases and “abnormalities” employ. But the philosopher Michel Foucault believed the ship was not merely a metaphor but a reality. The Ship of Fools existed.

In Madness and Civilization, Foucault articulates the role this Ship played in society as one that confined people – madmen, in the case of the Middle Ages and other eras.

Certain ages did not know how to deal with madness. Bereft of any clear or potent cure, madness was seen as solved by exclusion and separation. Taken away from societies or families, the demented was not part anymore of any hospice or shelter. There was no need to apply medication. No salve was effective enough. The salvation of the madness is forgetfulness. A kin is forgotten. Tears are shed for days and months or even years and then it sets in – the nullity of remembrance. The photos of the madman are removed or ignored. He is the dead man without a grave to visit, a soul without a Heaven or Hell to dwell in. His name will not bear an epitaph. His absence will not be made present by flowers.

As the societies moved on, madness took on other meanings. In the evolution of medicine, leprosy – some stages of it – could be cured. But there was always in us this gene from which can be spliced the urge to ostracise, to ban, to lock out any element that we feel does not belong to the harmonious whole. Michel Foucault puts it passionately thus: Once leprosy had gone, and the figure of leper was no more than a distant memory, these structures still remained. The game of the exclusion would be played again, in these same places, in an oddly similar fashion two or three centuries later. The role of the leper was to be played by the poor and the vagrant, by prisoners and by the ‘alienated’…

In place of the madman and his madness that we cannot understand, we have the Infected. We do not know what to do with him. Not only that: No one knows about the virus but we seem to know what to do with it. But the infected grows. In the meantime, the poor are not talked about. Under social distancing, the poor are already segregated in terms of status and lack of economic well-being. We have accepted one thing, that we cannot impose physical distances in slums and informal settlements. Remarkable how we silence the population of the poor because the system has nothing for them.

Where then do we put the poor in the equation of Covid-19 virus and pandemic? We put them on the Ship of Fools. They are our Ship of Fools. They are on smaller boats and we are on the larger ones. We are, as Foucault writes, confined on the ship, from which there is no escape. We are the madman delivered to…the great uncertainty external to everything.

We have become, to quote Foucault, the Passenger par excellence…the prisoner of the passage.

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