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Documenting Lockdowns and Afflictions

Even as the pandemic rages on, museums all over the world are starting to collect artefacts and memorabilia that will reflect what the world has gone through – and still going through – during those days of lockdowns and quarantine.

When I came home from Manila last March 12, 2020, to spend the lockdown in this city, I already posted notes about how we should be writing about these bleak days. The days have turned to months and the we are about to be overtaken by events.

The museums are not particularly interested in gathering digitized data for two reasons. One is there are just so many of them, they will collect by themselves. The second is the future does not see these data being read by the technology that will be present then. In other words, we are back to putting importance on the material cultures of the pandemic – those objects and clothes and wo/man-made things (which is another term for artefact).

This is what I have always been proposing: a living museum. This structure that will gather the objects that will show how we lived through the times when people were not allowed to leave homes, when towns and cities suddenly started putting up barricades.

In Asia, Japan is one of those countries who first demonstrated the urgency of gathering anything that will remind the future generation of the human societies today confronting and being scared at the same time about this virus hitherto unknown.

There are excellent attempts already. For example, the SND group organized early on a poetry contest in any Bikol language with Covid-19 as a theme. While other artists are selling online their glorious depiction of their own personal anguish and flowering, Roxlee, with his subversive aesthetics, is exhausting all the images he could put on canvas about his anguish and articulation of the pandemic.

Museums, however, are interested in representations of the quotidian, those ordinary things that “ordinary” people resort to when the virus and its virulence were announced.

Masks are first on the list of museums. At this very moment, these masks, however washable they are, are still dispensable. Let us gather samples of these masks and teach the future generations how this very basic protection became our first line of protection from the disease. These masks in all their colors and designs will form part of the curiosity of our grandchildren’s grandchildren. Let us not stop with simply keeping samples of masks; let us gather the resolutions written by our local leaders as regards the wearing of the said masks – what punishment or fines were set when somebody forgot or refused to wear the said cover. Let us not leave out two things: the art and fashion (and vanity) that went thru the manufacture of the masks. We need to gather mementoes and papers.

Have I kept the last bus ticket issued to me from Manila in what would be my last trip between this city and the metropolis until the virus was dissipated? How much did it cost then? When the cities would open again, how much would the ticket cost already?

Photographs are strong instruments that can capture the ephemeral – empty streets; a terminal gathering numerous buses not allowed to travel anymore; stores and pharmacies with their spaces draped with plastic curtain to separate the customers from the buyers; the last Mass with full attendance; empty malls and silent school campuses.

We need photos of social distancing – people standing on designated spots on the floor; crisscrossing strings on church benches to separate individuals from each other, passengers shielded from each other by make-shift plastic walls.

Take photos of frontliners wearing the PPEs. Gather pictures of priests with facemasks.

Where are those posters about the lockdown? Where are those notices about curfew and wearing of masks? These days, two phenomena were at the center of human activities: online selling and a revived interest in plants. We should have photos of these announcements that were pasted on walls and lampposts. The delivery man should be an important part of this documentation as he was the only one that connected the homes to stores and supermarkets when no one was allowed to freely travel.

In our city, there is a new development that needs to be acknowledged: persons who test positive but give permission to the city to disclose their names. These are people who are not scared of the stigma attached to anyone infected of the virus, a predisposition that slowly removes the stigma attached to the affliction. Who were the first to allow their names to be revealed so as to allow a more efficacious contact-tracing? Years from now, they will be one of the first heroes of the Covid Age.

In Venice, there is a sumptuary law that commands all gondolas should be painted black, with just small area for the gilding and golden paint. The choice of black was not arbitrary; it is said to be a commemoration of the deaths brought about by the Black Plague of 1630. There are other reasons but that dramatic reference to history speaks about how objects and markers can be an expression of events that happened in the past. In our case, what symbol or object has been created to represent the virus or the pandemic? What drinks did we concoct to address the affliction? What cuisine have we developed in the days of the lockdown?

A hundred years from now or even less, generations will look back to this Age of Virus not so much to think of the dangers – by then a cure must have been invented already – but to remember how human societies survived once more a global threat to their existence. The collective memory will not be about the disease but about the sense of daring that we who are living now have shown despite a government that could not make sense of the deaths happening around it.

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