An Ode to Sociology: Lessons of Community Quarantine

Posted on: May 28, 2020
A cloudy afternoon; view from my condo.

By Clarence M. Batan

Our collective community quarantine experience teaches us lessons on history, biography, and citizenship.

Across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic introduced varied byline terms such as “virus”, “social and/or physical distancing”, “face masks”, “asymptomatic and symptomatic”, “new normal”, and a lot more. In the Philippines, this pandemic also reintroduces the terms “tambay” and “pasaway” loaded with interspersing stereotypical connotations and new interpretations. 

We were also introduced to acronyms such as “PUIs” (persons under investigation), and “PUMs” (persons under monitoring) and the evolving acronyms of “ECQ” (enhanced community quarantine), “MECQ” (modified enhanced community quarantine), and “GCQ ” (general community quarantine). As this pandemic ensues with no strict end in the horizon, I expect more terms and acronyms, old and new, will continue to populate our public discourse.

As COVID-19 becomes a pandemic, I, too, have experienced more than two months of being alone. I was physically away from my parents and loved ones. My usual office work and research fieldwork were suspended. In these unusual times, I revisited old habits of washing and ironing clothes, cleaning, and cooking for myself. I, too, rediscovered the value of home-based learning and teaching; and unlocked my childhood talents of playing the banduria, soprano recorder, and singing. Although I did not stop writing research reports, I confined myself to writing while at home – not in the usual coffee shops I frequently visit especially when I am pressed with deadlines. Yet amidst this crisis, I think it is fair to say that I survived, and I survived well even when alone, but never lonely.

As a sociologist, I think this pandemic offers us an opportunity to learn more about the two universally shared concepts – “community” and “quarantine”. Both are old terms, but the former is more popular compared to the latter. Arguably, there are more books written about “community” than “quarantine” yet symbolically, only when these two concepts are combined that the world citizens of this generation will be reminded of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Filipino, one of the local translations of “community” is “pamayanan”, whose root word is “bayan” (Almario, 2001) referring to “a country or a nation”. On the other hand, “quarantine” is totally foreign to Filipinos and it simply means in pandemic terms “to isolate”. Both terms represent an underlying perspective that directs attention to what the sociologist C. Wright Mills (1959) describes as the intersecting roles that “history” and “individual biographies” play in understanding both the private and public orbits of our lives. Simply put, it seems there is no denying that “community quarantine” taught us lessons of the intersection between history and biography, the COVID-19 pandemic way.

I cannot recall of any world event that put our contemporary generation on hold, in almost all aspects of our lives. I do not know of any recent major historical event where activities of major institutions such the government, economy, church, education, and even families were halted to protect everyone from potential harm. The community quarantine was a necessary protective policy as the world struggles to find a cure.

This demonstrates something that we usually take for granted, that is, history is a powerful social force that can shape and influence our culture and our way of life. This is the time when we realized that our private individual lives are only possible because there are public structures and goods that govern us. We usually do not realize history’s impact on our lives because we are all too busy to face the challenges of our everyday lives. But, in my view, the experience of community quarantine forces some of us to acquire a quality of mind that C. Wright Mills (1959) calls as the “sociological imagination”. 

I sense that what kept me away from insanity, depression, and loneliness during these ECQ and MECQ times was the ability to see the connection between this historical pandemic and my place in this contemporary world. Sociological imagination continues to both fascinate and haunt my core being. My fascination roots from witnessing multifaceted human experiences across countries and cultures as during the community quarantine, I was given the unrestricted time to virtually connect with family, friends, students, colleagues and even strangers using various social media platforms. I have never been so glued to many documentaries, films, TV-series, theater musicals, and video-clips regularly filling-up my quarantine days.

This same sociological imagination perspective also allowed me to see and feel the sad state of governance and education in our country. In the past two months, it was haunting and disheartening to witness the many forms of social inequalities. This pandemic entrenched the precarious conditions of fellow Filipinos whose lives are on the margins. They tell the truest narratives of poverty and marginalization in our country in the images of the urban poor, displaced workers including OFWs (overseas Filipino workers), teachers, students, elderly, etc. As an educator myself, witnessing the digital divide and the mismatch of teaching and learning approaches between the teachers and students brought about school memories not of learning but of anxieties and compliance.

While on community quarantine, there is also one lesson that I think this pandemic experience taught us. This is the collective manifestation of “engaged citizenship” that our national hero, Jose Rizal, problematized more than a century ago. Rizal in this excellent piece on The Indolence of the Filipino (1890) laments about the Filipinos’ lack of national sentiment. Now in this pandemic, post-colonial Philippines, enjoying a form of democracy and civil freedom, how did we, as a country, manage this health crisis?

My historical memories of this pandemic will be remembered by the many forms and narratives of “engaged citizenship” that I witnessed while on community quarantine. Our imperfect government delivered basic social services to those in need with the help of the private sector. Multimedia artists, actors, and ordinary Filipinos alike found ways to share their talents, use their influence and gather donations to help those in need. Many undocumented generous Filipinos also did their share from the backstage. The heroic will and sacrifices of our front liners are duly recognized as they save the lives of those affected. While for the millions of us, we witnessed how the taken-for-granted “standing by/staying home” cliché into an honorable civic duty. Who would ever thought that being a “tambay sa bahay” be made more socially relevant by this pandemic? More so, when “tambay” is combined with the Filipino notion of “bayani” (hero), calling those who are quarantined at home as “tambayanis” (“tambay” + “bayani”), I know, contemporary Filipinos are  redefining what it meant to experience a new form of “bayanihan” (social solidarity).

I am not sure if Rizal will be happy about the general ways by which Filipinos of this COVID-19 generation demonstrated a sense of “national sentiment” or citizenship. But what is clear is that this pandemic sensitizes us with the power of world histories impacting our private lives. After all, it is always nice to realize that sociologically, we belong to a “pamayanan” greater than the sum of ourselves continuously negotiating the many quarantine posts we are expected to overcome. I hope this time around, our generation will face this “new normal” as informed and engaged Filipino citizens of this post-COVID-19 world.

*Clarence M. Batan, PhD, (cmbatan@ust.edu.ph) is a Professor and Coordinator of the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Letters at the University of Santo Tomas. He now serves as the Principal Investigator of the international research grant, The National Catechetical Study (NCS) 2021: Pastoral Action Research and Intervention (PARI) Project commissioned by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) – Episcopal Commission on Catechesis and Catholic Education (ECCCE).

**A reflection piece written for the Dominican Family for Justice, Peace & Care for Creation – Philippines as requested by Fr. Reynor Munsayac, O.P..

References

Almario, V. S. (Ed.) (2001). UP Diksiyonaryong Filipino. Pasig City: Sentro ng Wikang Filipino, Sistemang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas & Anvil Publishing Inc.

Mills, C. W. (1959). The Sociological Imagination: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Rizal, J. (1890). The Indolence of the Filipino (Original Spanish Version: La Indolencia de los Filipinos) (C. Derbyshire, Trans.): La Solidaridad.

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