COVID-19 Watch Features Southern Tagalog Spotlight

Stranded for weeks, UPLB dormers cope with reality

By Ian Raphael Lopez

LOS BAÑOS—As news broke of the COVID-19 pandemic entering the country, Jerome Atangan’s parents asked him whether he was going home to Koronadal City in South Cotabato. Atangan is one of the hundreds of students stranded in Los Baños amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

He was 1,500 kilometers away from home, a freshman in the University of the Philippines Los Baños, while staying in the New Forestry Residence Hall (NFRH), a UP-administered dormitory in the upper campus.

“Actually, a friend who is from Koronadal managed to go home because he did not wait for the suspension of classes,” Atangan told me via chat. We both stay in the same dorm, but we cannot talk closely due to a strict implementation of social distancing rules. 

“I told my parents that I won’t go home. I was afraid because there was no suspension of classes yet. Then several places started their lockdowns.”

Atangan’s story was typical of the 63 dormers who are still staying in the UP-administered dorms in UPLB’s upper campus, amid the pandemic that has put the country’s daily life into a screeching halt. 

In the lower campus, 543 reside in other UP dormitories, and 1,579 in the different apartments and boarding houses beyond the UPLB gate, according to data from the UPLB administration.

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Because of its remote location, Forestry dormers are often those who receive the donations last. (Photo from UPLB Community Affairs)

Many students stayed in Los Baños in anticipation of online classes, when other constituent units have already suspended theirs.  When the administration did suspend online classes, it was too late to go home because of the enhanced community quarantine in Luzon. The threat of cases sprouting across the country was enough reason for some dormers not to try going back home.

Some offices under the administration made sure, though, that dormers under their auspices are well taken care of, with three meals being cooked for them every day. This reporter has repeatedly seen University Housing Office (UHO) Chief Prof. Zoilo Belano, Jr. in the Forestry dorms, handing out donations and meeting with dormitory officers. 

Those who want to go home are screened by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs. In partnership with the Philippine military, they have already been transporting scores of students to the metropolis and the region, if the local government permits it.

Outside dormers received donations as well from the Serve the People Brigade (STP-UPLB)’s Task Force Community Unit Response (TF CURE), with its daily food brigades. TF CURE, composed of student-volunteers from UPLB, has been partnering with Barangay Batong Malake to ensure uninterrupted delivery of donations.

But as the second week of the quarantine ends, many of those stranded are now feeling the pinch as donations dwindle, and the reality that life isn’t the same under a prolonged quarantine period sets in. Being far from home makes it all harder.


BY THE NUMBERS: Stranded dormers

606

in UP-administered dorms

1,579

in dorms outside the campus


 

Semblance of normalcy

My virtual conversation with Atangan was stopped by an announcement in our group chat, saying that dinner was ready. It was already 8:30 in the evening.  Off we went to the Makiling Residence Hall (MAREHA), the nerve center of the operations during the past two weeks. This is where meals are cooked and served, and where officers meet on updates regarding their respective dorms. 

After a line made longer by social distancing, I got a platter of rice, pancit and liempo. One of the servers was Maria Jezreel Barcela, a resident of the all-women Forestry Residence Hall (FOREHA). In our online interview after dinner, she also relayed the same reasons as to why she is still here in Los Banos, when she lives relatively near, at Siniloan, Laguna.

“I cannot go home because we do not have a steady Internet connection and my laptop is broken… But when online classes got suspended and I learned that cases outside Los Banos started to rise, I chose not to go home because I do not want to carry anything while going home,” she told me, presumably talking about carrying the virus.

In the time of the coronavirus, the streets are empty, with wary dormers only allowed to go out one at a time every three days. But amid all these challenges, Forestry dormers have been trying to put up a semblance of normalcy. 

NFRH’s Atangan told me that most of his friends, fortunately, stayed behind here, making life easier to bear. “It is hard, though, to find the drive to move around due to the anxiety and fear for your personal safety,” he said. 

Following restrictions shaped his daily routine. “I had no choice but to stay inside my room… it is only now when I experienced a repetitive set of activities daily.”

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To pass the time, dormers do volunteer work, or just chit-chat with their fellows. (Photo from UPLB Community Affairs)

FOREHA’s Barcela had better luck finding things to pass the time. She is now a familiar face, speaking during the recent meetings in the dorms, but more so during mealtime. “Sometimes I help in preparing the food. If not, we talk with our fellow dormers, or busy ourselves in chores such as washing our clothes or cleaning our rooms,” Barcela told me.

After dinner, I also met Jomar Guzman, a MAREHA dormer. He lives in Quezon City, but he decided not to go home, heeding his father’s advice to stay in Los Baños to avoid contracting the disease.

Guzman missed his brother’s birthday as the lockdown ensued—it went fine because his family stayed at home, he told me. He noted the daily routine of helping to prepare the food or playing board games with fellow dormers.

But he also borrowed his friend’s camera and started to take some shots of the variety of flora and fauna in the Forestry area, a place which has more species of trees than the continental United States.

“It is fun and exciting,” says Guzman. “I was able to take pictures of rare bird species, since there is less noise, so birds tend to flock closer and [I was able] get a clear shot. You can also hear them clearly and identify which branch they are perched. I was also able to practice my photography skills.”


“Some wished us dead, saying that we deserve it because UP students only know how to rally and criticize the government. It made me cry.”


From food to fear

But then, donors taper off and charity has its limits. The dormers I talked to note the harsh realities of living off the abstract idea of solidarity amid a national crisis.

Guzman noted that electricity and water supply in the Forestry dorms have been interrupted a couple of times during the lockdown, but that’s not the real problem. He said that resources have been much tighter, and it has been conserved to make it last. “Resupplying personal needs present as a challenge since we reside at the upper campus. Stores are far and least accessible. We rely mostly on donation and provisions.”

Barcela said that the intermittent water supply—a problem for UP dorms for decades—should be assured. “This is much more important since the dormers are already scared of what may happen, and they tend to take a bath or wash their hands frequently.”

The allocation of donations is a major problem. “We are also preparing ourselves for the eventuality that if donations stop coming in, we have stocks.” 

She also realized the problem of getting toiletries, a necessity for an all-women’s dorm. Where would she buy, if stores are closed and people must walk 30 minutes to reach grocery stores? “We schedule residents to go down so that it wouldn’t be hard to get supplies,” Barcela said. 

Atangan, meanwhile, took the chance to talk about personal problems.

“One of the challenges that a UP dormer faces in fear,” he said, “the fear of how long could you still be away from your family, fear of how long you’ll be confined in one place, fear of waking up that one day, all the food has ran out.”

But he also talked of how the nation’s psyche has lost it, especially on social media. He bewailed how netizens reacted when several media outlets published about the plight of UPLB dormers.

“Instead of garnering support, we got criticism from the public. Once you get to read their messages in the comment section, they thought of us as animals and demons,” Atangan said.

“Some wished us dead, saying that we deserve it because UP students only know how to rally and criticize the government. It made me cry.”

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Donations have been steady, but it has its limits. (Photo from UPLB Community Affairs)

‘Try harder’

For Barcela, it is hard to stay away from her elderly parents, but “prevention is better than cure”. And she had a lot to be thankful for. “I am still thankful because many people still help us in our needs… I hope that adequate help will also be given to my fellow students outside campus, because it is harder for them to procure supplies now.”

Guzman, for his part, said that it may be difficult to be far from home, “away from those you love,” but he still finds joy in the Forestry dorms, meeting new faces amid the situation. “It is my joy to share this journey with them, to struggle with them and to get over with them.”

Trying to strike a positive note, he credited his faith for keeping him sane. “I know and I believe that God will supply my needs and that He will never leave me nor forsake me. He holds all things in order and that He will bring me and my family and everyone through this.”

For Atangan, he cited how these “trying times” may seem that it won’t end, but everyone should try harder: “Try harder to understand the situation we are in now. Try our best to see that we will not push through once we are divided. Try our best in following orders and protocol but at the same time, not neglect those who are in need and oppressed. Try our best to be a beacon of optimism, and most importantly, try our best to love.”

As pleasantries were exchanged and the online interviews ended, I got a private message from a volunteer of the OVCSA, notifying me that after waiting for three days, I would be one of those ferried to Quezon City. I was advised to pack light and sleep early. Feeling hopeful for the first time in two weeks, I poignantly remember those who can’t go home, circumstances be damned, and how we stuck through as this ensued. Maybe sometime soon, all of them would pack their bags and go back home, but for now, they need our help more than ever. [P]

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