Manila— Every night at eight, the police cars sound off their sirens as they go around neighborhoods to signal the lockdown curfew. The sound is deep, long, loud and ominous as it drowns out all the television noise, the hums of air-conditioning units and neighborhood chatter.
I find myself stopping every time I hear the sirens. They bring back my memories as a little girl when I heard ambulance sirens for the first time. The alarming sound made me so afraid that I ran to my mother and clutched her skirt. It was the same with firetruck alarms. My mom just laughed back then. It’s just an ambulance rushing to get the sick to the hospital, she would say. Or, it’s just a firetruck going to put out a fire somewhere.
So growing up, I couldn’t blame myself for looking at a speeding ambulance with unease or of a rushing firetruck with concern every time I see them on the road. I feel anxious that someone is holding on to life or some people are scrambling to save their lives and their precious belongings.
I noticed that after the siren sound, the neighborhood falls silent. There are no honking cars, except for the occasional, distant sound of a vehicle running fast perhaps because it’s terrifying to glance at the empty, dark streets. I know that not everyone is going to sleep at that hour, but it looks like people are already quietly tucking themselves to bed.
The curfew siren is the sound that tells everyone it’s the end of another day.
But the silence that comes after is unsettling and deceptive. I live in a neighborhood smothered with establishments of all kinds — banks, offices, supermarkets, mini-malls, call centers, drugstores, restaurants, cafes, fast food chains, food courts, videoke joints, beer joints. It’s one of the oldest gig strips in the city where I live in.
Most nights, the area doesn’t sleep. Its noise is my comfort zone, a reminder that I’m surrounded by humans. It’s blaring on some days, but I would prefer this to a place that’s too quiet it turns eerie. But as life was slowed down and paused by the pandemic, my neighborhood social strip was reduced into a tame expanse.
The mornings have been unusually quiet, too. Each day, I wake up to the wonderful chirping of birds, some roosters crowing from a distance, some dogs barking, and children shrieking because they were allowed to go out and play under the clear sunrise for a while. Gone are the mornings when the first sound at daybreak is from someone yelping drunkenly from a karaoke joint.
This brought me to the realization that the uncomfortable silence and the unusualness of these days is because we are keeping our heads low from an unseen enemy predator on the prowl.
We keep still but deep inside, we’re all trying to escape from the sight of the monster. We are all targets, so we keep ducking. We are all running for our lives because we are under attack. We may have seen our own darkest hours but this is our pitch-black.
Humanity has seen a playscript like this in the past, when the deadliest plagues and pandemics of yellow fever, smallpox, flu, SARS, ebola and many other contagions killed and annihilated millions. Quarantines and lockdowns were not the words back then, but these monsters caused people to die, driving the living to isolate, seek cover, or run to some place safer.
We don’t have some place safer, although it helps if we just keep running.
Diana Mendoza is a journalist based in Manila.