PRESIDENTS and Prime Ministers in different parts of the world have regularly addressed their peoples to apprise them of the current state of their nations, to convey to them their countries’ stated directions, provide them with guidelines, assure them in the uncertain days ahead, and in general, motivate and inspire their constituents to get behind a common purpose, to brace for the worst but to work together for the best of all.

“Masterclass in Leadership”

Outstanding among the political leaders of our times has been the young woman prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, who has given a “masterclass in leadership” by providing decisive leadership, clear directions and clearer practical steps, empathy and warmth towards the long-suffering inhabitants of the north and south Islands which constitute her nation — one of the farthest populated outposts of planet earth.  Add to that, the energy of her youth, the instincts of a mother, and a dash of humor.

In the late night hours in the Philippines, we have been addressed by the President in somewhat enigmatic terms, his attempt to calm the nation characterized by stream of consciousness ruminations, personal anecdotes and at times somewhat insensitive remarks aimed towards people perceived to be thinking differently.

“He Looks like a Janitor….”

Take the case of the unforgettable tirade against an esteemed law dean and chair of the Free Legal Assistance Group that had been founded by the statesman Jose W. Diokno.  The president went off on ad hominem attack on his physical attributes but more cruelly referred to him as he addressed the nation in terms that we will long remember: “…he looks like a janitor.”

What is ironic perhaps is that janitors and cleaners in our times are not only in the frontline of fire but are considered to be among the essential workers who have kept our country alive and well during these times.  Where would our hospitals be and how could medical workers save lives in emergency rooms and wards without them?  Where would our food supplies and food outlets, supermarkets and groceries, pharmacies and places of worship, homes and condominium apartments, streets and sidewalks be – in what state would they be in — without these essential workers?

Filipinos as Essential Workers

Filipinos the world over, employed as doctors or nurses, midwives or medical staff, domestic helpers and hotel workers are making the world safe and clean, and in the process creating community defenses enabling the public health system to save lives.

One of the unintended consequences of this pandemic that has caused untold suffering and grief not only in health and economic terms but also in the scale of social and mental anguish that it has unleashed, has been the rethinking and the recalibration of the dignity of work and the dignity of workers whatever their station in life and whatever they do to serve others in their efforts to earn a decent living. 

In the Republic of Ireland and in Great Britain where I happened to work for some two decades, countless Filipinos serve in hospitals, hospital and homes, in humble and unperceived ways, and today are much appreciated and publicly thanked for their contribution to those countries.

“God sent a cleaner to save me!”

A story is told by a Covid19 survivor that begs to be told.  One of the most difficult things to bear when one is struck by the coronavirus is the isolation and loneliness that ensues after one is quarantined and especially when one is confined to a hospital bed or a place for medical treatment.  Survivors tell us that what is truly unbearable is this: because of the treacherous nature of the contagion the phrase that one “avoids you like the plague” comes to fruition.  In times of illness, comfort is normally found in the care and concern from one’s loved ones; but, in the case of one infected by the virus one is largely left to deal with the situation bereft of company.

The survivor then tells the story of his utter despair in the isolation ward as he had no one to turn to and no one to talk with in his moment of total desperation at the height of his fever.  Until, one day in his own words, “God sent a cleaner to save me!”  For the first time in some while, someone talked with him with the words, “Hang in there.  We can do it.”  From a distance by the door, the cleaner talked with him and later brought him a few things he could eat, cravings he had in his delirium: coke and chips.  It brought back his faith and his health, and he lived to tell the story.

In days like ours, redemption comes in different forms; at times, in ways we least expect.  But one thing is clear:  there is dignity in work, and every worker who works hard to earn a living deserves our respect and appreciation.  Long live, Janitors!