By Marilou Guieb

INDEED we live in strange times. Troubled times. A life wreaked with havoc because of the pandemic COVID-19. Like a flip of the coin, life has changed drastically. And on many fronts, the phenomenon is seen as a disaster for people and world systems – health, industries, education, travel, and just about everything.
Coping with the pandemic means embracing a new catchphrase – the new normal. And just about when the world has come to make a little dent on fighting COVID-19 with the emergence of rapidly developed vaccines, a new variant surfaces, regarded even as what may be the worst of the versions COVID-19 has made of itself – OMICRON – that is feared to escape immunity that vaccines give.

What this is saying is the world has to embrace the “new normal” as a new way of life if humanity is to survive.

Ironically, the new normal may be a misnomer. That is if the word normal can be seen as how things should really be . Perhaps a return to some old ways. For what the old normal people are raring to return to may be deemed as an artificially created world – a world that stays awake 24/7, runs on a currency that spells survival, a world of inequity and abuse of nature.

Ironically the old normal we have been used to can be thought of as a departure from a normal way of life – of rising with the sun and mellowing with the moon, of living in harmony with nature, and caring for one another.

The dictums in the COVID-19 vocabulary may have turned upside down the meanings of normal, new and old – but there’s a silver lining to these redefinitions, as the new normal is seen to embrace some wisdom of the past fusing with the modernity of the day.

We take a look at some effects from changes that had to be done in coping with the pandemic – on the environment, trade, mindsets, among a few, in a miniature view zooming in on the experience of Baguio City.

Survival gardens

Plantito and plantita are buzzwords born out of the craze for plants when ‘stay-at-home’ became a health policy to stop the spread of COVID-19. It has certainly grown into some kind of a major trade industry, its revenue still unquantified due to the fact that the exchange is done largely online. It came to be as a way of fighting the gloom of the pandemic as there is joy in watching the miracle of a seed nurtured to life – a gloom to bloom therapy, so to speak.

The Plant Plant Plant program of the Department of Agriculture (DA) has played a part in spurring the interest in the business of plant-selling and almost obsessive interest of collectors.

Agriculture Secretary William Dar in an interview said that the Plant Plant Plant program, among the many that the DA has come up with to align with the pandemic, is closest to his heart. The program gained popularity as the DA also gave free seeds and training on per group and barangay basis.

This in turn gave way to a Survival Gardens program in the city. Survival Gardens was implemented almost a week or two after a lockdown was declared in March 2020 with a budget of over P84,750 for seed distribution, which was supplemented with another P151,700 as the program gained popularity.

The project was handled by the City Veterinary and Agriculture Office with significant support from the DA-CAR and the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI). Dr. Brigit Piok, head of the City Veterinary Office, said the project was a success with all 128 barangays in the city participating. They had seeds distributed to 4,000 recipients from March to December 2020.

Regional Director Cameron Odsey said the DA has established demo sites and online training for vegetable production and chicken raising, models for aquaponics, provided seeds and fertilizers, among other services, to help households have direct access to food. In the city alone, DA-CAR since March of 2019, aside from livestock and chickens, had distributed 862.7 kg of seeds to 15,491 individuals. No wonder the fever has swept across the city, from executives to housewives, seniors and the young.

Survival Gardens in 2020 was capped by a contest that selected 93 participants from the barangays of the city.

Amelia Montes, who won under the container category, had a variety of vegetables and ornamental plants grown in plastic gallon containers placed on her rooftop or her limited garden space. Her produce until now not only feeds her family, but she also has a little sold and shared with friends.

“Composting and making concoctions are my favorite sustainable gardening practices,” she said. She makes her own fermented plant juice and fish amino acid to give nutrients to her plants. She also keeps catnip and dora plants to keep plant-eating insects away.

Veronica Mat-an and her husband, meanwhile, took the grand prize for ground gardening. By the time of selecting winners, they were on second cropping from seeds originally given by the DA-CAR. Their garden continues to produce pechay, a variety of beans, kale, amaranth, onion leeks, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, bitter gourd, cucumber, strawberries, gabi, bottle gourds, squash, and many others with most of the seeds given by the DA-CAR.

The project was such a success that it was once again adopted for this year, and the help given expanded from giving free vegetable seeds to helping individuals, cooperatives and barangays set up strawberry greenhouses, distributing chickens and rabbits, in order to help households recover from loss of income due to limited or loss of jobs.

Another pet project of Dar is aquaponics, and the DA is on a continuing effort in helping households in setting up their own.

A model of success is Steve Abanag.

“This is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics,” Abanag said. He went on to say that he started with some fish in a pail and a box of styrofoam in 2016 and grew the project on a staggered basis, slowly and mostly from the savings of his aquaponics project. “People who know about my organic produce come to purchase, like the teachers in two nearby schools, one the Lindawan High School,” he said.
An agent advised him to go into aquaponics as hydroponics still requires synthetic fertilizers.
He has since been tapped by government agencies and private groups to set up aquaponics in their premises.

Even happier, Abanag said that his water bed garden provides his family more than 50 percent of their vegetables and some tilapia, too.

Urban gardening gives the reassurance that in times of a crisis, survival is just a few steps away from one’s doorstep, in one’s own backyard. It is akin to the old system of subsistence economy where households raised their own food on a small scale just for their household needs.

Silent splendors

Tourism too has taken on new strategies of sustaining tourism and rebranding Baguio. Known as the Summer Capital of the Philippines, the city had always heavily relied on tourism as a major source of revenue. But it was an industry that peaked only on holiday seasons. And so in years before the pandemic struck, the city embarked on a tourism project to fill up the lean months. Panagbenga, a grandiose flower festival, came to be, opening in February and holding events for a whole month which closed with a trade fair at Session Road. The festival had two pompous parades – a float parade and street dancing – that drew crowds said to be hitting the million plus mark. But it tormented residents with horrendous traffic and tons of garbage were left in its trail. Panagbenga gave a big chunk to the annual source of income of hotels and restaurants and downstream to other sectors such as transport, souvenir shops, vegetable trade and the market.

With the imposition of restricted movements, Aloysius Mapalo, said, “Personally, I’d like to veer away from festivals and parades.” He said that the city has so many other things to offer. He cited, for instance, the retreat house at Mirador Hill. Here one can walk through a bamboo park and rock gardens. It also holds a treasured heritage. First established by the Jesuits, it was once a meteorological observatory, seminary, sanatorium and even a Japanese garden.

Nuns at the St. Scholasticas Convent have a charming Seven Healing Gardens where one can walk around enjoying the waft of herbal and floral scents. Camp John Hay forest trails, an eco-sanctuary in Hillside, a bamboo forest at the St. Francis Seminary, orchidariums and arboretums, were all once almost forgotten silent splendors in the city drowned out by the pomp and zest of noisy tourist attractions. Now they are priorities for upgrading as tourist attractions in the city.

Now parks are also being spruced up and a new concept of reading in the park has started with bookshelves set up in selected spots with benches beside where one can sit and enjoy reading a book. It’s the quiet side of tourism that flowers, gardens, woodlands and parks offer.

Mapalo said that making hotel gardens and interiors enchanting is also part of this quiet kind of tourism to make the stay an experience all by itself.

Farm tourism, bird watching with tours to bird sanctuaries, heritage walks are part of this new brand of tourism. And now that the city is again taking baby steps in reviving tourism by the numbers, its doors open to accept 3,000 tourists a day, it is hoped that the rebranding is not forgotten. For the city’s prime attraction was foremost its nature sceneries, something its new direction is bound to recover with a tourism looking into reviving its natural beauties.

Creative economy

Baguio City was a trailblazer in the country in becoming part of the network of the UNESCO Creative Cities which has inspired the development of creative economy. It is revenue derived from creative products, creative services and creative ideas. The city has always been a magnet to artists, perhaps of the cool weather, the blue-green mountains and landscape of towering pine trees. Many local artists have gained international acclaim and is in fact home to two national artists – BenCab and Kidlat Tahimik. Yet the art community has been largely neglected in terms of government support. Not until lately, with a creative council now officially created. The pandemic, bleak as it is, in a way gave a spotlight to the arts, with artists holed up in their studios to create art more and the impetus of being a Creative City giving life to events providing venues for artists to display and sell their works. The Ibag-iw Festival is one of these prime activities, the Ibag-iw Creative Festival 2021 now ongoing. Last year, the festival had earned close to half a million in declared revenue, as announced in a press conference. But the exposure of artists to buyers and collectors, the awakening of residents to the fine arts, and the impetus to create more art and keep growing creatively are all immeasurable gains in becoming a better city – of a city with a soul.

There are many more silver linings that have been widely spoken of. Many precious lessons have been gained from the grief COVID-19 has given. There is the respite from pollution that cleared the view to the horizon. There is family bonding. There is the spiritual awakening – of more people turning to God when feeling powerless in the face of COVID-19. Perhaps online work should be pursued. People have become more attentive to healthier lifestyles. And many more.

Embracing the new normal goes beyond the wearing of masks and social distancing. Of lockdowns and quarantines and travel bans. It goes beyond the COVID-19 threats even. It may just be rethinking a more sustainable way of doing things. Of asking if it’s all worth it to return to a way of life that is fast and furious. Is what we have been used to sustainable? In the face of uncertainties, these are questions humanity as a whole will have to be grappling with as it marches on to what it calls the new normal.