BY now, unless you have been hiding under a rock, you would have already heard of or read of or seen videos of the party that rocked the sensibilities of Baguio and even faraway Manila.
As a true blue Manileña who has decided to live part of the year in Baguio since mid-2018, and has therefore been a casual observer of local culture, I have tried to pick at this issue in my brain. My understanding may or may not be all accurate, but if you will indulge me in this small corner, here are the circumstances that I believe turned this celebration for a self-proclaimed PR guru into a PR disaster.
Let’s start at the very beginning. When you hear of a party to be thrown in someone’s honor, your mind races to answer a few simple questions: who, what, when, where, how, why.
Who? The above-mentioned self-proclaimed PR guru, not necessarily always the darling of Manila high society for his excessive partying, is about to celebrate a birthday and some Baguio folk decide to invite him and his A-list of friends to throw a bash in the mountain city.
The city is desperate to revive its tourism-based income which was badly-hit by the pandemic that is overstaying its welcome. Why not hit two birds with one stone, they thought, and have him throw a well-publicized party which is his metier, after all, therefore drumming up tourism efforts for showcasing Baguio as a visitor-ready venue? Baguio folk manage to get the mayor’s nod and although he himself admits that he does not know the celebrant, in a strange role reversal, it is the mayor who makes a courtesy call to Manila celebrity by attending said party for a few minutes. Photo ops ensue, with the celebrant in his locally-adapted Mad Hatter costume giving off a rather smug-looking smirk, and a possible thought bubble: “Well, this was a small price to pay for a destination party to break the monotony of quarantine. I’m making history here. And the cost of swab tests is just a fraction of what we would’ve spent on plane tickets if we could jet-set to some exotic destination as we normally do when someone grows a year older.”
What? Again, the spin was that it was a private celebration among friends. And yes, no one will fault him for having celebrity friends. He can invite whomever he pleases. They have all brandished negative covid test results so that should make them party-ready. More photo ops, lots of videos on social media. It looked like a lot of fun. Except, is it really a private party when there is a grand entrance on a white horse, cultural dancers, local artisans selling their products, and fireworks?
By all accounts, it looks more like a launch or promotional event than a celebration of one’s birthday. Were there sponsors? Who did the legwork? As far as I know, Baguio celebrations, and especially in the context of the pandemic, are simple affairs. As a Baguio resident, we are constantly bombarded with reminders to keep gatherings small, with people from the same household, for an ideal time of thirty minutes, all in order to limit the likelihood of transmitting the virus among the merrymakers and then to a bigger public when everyone eventually goes out into the city to do errands and live a life. It goes without saying that not all residents adhere to these principles all the time, but communication is key and what is communicated to the residents seems not to apply to visitors. The virus doesn’t discriminate whether a warm body is a local, a transplant, a government official, a market vendor, a tourist, or a celebrity.
When? Pandemic. Tenth month in. No end in sight. Yes, we are all tired. Yes, we all want a break. Some need more basic things than a mental or emotional break. So those who only need a sanity breather can count themselves among the lucky ones. Because, again, pandemic. And all the health risks that that implies.
Oh, and let’s not forget, just on the heels of announcements that Baguio will have to revert to stricter quarantine measures. It’s been a tiresome cha-cha, sometimes it feels like one step forward, three steps back and we lose the beat of the music. Of course, we understand there can be nothing scientific in the pre-planning and in the rule-giving. We adjust where we have to. Travel passes, schedules, long lines, protective gear. The residents comply. Not without complaint, but they do. Because, again, pandemic. So someone please tell us, again: why is there a big party of outsiders being planned, and why is it local-government sanctioned?
Where? Right in our midst, in the very city, we have been struggling for ten months to protect ourselves in, trapping ourselves in smaller and smaller bubbles, all the while worrying about what’s happening around us. I have said before that I took a personal stand against opening up to tourism in September. I still think it’s a bad idea. Maybe my older son contracting COVID only after leaving the relative safety of Baguio in the first few months has a lot to do with this very selfish and very myopic view of wanting to keep my surroundings as low-risk as possible. That he very likely got exposed and infected to the virus during travel away from Baguio drove home the point that Baguio, at least then, was doing something right, and if we could keep that going for much longer, we might have a better chance of overcoming the initial risks. Ah, but the borders opened and the activities began and the rate of infection went up. Coincidence?
How? Apparently with just a simple promise of promoting the city’s capability to handle tourists and their events, and the icing on the cake of purchasing local artists and artisans’ work, there was a tacit understanding that the local government could look the other way, forgive infractions “just this once,” because after all the visitors’ spending power would give a much needed shot in the arm to the sagging tourist economy while the people are still awaiting the actual medical vaccination that will give a boost to their ability to stay healthy, stay capable of working when work opportunities once again arrive, and stay alive.
Why? Parties are supposed to be fun, no? Everyone is supposed to leave with good memories? Well, this is a tough one. I picked my brains for days for answers and only came up with more questions.