Life in a plastic bubble

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Marvin A. Tort


John travolta starred in the 1976 TV movie The Boy in a Plastic Bubble.

As I started to write this weekly column, my third in “quarantine,” a Paul Williams song titled, “What Would They Say,” came to mind. For those who may not remember that 44-year-old song, or were not yet alive at the time, I share with you below some of its lyrics. I recall the song was used in the 1976 TV movie The Boy in a Plastic Bubble, which got four Emmy nominations.

What would they say
If we up and ran away
From the roaring crowds
And the worn-out city faces
Would they carry on and on
When they found out we were gone…

Leave us alone
We’d live in the country
Leave us alone
We’d make it just fine
Happy in a one room shack
And we’d not look back…

I am sure by now some city dwellers, including myself, welcome the thought of having even just a “one-room shack” out in the “country,” or a place in the province. There they can spend the rest of the “quarantine” period in some degree of isolation, perhaps communing with nature, and being away “from the roaring crowds” and the “worn-out city faces.”

Some of us are already pretty worn out by the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) particularly in Metro Manila, as well as the stress and tension arising from COVID-19. The exasperation is evident in social media posts and news reports on how people have been coping with the situation, specifically in densely populated urban areas.

It should not be surprising how life would be after this national public health emergency. For sure, it will not be business-as-usual. While the Luzon-wide ECQ may be lifted after Easter, April 12th, life will surely never be the same for all of us. Many things will change, especially in how we go about day-to-day stuff at work or in school, or how we socially interact with each other.

COVID-19 will keep the world paranoid for months if not years to come. And perhaps only after mass vaccination, that is if a vaccine can actually be developed for all various strains and mutations, can we see some semblance of normality — or a throwback to life pre-COVID-19. Of course, this is minus the factors that contributed to the emergence of COVID-19.

Physical distancing may have to stay with us, to the extent that it can, for some time. Personal hygiene will continue to be emphasized, and perhaps COVID-19 is the wake-up call to convince governments and the public to finally address issues related to poverty, housing, sanitation, and access to public health services.

Up until maybe about 30 years ago, it was still common for establishments like banks to keep glass windows to separate cashiers and bank tellers from the transacting public. This was before the era of so-called low counters and lounge set-ups, which aimed to make customers feel more at home and more comfortable, and service personnel more friendly and accessible.

Post COVID-19, we may see a throwback in interior design towards glass or plexi-glass separations, transparent enclosures, and well-defined areas for customers and staff particularly in commercial establishments. But at the same time, there may be emphasis on natural light (and sanitizing solar heat), more natural ventilation and less air-conditioning, and more open spaces.

Foot baths and disinfecting booths at entrances, including thermal scanning, may be the norm in government offices and other public spaces like airports and seaports and bus terminals. Moreover, isolation booths may be required in such places. This way, those with a temperature can be immediately isolated temporarily, while a call is made to emergency services for pick up.

Even clothing similar to HazMat (hazardous materials) suits may be commercially produced and retailed for ordinary customers. Online learning and home-schooling may be more common and more frequent; work-at-home arrangements may persist; and more people may opt to live near where they work and either walk or bike to and from. In short, there will be a demand for small electric vehicles and other personal mobility equipment.

In terms of relations, I expect local provincial governments to continue exercising their authority to restrict their borders and to regulate the movement of people going in and out of their areas. Some areas will continue to insist on a quarantine longer than others, and whether or not such isolationist policies will be beneficial in the long term, only time can tell. The same may apply to international borders. Air and sea travel and international tourism will continue to hobble.

In the 1976 TV movie The Boy in a Plastic Bubble, which starred American actor John Travolta, a boy was born with a compromised immune system. It was feared that “contact with unfiltered air may kill him.” Thus, he lived out his life in “incubator-like conditions.” He grew up “staying in his room all his life where he eats, learns, reads, and exercises, while being protected from the outside world by various coverings.”

But as he grew up to be a young man, he wanted “to see more of the outside world and meet regular people his age.” He was allowed to attend a local school, but only after being equipped with something similar in style to a space suit worn by astronauts. But, after having experienced the outside world, he had to make the decision to risk possible death or stay in his plastic bubble. He eventually opts to leave the protection of his “bubble,” in the hope that some built-up “immunities” were enough for him to “survive the real world.”

And this, to me, is where we will all eventually find ourselves, perhaps in about two years from now. Whether or not the ECQ in Luzon will be extended is anybody’s guess. But I reckon the economy and our people can only sacrifice so much. Intervention will hopefully move on from containment to testing, isolation, and curing people. Beyond the ECQ, the issues are to what extent can we actually go back to business-as-usual and when?

Until when should we stay in “incubator-like conditions” and continue to seek protection “from the outside world by various coverings”? When does the country make the decision to risk possible exposure or even death by leaving the protection of the “plastic bubble”? When do we reckon if we have built-up “immunities” enough for us to “survive” a world with COVID-19?


Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of Businessworld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council