MANILA — When the Rev. Eduardo Vasquez dresses for work these days, his vestments are as protective as they are holy. His cassock has been replaced by a safety suit, his collar hidden behind an N-95 respirator mask. All that identifies him as a priest is his stole, a scarf about two meters long, the perfect length to measure an acceptable social distance.
After Manila, the Philippine capital, was placed under lockdown in March, Father Vasquez moved his daily Mass online. That kept him safe from the coronavirus but left some of his poorest parishioners — the ones without cellphones — beyond his reach.
So he set off to find them. In the metro area’s teeming slums, already reeling from President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody antidrug campaign, he celebrated Mass, served the Eucharist, and distributed food and face masks.
“Journalists, doctors, garbage collectors and undertakers were out doing their duties” during the lockdown, he said in Caloocan city, where he works. “It’s a big knock on the Catholic Church if we don’t.”
The Philippines has nearly 1,200 deaths from Covid-19 and more than 30,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, one of Southeast Asia’s highest tallies.
As the caseload rose this spring in Manila, a metro area of nearly 14 million people, Father Vasquez and fellow church volunteers began providing meals, face masks and other assistance to about 300 homeless people a night in Caloocan, a city in the area’s north. They refer anyone who exhibits Covid-19 symptoms to hospitals.
On many days, Father Vasquez, 47, tends to his churchyard garden, baptizes children, and attends to the dead at funeral parlors and crematories. On one occasion, he traveled to a village outside Manila, where residents had asked him to bless it as a protection from the virus.
After each trip, he disinfects his personal protective equipment so it can be reused.
“Wearing P.P.E. conveys that there is danger, that you should be careful,” he said. “At the same time, it also sends the message that ‘Even if it’s dangerous, I am here for you, but I will never compromise your safety.’”
The bishop of Caloocan, Pablo Virgilio David, told Father Vasquez in a letter this month that he had been “God sent” to the diocese for the pandemic.
“Thank you for your out-of-the-box pastoral responses that make the poor know that they are cared for and loved by the church,” Bishop Virgilio wrote.
Father Vasquez grew up in Bicol, a region southeast of Manila on the island of Luzon, and began working in Caloocan last year. In the slums he is known as Father Pon, a play on his nickname. He said that Pon-pon, his nickname in the Bicol dialect, describes one who gathers things and often applies to those who care for the undesirable or defend the vulnerable.
As a boy, Father Vasquez said, he initially dreamed of becoming a businessman, but changed his mind when he saw a poster with a question that is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Lord, what do you want me to do?”
He attended seminary on the southern island of Mindanao, where Muslim insurgents have long battled the government of this Catholic-majority country. He was ordained as a priest in Mindanao in 2003.
Five years later, he moved to Maguindanao, a parish on Mindanao Island where a local church had been burned by looters. His first task was convincing the townspeople not to shoot a Muslim man they accused of committing arson.
As the Muslim insurgency displaced people across Mindanao, Father Vasquez converted his church’s grounds into an evacuation center. He also assisted journalists who were investigating one of the country’s worst political massacres, and served as a spiritual adviser for people in witness-protection programs, including former warlords and jihadists.
Sammy Abdulgani, 33, a former jihadist in Mindanao who met Father Vasquez while he was serving a prison term, said the priest had been a supportive presence at a particularly difficult time in his life.
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
Updated June 22, 2020
Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?
A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.
I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?
The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.
What is pandemic paid leave?
The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.
My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?
States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
“He’s always a good example of what a religious man should be,” Mr. Abdulgani said. “He knew who I am, or was, and the things I did when I was a rebel. But he placed his utmost trust in me.”
Father Vasquez said that his experience in Mindanao turned out to be good preparation for the pandemic. Among other lessons, he said, it taught him that local officials could not be trusted to help the poor in a time of crisis.
“In Mindanao, we knew that corruption was real,” he said. “Those goods would never reach the needy.”
In Manila, where unemployment is surging and a citywide lockdown has been eased but not yet scrapped, some people have criticized Father Vasquez on social media for his recent outreach to the poor. They say it implies he has lost faith in the power of his own church.
“God gave you the capacity to think; it is not enough to rely on faith alone,” he said. “It has to be coupled with actions.”
Mike Ives reported from Hong Kong.