Ito na po ba ang dulo ng pila (Is this the end of the line)?”

I’m pretty certain that most of us have asked this question at least once, be it in school during enrollment, in a shed to wait for a ride to work, or in a government building as we avail ourselves of a public service.

For some of us, queues have become so much a part of our lives, we have perfected it as we have perfected organizing the vacation, ensuring that there is time to move slowly, that there are snacks to bring, things to kill time with, and a few other comforts.

For us Filipinos, the longest of queues have become normal, and those who complain about them are dismissed as maarte (snobs). In the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP), suffering long lines is even considered a rite of passage for students, hence the mock meaning of PUP, Pila Uli, Pila (Line up again, line up).

It has been four years since I last braved the perpetual lines in my alma mater, and I really did not look forward to seeing it again – especially not in a public hospital, months into the covid-19 pandemic.

But last December, I waited for almost 12 hours in the emergency unit of the Philippine Orthopedic Center for my fracture to be fixed. The outpatient department looked like the closing of a Snake game from 2003. All space was filled by a long, meandering queue of people with varying bone-related conditions: limbs resembling scaffolding with steel pipes protruding from their flesh, poses signifying that they might never walk again. Everyone was expected to wait – and they did so diligently. No one was dying, after all.

Now, half a year later, similarly long lines can be seen in many other hospitals. This time, they stand outside emergency units, and the scenario is terribly different. Before the coronavirus pandemic, pila (queue) simply meant alternately standing and sitting in a line for an hour to one day. Today, it could mean death from a virus, a death via systemic neglect.

Queues weren’t supposed to be bad. They were meant to help establish order and efficiency and to reinforce equality. A well-run queue for an essential public service could symbolize an efficient democracy. Immediate reception of a public service indicates good governance to a point. Inefficient queues suggest the opposite – look at the train lines in Manila, for example. How poorly is a government doing if lines go on and on where they shouldn’t be, especially in a public hospital during a pandemic?

At present, with about 8,000 new cases daily, covid-19 patients wait in queues at hospital doors, with loved ones pleading for them to hold onto life, to wait for just a little more for a time that might never come.

Why? The explanation is not complicated. Our government failed in managing the initial covid-19 outbreak and did not prepare for the next, simply because it had different priorities. Instead of closing our ports of entry, it favored our so-called friendship with China. Instead of doctors and health specialists it deployed retired military generals to lead the response to the  outbreak. Rather than actually addressing the pandemic, it decided to crack down on critiques and activists. Instead of actually admitting to mistakes, it boasted a non-existent excellence in handling the pandemic. This list goes on, but it wouldn’t if we only had a functioning government.

Now, doctors are forced to choose who gets to live among their patients, a power of over life and death that President Rodrigo Duterte had long ago arrogated unto himself. Apparently, government neglect of health professionals was not bad enough.. There are just too many patients and too little equipment; too few doctors and nurses and not enough beds. The healthcare system is overwhelmed. Numbers that could have been avoided, stories that could have remained fictional are tragically real, yet the presidential spokesperson gets hospital admission immediately after testing positive for covid-19 while someone else is informed that a slot in an intensive care unit is available for her father, three days after he died.

Queues now don’t just mean sweat, hunger, or getting late for another appointment.

Queues suddenly signify death.

But queues should have meant life, too.

Financial assistance from the government should have meant that a family gravely affected by the pandemic would eat for another week. Yet it was delayed for months. That aside, there wasn’t a clear list of who gets to receive the ayuda, as this was left to the whims of local governments. It became an opportunity for corruption that our good old traditional politicians didn’t pass up.

Vaccines, of course, could have changed the scenario. However, we are yet to benefit at the cost of billions of dollars in loans for the supposed purchase of life-saving vaccines. For now, let us all register online and kindly wait in line as politicians and other fortunate individuals jump to the top of the priority list as if they are frontline medical personnel.

If I could make just one wish aside from the end of this nightmare of a government, I would wish that lines get back to what they used to be, just being annoying.

No parent should have to sit trembling on a plastic chair, aching from hunger, convincing his children that soon they will finally have rice to eat.

No son or daughter should have to wait outside hospitals feeling the warmth leave a parent’s hands, or explain to another that their mother died just outside swinging metal doors, minutes away from life.

Not another patient should have to file in, asking in complete fear for his life:

Ito po ba ang dulo ng pila (Is this the end of the line)?”