As a COVID long-hauler, I inhabit a liminal space of intractable uncertainty with regards to diagnosis, treatment, recovery, and prognosis. COVID infections have blurred the boundary between the two kingdoms of the well and the sick. A new biosocial identity has emerged from the collective experience of long Covid on a global scale, where we exist ‘betwixt and between’ yet belong to neither kingdom.
I am hospitalized while I am typing this, waiting to be seen for cervical vertebral disease, which is causing a daily numbing sensation in both hands. The wait time in the hospital provides me with a perfect chance to do autoethnography—to observe how I, as a patient, experience the medical system. I find that waiting is one of the main themes in my hospitalizing experience. The medical system dehumanizes me by means of turning me into a bed number and I have to take actions to be human again while waiting in the system.
Sheets of newspaper cover a portion of the floor of our house in Manila, and on top of those thin pieces of paper sits a white candle, a box of matches, a metal spoon, and a metal basin filled with water. The doors are locked. We’re huddled around the basin, and the room plunges into silence. Rest assured, this is not some scene from a B-rated supernatural horror movie. This is just what happens whenever anyone in my family gets sick. We call an albularyo—Tagalog for witch doctor or folk healer—to come and conduct either tawas or hilot depending on the degree of illness. All my life, I’ve never really understood nor tried to understand why my mom rarely sends us for check-ups, opting instead for tawas, hilot, and the occasional pharmaceutical drugs we self-medicate ourselves with. That is, until I took an Introduction to Anthropology course, where I encountered the term “structural violence” and the whole world of medical anthropology.
I chose to go flat. But I almost wasn’t allowed to. This is largely due to the unacknowledged psychological tension that underlies deeply gendered illnesses: that it is possible to have one’s gender or sex taken away by disease or disability; literally eaten by cancer and its aftermath. The sick person is then framed as one who has been robbed of the “natural” trappings of motherhood, wife-dom, and feminine sexuality. The aesthetics of breast cancer therefore remained fixated on a loss of idealized womanhood.