I first met Tina Alviar Agbayani when we were both ankle-deep in dog poo, volunteering to help clean the cages of pit bulls rescued by the Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) from a dogfighting ring in Cavite. I learned soon enough that she was a bleeding heart, what with her 15 dogs. (She would later adopt, and sadly, lose one of the pit bulls.)
That’s why I wasn’t surprised when she answered my message for an email interview with, “Tomorrow na, tulog muna ako. I have to wake up at 4:30 to start driving.”
Since the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19), Tina has been driving front-liners around the city and even beyond, and ferrying sick people who need dialysis or chemotherapy to and from hospitals. It’s been her contribution to the effort to survive during the pandemic—and, perhaps, her way of coping, as well. In fact, she jokes about putting a sign on her van that says, “Nangunguha ng front-liner.”
The driving started when she brought a nephew and his friends to the border of Manila and Bulacan right after lockdown, after they had arrived from Dubai the night before. “On my way back to Parañaque, I noticed a lot of people walking along Edsa, so I started picking people up along the way—construction workers, people working in Megamall and Makati, and so on until I went out of my way and reached Alabang. I was supposed to go home after that, but I picked up more people along Sucat Road, and did Sucat-Baclaran twice!” Talking to the construction workers, she learned that two of them came from Cainta and had started walking at 3 a.m. to get to their first day of work in Parañaque. “I wanted to tell them, mukhang malabo ’yang trabaho ninyo,” she says.
All in all, she ferried 43 people on that first “unofficial” day. “I had this little notebook and asked them to write down their names and numbers for future contact tracing, if ever. I was practicing social distancing, so it was a maximum of five passengers only in the van. I had a spray bottle with alcohol for the people and the seats, as well.”
The following day, Tina had the itch to drive again on Edsa, but was discouraged by friends. “I guess it’s partly an adult ADD/ADHD (attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) thing; I couldn’t stay put in one place. I had to find ways to help.” She fed stray animals in her neighborhood, brought donations to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), and even emailed RITM if they needed volunteer cleaners (she’s a med tech). Then, #RockEdCarpool announced they were looking for volunteer drivers for front-liners, and Tina signed on.
On her first trip for RockEd last March 27, she drove three health workers home from Veterans Memorial Medical Center to Imus and Dasmariñas, and back to work the following Monday. “I also have had a ‘sideline’—I drove a dialysis patient and a chemo patient because their barangay ambulance was busy ferrying other people,” she recounts. “They contacted me through Messenger. While waiting for my dialysis patient, I saw a mother and son on Quezon Avenue; the mom, another dialysis patient, was in a wheelchair. They had walked from UST (University of Santo Tomas) and were going to Bagong Silang, Caloocan—that’s way past SM Fairview! So I drove them.”
Tina gets her schedules from hospital coordinators and the health workers themselves, who message her. She normally takes on the ones headed out of Manila—the farthest she’s gone is Cabuyao, Laguna, and Dasmariñas, Cavite—because there are fewer volunteers, so she’s often out the whole day. She took only one day off in her first nine days of driving.
Not afraid to die
Isn’t she afraid of catching the virus? “Just a little. I pray to God to keep me safe, because I still have lots of people to drive, and a mom to take care of. My sons—four young adults and one teenager—are grown up and they can manage, haha!” Having lived with depression, as well, Tina has confronted the issue of death a long time ago, she says. “So basically, I’m not afraid to die.”
She does take precautions, of course. “Before I drive, I disinfect the car, and after dropping someone off, I again disinfect it for the next rider. When I get home I leave my shoes out and go straight into the shower. I soak my clothes in soapy water overnight and wash them separately from the rest. I take extra doses of vitamins, and drink a lot of water throughout the day.”
And yes, all this is funded from her own pocket. “The good thing is, front-liners now get free toll, and we got some free gas.”
Tina simply shrugs off any praise for her efforts. “I’m very thankful to those front-liners who haven’t gone home since the quarantine, or those who walked for several hours to get to work. There’s this male nurse who walked from Kawit to Asian Hospital for four hours; he just told me, ‘Hay, naku ma’am, natunaw beauty ko.’ I’m just happy to serve them.”
Tina says she will keep doing her part as long as there’s a lockdown and front-liners need her to move. She has even made some friends. “Some of my suki said we should hang out after COVID-19 is gone. There’s this guy who also suffers from depression; he said he enjoyed talking to me kasi naintindihan ko siya.”
Her biggest lesson from driving, Tina says, is “to appreciate and be thankful for everything. Despite how imperfect my life is, I have become truly grateful for what I have.