June 2, 2023

For a time, hopes were high that the Cordillera’s last province standing, Mountain Province, would be able to remain free from the Covid-19 after the region recorded its first case, a Manabo, Abra resident, on March 14.

It took almost three months, on June 16, before the Covid-19 finally made its way to the province, when a male resident of Suquib, Besao acquired the virus from a positive case who visited the town on June 6.

Since its first case, virus transmission in the 10 towns of Mountain Province was generally kept at bay, even having 10 consecutive days without a single case recorded in September.

It was only recently when its cases logged a single day spike – four in a day – which has brought its total to 110 cases and a single death as of Dec. 21 based on Department of Health-Cordillera data.

Until now, one of its towns, Sadanga, remains Covid-free, a cause for its local government to implement all measures possible to keep the virus from reaching the town – to the point of even recently banning its residents from holding wedding celebrations, among other directives.

Culture plays a role in keeping COVID cases at bay

Rituals and other cultural practices indigenous to the Cordillera, particularly in Mountain Province, are said to have been playing a vital role on how the province is managing the effects of the Covid-19 crisis.

Mountain Province has practices, such as obaya or tengao, far-in, and ngilin that apply the principles of a lockdown or quarantine. Its practice has been passed through generations and still practiced by its constituents even before the pandemic hit. 

Sadanga, a town noted for waiving its share of relief goods from the Department of Social Welfare and Development, saying they could manage for months through their stocks and instead give the assistance to more needy communities, has a traditional practice called far-in, where community elders call for respite from work and no visitors are allowed to enter the community for some days during the occurrence of emergency or calamity, as well as to ward off illnesses or disease. 

During the enhanced community quarantine, Mayor Gabino Ganggangan has issued an executive order for an extended far-in, which required residents to stay home and to strictly regulate movement of people coming out and going in the municipality.

To ensure food sufficiency, Sadanga has the shapah, wherein the kadangyan or rich families in the municipality have the obligation to take care or share resources with their relatives who are in need.

Ignacio Pangket, Ganggangan’s executive assistant, said they hope to sustain the Covid-19-free status of the town.

He said residents’ strict adherence to customary practices and limiting the entry to the town have contributed in making the town Covid-19-free.

He said since the lockdown in March, natives of Sadanga have been on a “rest period” to allow the ritual to ward off illnesses to take effect.

Pangket said when elders declare a te-er, everyone in the community is mandated to adhere to and observe the practice. For them, it is taboo not to follow the te-er for this defies inayan.

In essence, those who violate the rules declared by elders are fined or penalized.

Pangket said while people are on quarantine, they did not worry about what to eat to be able to survive for their cultural practices also dictate that those who have more must share with those who have less.

“Our society, our people have the inner resources like values of justice, fairness, industry, solidarity, ecological worldview and built-in or indigenous mechanisms which the government can tap in order to effectively address the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Pangket said.

Practicing ngilin wherever a native is

When the Luzon-wide lockdown was imposed in March after the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country, Solang Pooten, a native of Besao, Mountain Province, who works as a public attorney and has been living in Manila since 2013, observed ngilin even when he was away from home, a practice usually done by the immediate family members of a recently buried individual, but which could also be done community-wide for emergencies requiring quarantine.

One of the instances pre-pandemic where he practiced ngilin was when his father died.

“Even if I left home and was already in Manila, I still observed ngilin by not making unnecessary movements or noises. As much as possible, I have to be home before dark,” Pooten told the Courier.

He said ngilin is for spiritual and emotional healing, cleansing, and recovery. Elders believe it is not good to see a mourning person actively mingling in public, especially during happy times.

Dapat cleansed and recovered ka bago ka maging active ulit. Personally, I am at peace kapag sinusunod ko. I feel more secured from bad things,” he said.

Learning from indigenous traditions to cope with Covid-19

Pooten said while it is an indigenous practice, ngilin is also scientific as it prevents the spread of the disease.

“One aspect of the ngilin is the profound belief that you are answerable to the unknown in everything you do. So if you do not observe the ngilin, then you don’t expect that you will be protected from bad things.”

He said another aspect of the community ngilin that he finds positive is that a person actually helps carry another’s burden. By observing ngilin even one is not personally affected by reason for the ngilin such as tragedy, in a way a person is helping those affected recover and heal.

In one of his social media posts, Pooten said to signal a ngilin, their community uses pudongs – plants tied and conspicuously placed at every entrance of the village. Every person or anito (spirit) who comes across the pudong will be warned that the area is off-limits.

If one sees a pudong in an area, it signals no one can enter the area or take anything where it is placed.

“It is lawa and inayan to disregard the message of the pudong, more so to disrespect the ngilin. Lawa is the immorality of one’s action while inayan is the profound belief that every act a man does, he is answerable to the unknown,” he said.

During the ngilin, cooperation and support are meaningfully observed by every person in the community.

Some Cordillera elders claim ngilin and pudongs were observed during plagues in the past to drive away bad spirits causing the disease while preventing transmission.

Pooten said pudong is still being practiced in his hometown, as well as in Sagada.

Thinking of other people’s welfare as an instinct

Pooten also owes his decision to stay in Manila even when he could have still went home before the Luzon-wide lockdown to the traditions his family observed in his hometown.

“Life is difficult during this time (before restrictions were eased). My weekends are usually spent in Baguio, my second home, with my two pamangkins. I was not able to that then,” he said.

He also preferred to stay in Manila thinking he was a possible carrier of the virus, given the nature of his job. His two sisters, both nurses working overseas, who were due to arrive home early this year, also opted to stay where they were due to the threat of virus transmission.

Wala akong kilala na nakasalamuha ko na nag-positive. So my fear was being a carrier without me knowing.It was better to stay kaysa ako pa ang magkalat sa relatives ko.

The hospitals where my sisters are working also had Covid patients already, so they decided na huwag na munang umuwi.”

The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples-Cordillera said culture and indigenous practices of the Cordillera particularly of those from Mountain Province have been helpful in this trying time. The spirit of bayanihan or binnadang in the local dialect is also inherent in Cordillera culture, as well as respect and strict adherence to elders, which occupy a special place in the Cordillera society.

The provincial government under Gov. Bonifacio Lacwasan Jr., the capital town of Bontoc under Franklin Odsey, and the rest of the municipal government units constantly engage their constituents through public advisories for reminders aside from providing facilities necessary in the detection, tracing, and management of Covid cases.

Even when it was not able to remain the last province standing against Covid-19, the province continues to coordinate, cooperate, strictly comply with the health protocols, and be reminded to be courteous to their frontliners. – with reports from Carlito Dar and PNA