Rio Constantino

I am taking care of a dead cat. Her name is Exxon, after the oil company, and she first came into my life as a preserved specimen for a class in vertebrate anatomy. She was a big fat calico with black and brown fur, at least before we removed her skin, and my lab partner suggested the name so we wouldn’t feel bad as we cut her open. We were just about finished exposing the muscles of Exxon’s flank when the Metro Manila lockdown was first announced.

The class was advised to take our cats home for self-study. So, I did. Exxon arrived home wrapped in a cheesecloth, two plastic garbage bags, and a canvas sack, and she’s been in our garage ever since.

Among the first concepts taught in vertebrate anatomy is homology. See, two structures are homologous if they have shared ancestry. As species evolve and branch into different lineages, new structures arise from pre-existing forms, often resulting in similarities hidden from first glance. Consider the bones of a bat’s wing and the human hand. Externally the two look nothing alike. But peel away the overlying muscle and you see both structures share bones arranged in a similar manner, albeit modified in shape and size. The bat’s distant ancestor, working with the same material which gave rise to the human hand, extended the digits to slender rays that could support a new wing membrane.

Dissection and comparison allow biologists to apprehend previously opaque relations in a new light. Similarly, this pandemic exposes our old way of living to glaring view. Why are essential workers, out of options after the suspension of public transport, walking miles to work? It makes no sense. When the national government failed to find an answer, some citizens took the initiative and organized bike-sharing communities online, where bikers could lend their bikes to frontliners. To their credit, these communities made sense of the crisis by helping strangers in need.

What the pandemic has put on trial is not humanity in general, but the system which failed to contain it. Quarantine broke the pattern of daily life. In so doing, it revealed what was questionable about our old normal. Do we really need so many cars? Why are so many threatened more by joblessness and loss of income than the possibility of infection? World leaders talk of economies and continued growth. What is positive GDP growth worth if, during crises, so many people are left to fend for themselves?

Last April 3, the Radio France Internationale reported a statement by Rob Jackson, chair of the Global Carbon Project, predicting CO2 emissions in 2020 could fall to their lowest level since World War II. It sounds big, until you realize that what could be the biggest drop in CO2 levels for more than half a century means, at most, a 5% decrease in current emissions. And even if CO2 emissions fell significantly during the pandemic, what happens after, should all the grounded planes return?

Nobody wants quarantine to last any longer than it has to. Everyone has a vision of the life they want to go back to. Having a stable job, being able to reunite with family, going out with friends. However, at the same time, it has become increasingly clear we cannot just return to our old normal. The pandemic has exposed, even sharpened, inequalities that pervaded our old way of life, highlighting contradictions untenable on a sustainable planet.

I want to finish dissecting this damn cat. Anatomy is the gateway to my other classes. How will I understand taxonomy without knowing the structures which define disparate species? How will I study ecology and conservation without anatomical understanding of the animals in dire need of help? I’d be a bodyguard who doesn’t the know the face of the man he’s trying to protect.

At the same time, I’m living in the time of COVID-19. Old assumptions no longer hold true. In my desire to continue studying, I assumed the Metro Manila lockdown would last two weeks at most. The result has been this absurd cat that’s been in the garage for over a month.

How to make sense of our conjuncture? Which path leads forward? The world has changed. Overcoming this pandemic does not mean a return to business as usual, but to witness and embrace the solidarity of communities which have responded to the crisis with empathy and kindness. Therein lies an answer towards a just and healthy future.