A Manila Barbershop’s Mirrors Reflect the Pain of the Pandemic

MANILA — For 20 years, amid military coups, typhoons, terrorist attacks and a People Power revolution, Rollie Magalona’s clients have streamed into his barbershop in Metro Manila for more than just a cut and a shave.

Through it all, rich and poor alike have crammed into the shop in the Philippine capital’s Mandaluyong district and lingered longer than necessary to discuss the day’s news and trade the latest political gossip.

But the pandemic has changed all that. The shop these days is nearly empty. The din of chatter has been silenced, and the few people who nervously trickle in are in no mood for small talk.

The salon, Jolog’s Barbershop, has always been something of a microcosm of the country, its mirrors reflecting a diversity of faces from across society. Today, seven months since the country enacted its first of several lockdowns, the shop exemplifies the heavy toll the coronavirus has exacted on the country — the inextricable losses of life, income and a sense of community.

“It’s very hard to get my mind wrapped around this,” said Mr. Magalona, 47. “It used to be that we always have customers lined up. Now, we try to stay open until evening, but the streets are already deserted. What is worse, we may also get infected. You never know.”

Since March, the Philippines has been in various stages of lockdown, the longest stretch of any country in Asia. The barbershop, like many businesses, was initially forced to close when the virus was first detected, but has since been allowed to reopen subject to stringent health codes and measures.

The barbers are required to wear yellow medical coveralls and face shields. A sign taped above a mirror reads, “No face mask, not allowed.” Only four customers can be accommodated at any given time, and they are told to disinfect before entering the shop.

There are similar restrictions across the country. Churches in this largely Roman Catholic nation have reopened, but are only allowed to accommodate 10 percent of their capacities. Customers entering shopping malls must first have their temperatures checked and areas are marked with X signs to prevent clustering.

But even with restrictions in place, the country is struggling to control the outbreak. As of Thursday, the Philippines has recorded more than 294,590 cases and over 5,000 deaths.

Already, about 27.3 million Filipinos have lost their jobs because of the resulting economic downturn. In the second quarter of the year, the country entered a recession, dropping 16.5 percent — its worst performance in nearly four decades.

The Manila-based Asian Development Bank has forecast that the country’s economy will contract by 7.3 percent for the whole of 2020. Growth is predicted to be 6.5 percent next year, but only if a vaccine is found.

At an upscale mall in southern Manila, there were hardly any shoppers despite the beginning of the country’s four-month Christmas Season, the longest anywhere in the world.

“Typically, sales are up during this season,” said Aldrin Esteber, a young father of two who works at a milk-tea shop.

The shop used to employ five workers, he said, but the others were fired because there was so little business.

“We used to have long lines of people lining up before they went on to watch movies, but with the cinemas closed and majority of the people staying home and not in the holiday mood, it’s a general slowdown,” he said.

The country’s outspoken president, Rodrigo Duterte, has acknowledged that the coronavirus fight has been a drain on government coffers, and has told the public to tighten their belts.

But he has also muddled the government’s message, even joking that people should douse themselves with gasoline as a disinfectant. Early in the outbreak, he told police officers to shoot anyone who joined a demonstration after several people were arrested while protesting the slow delivery of government aid.

While the restrictions may help decrease infections, they are wreaking havoc on businesses like Jolog’s Barbershop. It is impossible for barbers like Mr. Magalona and his colleagues to cut customers’ hair at a distance, and now something as mundane as a crew cut carries a degree of risk.

“I don’t know any other line of work,” said Julieto Ballaga, another barber at the shop and the father of two young children. “When the lockdown was first imposed, I had no choice. I was on call for home service. Was I afraid? Yes. But do I need to work? Yes, too. There was no other choice.”

On a recent afternoon, Rosie Camacho, a money lender, strolled in to the shop.

She didn’t come to collect money, but to cool herself in the air-conditioning and offer her daily dose of religious advice.

At 70, she is considered vulnerable and isn’t supposed to be out at all. But no one dared tell her otherwise.

“This is God’s way of reminding us about our blessings and to return to the church,” she said. “The Bible tells us that love and understanding are all that you need. It didn’t tell us about a vaccine.”

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