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DOH to Quiapo crowd: Watch for symptoms

MANILA, Philippines — The Department of Health (DOH) on Saturday pleaded with the multitude who descended on Quiapo Church and its vicinity for the annual Feast of the Black Nazarene to go into self-quarantine and closely watch for any symptoms of COVID-19.

To prevent a superspreader event, officials canceled the Jan. 9 “traslacion,” a procession which draws hundreds of thousands of barefoot devotees who follow the image of the centuries-old statue of Jesus Christ carrying a cross on a float being pulled by rope for more than 20 hours through central Manila’s major streets from Rizal Park to Quiapo Church.

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In a statement, the DOH advised those who took part in the annual veneration of the Black Nazarene “to minimize interactions, especially with the vulnerable members of their households, and to conduct active self-monitoring for any symptoms.”

In lieu of the procession, Church authorities scheduled 15 Masses starting before dawn on Saturday, but with only 400 people allowed inside the church each time. Thousands outside followed the rites that were shown live on 12 large television screens around the church.

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By noon on Saturday, at least 400,000 devotees had been to the church and its vicinity since Friday night, according to the Manila police chief, Brig. Gen. Leo Francisco.

PACKED DEVOTEES Throngs of Black Nazarene devotees wear masks and face shields but cast aside physical distancing as they pack a portion of Quezon Boulevard in Manila close to Quiapo Church for outdoor prayers or to wait in line to enter the minor basilica to view the icon. The church scheduled 15 Masses in lieu of the the annual procession also known as “traslacion”—RICHARD A. REYES/NIÑO JESUS ORBETA

Biggest during pandemic

The religious event attracted the biggest crowds in Metro Manila since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

The city government of Manila reported that 2.3 million devotees joined last year’s traslacion.

The police reported crowds in the vicinity of nearby San Sebastian Church, Santa Cruz Church and Nazarene Catholic School.

Several thousands of officers were deployed to ensure social distancing in the devout crowd.

This year, Manila’s Public Employment Service Office had set up booths around Quiapo to distribute masks to devotees for free.

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Devotees were also asked to fill out contact tracing forms at various checkpoints around Quiapo Church, but some submitted theirs online.

The DOH said devotees who went to Quiapo and later showed symptoms of COVID-19 must immediately inform their Barangay Health Emergency Response Teams “for appropriate management and referral.”

It also urged local governments, especially in the National Capital Region, to coordinate with Quiapo Church to secure a list of devotees who went to Quiapo, and to actively monitor their constituents who participated in the event for early detection.

‘We need a miracle now’

“We’re really going to need a miracle to stop a superspreader event in Quiapo right now,” Dr. Edsel Salvana, a member of the technical advisory group of the DOH, said in a tweet before noon on Saturday.

“Please don’t go [to Quiapo],” said the molecular biologist and infectious diseases expert. “Aren’t we supposed to watch out for each other? Putting others at risk is about as un-Christian as it gets. Let’s keep each other safe.”

His appeal on Twitter, which had over 1,000 likes and shares, did not reach the tens of thousands who ignored similar pleas from authorities to stay home to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the severe respiratory disease.

The risk of catching the virus, which has infected nearly half a million people in the country, did not bother Marlene Ordiales, 58, who believed the Black Nazarene would protect her.

“I don’t mind the pandemic. I leave it up to Him,” Ordiales told the French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) as she waited to enter the church.

A mere glimpse

Worshipers could only look at the icon, which was placed out of reach on the balcony above the entrance of Quiapo Church. The statue is believed to have healing powers and devotees struggle to touch it during the procession.

Like hundreds of thousands of other devotees, John Michael dela Cruz settled for only a glimpse of the Black Nazarene from a distance.

For the past five years, Dela Cruz took part in the traslacion, starting as early as 4 a.m. with a prayer that he would survive the grueling procession.

LINING UP Thousands joining the Feast of the Black Nazarene occupy nearly the entire length of the underpass leading to Quezon Boulevard in front of Quiapo Church, ignoring appeals from government and Church authorities to stay home to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. Many more make their way to the church from another street where Manila city government employees ask them to fill up contact tracing forms and give them free face masks.—PHOTOS BY RICHARD A. REYES

Epidemiological prudence

“It’s a new feeling, because we are used to pulling on the rope and boarding the float, but it’s OK if the procession is not held this year as this is also for the safety of most of the people in this time of COVID,” he said.

Dela Cruz, who lost his job as a pest control technician during the pandemic, chose to practice his faith with epidemiological prudence.

“I will make sure that I will not get infected by the virus, and I know that the Black Nazarene will never forsake me,” he said after traveling from Cavite to Manila to hear Mass at Quiapo Church.

Moro Alfonso, 28, who has been joining the procession since he was 11, said no pandemic could stop him from venerating the Black Nazarene.

Alfonso, who lives in Tondo, Manila, with his wife and two young daughters, went with his family to hear Mass at Quiapo Church on Friday. He was back, but by himself, at the basilica on Saturday morning.

Odelio Abril Parada, a three-decadeslong devotee, was saddened by the cancellation of the procession but agreed it was necessary for everyone’s safety.

“It’s OK that it be postponed but we really hope the pandemic will end so there will be [a] traslacion next year,” Parada told the Inquirer.

Parada, who now heads the Sta. Lucia devotees chapter in San Juan City, attributes his good fortune to the “Senyor,” the name they call the Black Nazarene.

Still a ‘magnet’

As a teen in Manila, Parada had relied on menial jobs to survive, saying the Black Nazarene gave him direction, answered his prayers and allowed him to finish a business degree in college, and have a good family.

To prevent contracting the coronavirus disease and not add to the number of people in the Quiapo area, he and his wife just prayed at the San Juan Bautista Church in San Juan, which has a replica of the Black Nazarene.

In his homily during the first Mass on Saturday, Manila Archdiocese’s apostolic administrator Bishop Broderick Pabillo called the Black Nazarene a “magnet” that continued to attract a multitude of people.

“That attraction cannot be stopped, and even though our way of expressing our faith has changed, our devotion continues … and the people are still reaching out to the Nazarene,” Pabillo said.

“Many have lost their jobs, many are confined to their homes in their barangay, but we all know that God is one with us,” he said.

The Manila city government and Msgr. Hernando Coronel, rector of the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene, had appealed to devotees to stay home and not to go to Quiapo Church to avoid exposure to the coronavirus.

The Church had set up online platforms, such as a Facebook livestream of the Masses, for devotees at home and abroad.

—With reports from Jodee A. Agoncillo, Dexter Cabalza and AFP

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