Life in time of the pandemic, challenges and coping thereafter

by Bella Zenaida Torres Desamito

Undeniably, we all panicked when the Government announced a total lockdown for the entire country by the end of the first quarter of 2020. It was so sudden that everybody was caught unprepared. At first, I thought this lockdown would only last for 15 days to one month. And so, on March 14, 2020, I accompanied my “chief” to the province and commuted back to Quezon City on the same day to be with my children. All buses were fully packed that day, as if people were cramming to go back to the city. See, if someone in that bus had Covid-19 that day, everybody might have contracted it. But thank God for His grace and protection, I got home safe!

As the lockdown started, essential staff like us reported to work two times a week with transport service provided by the office. This will enable our processing of payments without delay such as payrolls and other payment services. A new trend has emerged: wearing face masks and face shields as everyday fashion! It was also an “eat on your table alone” scenario — to practice social distancing! The rest of the week was on a “Work from Home” (WFH) arrangement. Those with internet connection can easily adapt with this arrangement than those using data on their cellphones. This kind of work arrangement became quite a challenge to us “essential staff”. We needed to be in the office for preparation, computation, and routing of Disbursement Vouchers (DVs) and Budget Utilization Requests (BURs) for signature. Work in the Accounting Section is like a chain, where the processes are interconnected. Vouchers go to UP Diliman Budget, Accounting and Cash Office before any payment could transpire.

One challenge for me was when our town was in total lockdown. All roads were closed. Documents for signature were sent to our house every other day. The driver would just slip the folder above the barricade. The following week, the barricade was already too high, one should stand on a chair to get the folders and vice versa. Thanks to those nearest the barricade area, they offered to hand me over those folders of documents.

When the Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ) was eventually declared, our service vehicle could already wait outside the village entrance. A Barangay Kagawad came to fetch me with her service motorcycle knowing that I am a senior citizen, but I just responded, “I can manage to walk up to the entrance” — about 300 meters, which is quite the exercise that I needed during this pandemic. The problem was when I got back home I was not allowed to just enter, as I did not have a Quarantine Pass with me, even after I showed my UP ID to the person in charge at the gate. When it was getting darker, they eventually allowed me to enter the gate. And as I walked to our house, I heard the song “Heal our Land” being played. I felt some sort of fear and loneliness. I could only utter “Lord, please keep us safe”. I did arrive home just before the warning sound that signalled curfew time (from 6:00 pm to 5:00 am).

In hindsight, during the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) the processing of payments was far easier than during “normal” days. Within 3 to 5 days, all salaries and services were processed through debit-to-account or checks. I remember, then Vice Chancellor Virginia C. Yap (who was the approver of the vouchers and a signatory to the checks) even holed up at the Cash Office just to sign incoming vouchers and checks. Like me, she is already a senior citizen. Still, she managed to report to work despite the restrictions of senior citizens being not allowed to go out. Maybe the COD (call of duty) was within us.

The processing of payroll was in advance and faster. But Dean Fides Cordero-Tan, as head of the Law Complex, had to sign an undertaking “to submit later or after the ECQ, the supporting documents required to process such payments”. Just imagine the Dean paying all of these obligations if we failed to comply with the submission of documents!

But other payments to suppliers were temporarily stopped due to the closure of some offices such as Supply and Property Management Office (SPMO) and Commission on Audit (COA), hence, no inspection reports and COA acceptance to support each payment were in place.

After the announcement that Metro Manila was under General Community Quarantine (GCQ), more than 50% of the employees started to report for work on a skeletal workforce. The College Administration pursued its plan to continue what has already been started: to get an ISO Certification before the end of 2020. Each office continued with the documentary requirements for their compliance. I could feel the stress as we were cramming to provide the documents, the monitoring scheme and quarterly performance. And yet, we also pushed through with our work of processing payments. We did not even know whether to start the day with the processing of payments or to first work on the Quality Management System (QMS) documents for the ISO! Everybody was so stressed.

Then as time went by, the number of Covid-19 positive cases tremendously shot up, thus affecting our work schedules. There was even a time when we were forced to shut down for a week or two… and following health protocols, we were obliged to be in quarantine for 14 days. But life must go on. The Accounting Section must not stop working. Being the Associate Dean, Dr. Jay Batongbacal led our team by dutifully signing voluminous Disbursement Vouchers — and as the Chair of the UP Law Center Post ECQ Team (PET), he continued to guide us.

By the end of the year 2020, the UP Law Complex was granted an ISO Certification. This will continue to challenge our work arrangement as we strive to excel in our daily routines and in preparing for the surveillance audit.

With the start of the WFH arrangement early on, I have come to appreciate that, someday, we can still do our work even if we do not physically report to the office. And I am for the digitization of all processes. It just has to take its toll first when it comes to implementation — phase by phase. But on the financial aspect, the approval of the COA is still necessary. COA still requires the submission of original copies and supporting documents.

As we welcome the year 2021, we look back and feel thankful that the College, headed by our Dean Fides Cordero-Tan, has finished two semesters of distance learning. Credit goes to the administration of the College and to all the professors who braved this kind of online teaching. Our IT staff have also contributed so much to the attainment of this mode of learning. Kudos to Professor Emerson Bañez and team for spearheading the online learning module.

Year 2021 is also my retirement year. I could still remember what one alumnus, who just happened to visit then Dean Magallona in the office, said to me when he asked me how long I have been in the University. Back then, I said, “17 years in UP”. He said, “What? 17 years and you have not taken steps to find greener pastures?” I said to myself, “Huh, he doesn’t even appreciate my loyalty to this institution.” Now I take pride in having served the University for forty years.

Happy to serve UP!