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Affected by Howie Severino's COVID-19 story, South Africa-based Filipino writer pens a poem

A Filipino writer based in Cape Town, South Africa was so moved by GMA journalist Howie Severino's coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) story that he couldn't help but write a poem about it.

Filipino author Jim Pascual Agustin said he quickly wrote "The Oddest Angels" after reading "I am Patient 2828," Severino's article on GMA News Online.

Published on April 7, Howie detailed his 11-day fight against COVID-19, and in turn gave "much needed hope" to the internationally acclaimed poet.

Writing "The Oddest Angels," Agustin said, was his way of "responding to something...that wouldn't leave me in peace until I'd tried to wrestle it down in words, made it release me, or the other way around."

Agustin said Howie's story made him recall the time when he was confined in a public hospital, suffering from severe stomach ulcer. He was about eight or seven years old, he said. 

"Sometimes I’d be on my own, doubled over in extreme pain while other patients in the ward of mixed ages would also moan in agony," he narrated.

The poet said Howie's narrative was so vivid and so personal that he could picture himself in a hospital bed sensing "the dreadful possibility of losing the battle with the disease."

According to Agustin, he met Howie when the former was a student at the Ateneo de Manila High School, and the latter, a teacher.

"Howie was a good friend of my homeroom teacher, Ariel Alfonso,” Agustin recalls. “I remember Howie being quite shy and soft-spoken for a teacher. But he always had a ready smile for whoever he was with.”

Agustin also remembered one of his friends, among the fittest in his cyclists group, who died of COVID-19. Howie's article, Agustin said, gave him a glimpse of what his friend must have gone through. 

"[So] the statistics from the news suddenly became more real, with the faces of people I knew," he said.

"I just felt I had to write a response, and so most of the poem came to be very quickly," he added.

Agustin started writing the poem on April 8 and kept revising after getting feedback from close friends and readers in the Philippines and other countries.

"This disease has brought grief to thousands of people all over the world. It has caused divisions among us all, this nearly invisible enemy which has forced us to rethink what defines our humanity," the writer said. "It has also revealed in much plainer view the utter failure of certain politicians who are meant to lead people out of these dark times."

Agustin said his poem "is merely a response. Howie had to live through the ordeal.'

Read Agustin's poem inspired by Severino below.

The Oddest Angels

Nine days stretched to nearly snapping
my breath. Long needles kept probing
for a vein, each time an eternity.
Sleep, a beast that eluded me.

Visions of shores without end
filled my restless nights. Though drained
of strength, I could make out blurred faces
in ghostly forms, alien bodies

in PPE spacesuits. Oddest of angels
pumped hope with chemicals
to put out flames that spread
about my feeble frame, that ravaged

what kept me whole. Isolated
but not alone, I struggled
with the near-invisible enemy.
Outside, the streets stood empty.

Just a month ago, children laughed
and pointed if something shot out
when someone sneezed. Now
everyone fears a mere sniffle.

While politicians fiddled
with the hair
up their noses,
everyone lived like oysters.

I ache for my wife’s hand
running through my hair again,
her breath and mine
filling the same room.

Agustin is a multiple winner of the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry award with his work appearing in major Philippine publications and prominent international literary journals.

His ninth book "How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter and other poems" which draws parallels between the time of Marcos dictatorship and the Duterte regime was shortlisted for the National Book Award in 2019.

A print edition of his book "Crocodiles in Belfast & other poems" will be available soon. These two books are available on Amazon Kindle. — LA, GMA News