My COVID-19 Journey: Recovery with Cebu tele-net

By Michelle Tanaka, Japanese Services at Cebu tele-net

January 2020—at the height of the festive mood in the island of Cebu, the rumour of an unknown virus slowly spread like wildfire. Coupled with the looming Chinese flu that was raving over online news, my hesitations gradually grew. As a foreigner, I know Cebu City cannot take the full brunt of an outbreak, much more of a pandemic. But I brushed it off and went on partying. It was the Sinulog Festival after all.

As the weeks drag on, the fear of a spreading Covid-19 infection within the city became real. The rumour suddenly became viral news aired 24/7 on news outlets and online broadcasts. I have seen stuff like this happened before, in countries like Japan and China. The SARS outbreak back then was equally scary but I was not directly affected by it. But now, the Covid-19 pandemic was drawing near the country where I am, the Philippines.

When the first cases were confirmed, Cebu city entered a panic stage. Foreigners were sent home and/or were encouraged to go home. But I did not. Despite the uncertainty, I was not ready to give up the perks and pleasures of living on this beautiful Island. I was hopeful.

For years, I worked under Cebu tele-net as a customer service representative for its Japanese division. Our customers were in Japan and I was supporting a big ecommerce and retail site. Some of my colleagues were nervous about the dangers and uncertainty of the pandemic. To be honest, I did not know what to do. I just wanted to work, to earn and to continue on living.

Then reality hit the fan. The contagion spread quickly in the province and the city. COVID-19 eventually turned into a global pandemic. I missed my chance to go home to Japan as Airports were shut down and flights cancelled. But I told myself, I was going to ride it off and hopefully this will die and down. Perhaps a scientist somewhere can find a cure or vaccine so we all can continue to live out our normal lives.

But it only got worse.  Cebu city reached the highest stage of infection and imposed the strictest measure, the Enhanced Community Quarantine. To make matters worse, Cebu City reached the highest number of infected individuals in the country. I was scared, afraid.

At this time, riding it out did not seem to be a good idea. Eventually, I was getting calls from my parents, relatives and friends. It added more pressure of coping and adjusting. For the first time, I felt alone. COVID-19 stripped away the comfort, the joy and warmth that I felt living in this beautiful place. Everything just changed for the worse.

A Relief in Times of Distress

When Cebu city imposed Enhanced Community Quarantine, many restrictions were put in place. Going around was tough. Buying things that you need became strenuous tasks. Prices of necessity like alcohol and face masks were on the rise. I could not go to restaurants to eat. I could not shop for the things that I want. And there was no public transportation to ride for work or to go anywhere. There was nothing.

The deafening silence imposed by the curfew and border controls alongside police mobiles going around and ambulances blaring sirens were making things intense for me. We had to stay at home. But the news, the radio and social media just kept on reminding everyone how worse things are getting.

When I came to the Philippines, I came to enjoy and to work. But the troubling events just had me question my primary intention.

But I am fortunate that Cebu tele-net did not leave me behind. When the Philippine government tightened its grips and headed towards lockdown, Senior Manager Silver Cepeda asked all the employees to gather for a general assembly. At the start of the meeting, he opened up with a big announcement, “for health reasons, we will shut down the call center. I can talk to all our clients and make them understand the risk.” He paused and stared everyone, studying their expression.

From my perspective, I can see all the two hundred employees’ shoulder dropped and the joyous atmosphere of seeing everyone faded to goodbye. I honestly thought that this tough looking man who likes to give tough speeches and talks during company events was giving up. Behind him was our CEO who had the same expression and my own manager for the Japanese division with her head down. I told myself, “I should have left earlier. I should have gotten back home to Japan”.

Like a blow to the head, the reality of losing a job and fending for myself was electric and damning. But right when all hopes drained from me, Silver continued, “But, there is a way…”.

All heads turned up and stared at him. I never forgot what he said. “There is a way that we can continue our operation. There is a way wherein we can serve our clients and then continue to get paid. All I ask is your cooperation and we will get through this together,” Silver explains.

Teary eyed I continued to listen to him. “Cooperation and Team work–that is what I need from you and I guarantee you that no one will lose their job and no one’s family will go hungry. Can you give me that?”, he asked.

Together, all employees shouted “Yes!”, myself included. “The journey ahead is difficult and dangerous. But I know how it feels to have no job. I know how it feels to have no food on the table. I know hunger.  I experienced it. That is why I will do everything that I can to make sure that it does not happen to you or your families. All I need is for you to cooperate,” he adds.

Carrying on and Moving Forward with Cebu tele-net

Immediately, Cebu tele-net deployed half of the employees to work from home. Our IT guys helped them to install the necessary software to function. Others were placed in a housing near the office. The remaining employees who had families had to commit to strict health guidelines and continuous testing. As there were no public transportation, Cebu tele-net bought a van to get them to work and drop them all back home.

In the office, face masks and alcohol were supplied. It was such a relief since it was almost costing us an arm and a leg to get these. Aside from the day to day cleaning, weekly misting was done in the office, ensuring that all the work stations were disinfected. Our temperatures were checked on a regular basis. Sanitizers were present in all areas enabling us to clean our hands while foot baths were placed strategically.

The management team arranged that People who had colds and cough were not allowed to go in and that they had to take a 14 day self-quarantine. When food became a problem because restaurants were all closed, Senior Managers Chisato and Silver volunteered to cook for all inhouse employees.

Months passed by. I missed my teammates. But we understand the situation. As we promised Silver, we committed to going through this together. Like good captains of ships, the Senior Managers never left the helm. They were reporting daily and it inspired us to come to work. We committed to their direction and they too did the same by ensuring all the plans were executed and employees were taken care of. Everyone was available. Human resources officers were like big sisters and brothers to everyone. They listened to us when we had problems and gave encouragement. They were there 24/7 when we had questions.

Nothing was perfect at first though. Adjustments had to be made to accommodate the unpredictable policies of the Philippine government. What was important was that Cebu tele-net was always there to listen. They took care of us and we made sure that we take care of our client’s customer. It was a tough time. But I was there not just for myself. We were all there for each other.

Now, the first quarter of 2021 is about to end. Cebu is finally able to control infections and its quarantine status had been lowered to Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ), a less strict level. Now stores are opening up. Restaurants are slowly taking in people. My favorite coffee shop is brewing and servings its finest concoction again.

Despite all those troubling months, Cebu tele-net has not fired a single employee. Ironically, it has grown to about three hundred plus now. I have not seen my homebased teammates but I guess that they will soon be shocked to see how much the company has grown despite the odds. We continue with what we do best—Team Work. Together, this trial by fire has honed us into becoming a better and more cohesive team.

This is our path to recovery. The “omotenashi” way. The Cebu tele-net way.

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